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Sydney Newman

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Sydney Newman

Sydney Newman. (DOC: Mounting the Rescue)

Sydney Cecil Newman, OC (Order of Canada) (1 April 1917-30 October 1997) was a Canadian film and television producer, best remembered for the pioneering work he undertook in British television drama from the late 1950s to the late 1960s. Initially a film editor with the National Film Board of Canada, he later moved into television with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, where he began his long association with drama.

Moving to Britain in 1958, he worked first with the Associated British Corporation (ABC) before moving across to the BBC in 1962, holding the role of Head of Drama with both organisations. During this phase of his career, he was responsible for initiating two hugely popular fantasy series, The Avengers (for ABC) and Doctor Who (for BBC), as well as overseeing the production of groundbreaking social realist drama series such as Armchair Theatre and The Wednesday Play.

It was during a 1958 broadcast of Armchair Theatre that Newman was involved in an infamous incident when actor Gareth Jones, a lead actor in a play that week, died backstage between scenes of the live telecast. The play continued through improvisation, with Newman reportedly advising the director to treat the production like a football match.

The website of the Museum of Broadcast Communications describes Newman as "the most significant agent in the development of British television drama." Shortly after his death, his obituary in The Guardian newspaper declared that "For ten brief but glorious years, Sydney Newman ... was the most important impresario in Britain ... His death marks not just the end of an era but the laying to rest of a whole philosophy of popular art."

Early career in Canada

Born in Toronto, Newman was the son of a Jewish Russian immigrant father who ran a shoe shop. After leaving school at the age of thirteen, he later enrolled in the Central Technical School, studying commercial and fine arts. He initially attempted to follow a career as a stills photographer and an artist, specialising in drawing film posters. However, he found it difficult to earn enough money to make a living from this profession, so instead he switched to working in the film industry itself, where he gained a job as a film editor at the National Film Board of Canada. He was eventually to work on over 350 films while an editor for the NFB.

During the Second World War, the head of the NFB, John Grierson, promoted Newman to film producer, working on documentaries. In this role he oversaw acclaimed features such as Fighting Norway and Banshees Over Canada, along with various other wartime propaganda pieces. In 1949 Grierson again assisted Newman's career, entering him into the then-new television industry on a one-year attachment to NBC television in New York City. He quickly became highly interested in the industry, and in 1952 with Grierson's assistance, he gained a job working at Canada's state television broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).

He initially worked in CBC's outside broadcasts department, of which he quickly became head, but after his experience of seeing the production of television plays in New York, he was eager to work in drama despite "knowing nothing about drama". He was nonetheless able to persuade his superiors at CBC to make him Supervisor of Drama Production in 1954. In this position he encouraged a new wave of young writers and directors, including William Kotcheff and Arthur Hailey, and oversaw shows such as the popular General Motors Theatre.

Several of the General Motors Theatre plays, including Hailey's Flight into Danger, were purchased for screening by the BBC in the United Kingdom. The productions impressed Howard Thomas, who was the managing director of Associated British Corporation (ABC), the franchise holder for the rival ITV network in the English Midlands and the North at weekends. Thomas offered Newman a job with ABC as a producer of his own Saturday night thriller series, which Newman accepted, moving to Britain in 1958.

Associated British Corporation

Soon after Newman arrived in the UK, ABC's Head of Drama Dennis Vance was moved into a more senior position with the company, and Thomas offered Newman his position, which the Canadian quickly accepted. He was, however, somewhat disparaging of the state in which he found British television drama. "At that time, I found this country to be somewhat class-ridden," he told interviewers in 1988. "The only legitimate theatre was of the 'anyone for tennis' variety, which on the whole gave a condescending view of working-class people. Television dramas were usually adaptations of stage plays and invariably about the upper classes. I said 'Damn the upper classes: they don't even own televisions!'"

Newman's principal tool for shaking up this established order was a Sunday night anthology series which had been initiated before he had arrived at ABC, but which he was to leave a firm mark upon. Armchair Theatre was networked nationally across the ITV regions on Sunday evenings, drawing huge audiences, and Newman used the strand to present plays by writers such as Alun Owen, Harold Pinter and Clive Exton, also bringing over associates from Canada such as William Kotcheff.

In 1960 Newman devised a thriller series for ABC called Police Surgeon, starring Ian Hendry. Although Police Surgeon was not a success and was cancelled after only a short run, Newman took Hendry as the star and some of the ethos of the programme to create a new series (not a direct sequel as is sometimes claimed) called The Avengers. Debuting in January 1961 - only a few weeks after the final episode of Police Surgeon and starring Hendry as Dr. David Keel with Patrick Macnee in the then-supporting role of John Steed, The Avengers eventually became a huge international success, although in later years its premise differed somewhat from Newman's initial set-up, veering into more surreal fantasy territory rather than remaining a gritty thriller. Nonetheless, Newman set in motion what would become a groundbreaking series in terms of depicting female characters on television -- specifically Honor Blackman's Cathy Gale and Diana Rigg's Emma Peel, both of whom became TV icons and their actresses superstars as a result of The Avengers. Literally dozens of actors who later appeared in Doctor Who, including Jon Pertwee and Anneke Wills, as well as future Doctor Who producer Barry Letts, made guest appearances on The Avengers at some point in the 1960s.

Newman's great success at ABC had been noted by the British Broadcasting Corporation, whose executives were keen to revive their own drama department's fortunes in the face of fierce competition from ITV. In 1961 the BBC's Director of Television, Kenneth Adam, met with Newman — in a pub — and offered him the position of Head of Drama at the BBC. He accepted the position, eager for a new challenge, although he was forced by ABC to remain with them until the expiration of his contract in December 1962, after which he immediately began work with the BBC.

The BBC

There was some initial resentment to his appointment within the Corporation, as he was an outsider and he was also earning more than many of the executives senior to him, although still substantially less than he had been paid at ABC. As he had done at ABC, he was keen to shake up the staid image of BBC drama and introduce new outlets for the kitchen sink drama and the "Angry Young Men" of the era. He also divided the unwieldy drama department, with 175 staff under his control, into three separate divisions — series, serials and plays, headed by Elwyn Jones, Donald Wilson and Michael Bakewell, respectively, each reporting directly to Newman.

In 1964 he initiated the new anthology series The Wednesday Play, a BBC equivalent of Armchair Theatre, which had great success and critical acclaim with plays written and directed by the likes of Dennis Potter, Jeremy Sandford, Ken Loach and Peter Watkins. There was also controversy, however — Watkins's The War Game was banned from transmission by the BBC under pressure from the government. The department also had success with more traditional BBC fare such as the costume drama The Forsyte Saga in 1967, a Donald Wilson project which Newman had not been keen on initially, but which became one of the most acclaimed and popular productions of his era.

However, his best-remembered BBC project, and the part of his career for which he is most noted, was the creation of the science-fiction television series Doctor Who, which began in 1963 and ran until 1989 in its original form, and after a resumption in 2005 is still in production. Newman had long been a science-fiction fan: "[U]p to the age of 40, I don't think there was a science-fiction book I hadn't read. I love them because they're a marvellous way — and a safe way, I might add — of saying nasty things about our own society."

When BBC Controller of Programmes Donald Baverstock alerted Newman of the need for a programme to bridge the gap between the sports showcase Grandstand and pop music programme Juke Box Jury on Saturday evenings, he immediately decided that a science-fiction drama would be the perfect vehicle for filling the gap and gaining a family audience. Although much work on the genesis of the series was done by Donald Wilson, C. E. Webber and others, it was Newman who created the idea of a time machine larger on the inside than the out and the character of the mysterious "Doctor", which remain at the heart of the programme. He is also believed to have come up with the title Doctor Who (although actor and director Hugh David later credited this to his friend Rex Tucker, the initial "caretaker producer" of the programme).

After the series had been conceptualised, Newman initially approached Don Taylor and then Shaun Sutton to produce it, although both declined. He then decided on his former production assistant at ABC, Verity Lambert, who had never produced, written or directed but readily accepted his offer. As Lambert became the youngest — and only female — drama producer at the BBC, there were some doubts as to Newman's choice, but she became a great success in the role. Even Newman clashed with her on occasion, however, particularly over the inclusion of the alien Dalek creatures on the programme. Newman had not wanted any "bug-eyed monsters" in the show, and he regarded the Daleks as the epitome of such things, but after their huge success, he generally left Lambert to her own devices. Later in the show's run, in 1966 he took a more hands-on role again in the changeover between the First and Second Doctors. After his time at the BBC, though, as the series drifted further away from his initial semi-educational concepts, he became critical of its tone and production.

After also creating other popular series such as Adam Adamant Lives! at the end of 1967, Newman's five-year contract with the BBC came to an end, and he did not remain with the Corporation. Instead, he decided to pursue a return to the film industry, taking a job as a producer with Associated British Picture Corporation — coincidentally, the parent company of his former employers ABC Television. "I want to get away from my executive's chair and become a creative worker again," he told The Sun newspaper of his decision.

However, the British film industry was entering a period of decline, and none of Newman's projects ever went into production. ABPC was taken over by EMI, becoming EMI Films, and at the end of June 1969, Newman was dismissed from the company, later describing his eighteen months there as "a futile waste". Despite being offered an executive producership by the BBC, keen to regain his services on the very day he left ABPC, Newman decided to return to Canada. He left the UK on 3 January 1970, leading The Sunday Times to comment that "British television will never be the same again."

Return to Canada

His first post upon returning to his home country was as Director of Programmes for the Canadian Radio and Television Commission (CRTC) in Ottawa — simultaneously, he became the Chairman of the National Film Board of Canada, returning to the same institution for which he had worked in the 1940s. He remained Chairman of the NFB until 1975, but left the CRTC in 1972 to become a Director of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, another post he occupied until 1975. Towards the end of his active professional career, he was for two years Special Advisor on Film to the Secretary of State, and then briefly a part-time consultant to the Canadian Film Development Corporation.

In 1979 he returned to the UK on a short visit to participate in an edition of the ITV documentary series The South Bank Show, before returning to Britain on a longer-term basis in the 1980s following the death of his wife. His main reason for doing so was to attempt, unsuccessfully, to produce a drama series about the Bloomsbury Group for the new Channel 4 network. Then in 1986, the then Controller of BBC One, Michael Grade, unhappy with the current state of Doctor Who, wrote to Newman to enquire whether he had any ideas for reformatting the series, which was at the time struggling in the ratings.

Newman wrote back to Grade on 6 October that year with a set of detailed proposals and a suggestion that he take direct control of the series as executive producer. Grade suggested that Newman meet the current Head of Drama, Jonathan Powell, for lunch to discuss the Canadian's ideas. Newman and Powell did not get on well, however, and nothing came of their meeting. He was also unsuccessful in an attempt to have his name added to the end credits of the show as its creator. Acting Head of Series & Serials Ken Riddington, to whom Newman's request had been referred, wrote to him that "Heads of Department who originate programmes have to be satisfied with the other rewards that flow from doing so."

Newman was awarded the Order of Canada in 1981, the country's highest civilian honour.[1]

Newman returned to Canada again in the 1990s. He died in 1997 of a heart attack at his home in Toronto. He had married Elizabeth McRae in 1944 — she died in 1981. He was survived by their three daughters.

Critical analysis

In his book The Largest Theatre in the World about his career working for the BBC, Newman's successor as Head of Drama — Shaun Sutton, who served under the Canadian as a producer and later as Head of Serials — praised Newman's work in reinventing the BBC's drama output. "Sydney galvanised television drama," Sutton wrote. "He was brusque, sardonic, and straightforward; stern when one made mistakes, fiercely supportive if anyone dared to suggest that you had. He was passionate about writers and writing, demanding new plays by the score. He was contemporary, irreverent, and a determined enemy of cant and pomposity ... Sydney's accomplishment was the creation of a climate in which boldness paid. He wanted contemporary drama; he wanted to raise rumpuses and get questions asked."

The biography of Newman on the British Film Institute's Screenonline website echoes Sutton's praise for the Canadian's aims, pointing out that "Newman's concerns, incidentally, were equally with the viewer: he recognised that television was a mass medium that needed to appeal across the social strata, from porters to professors. His policy, therefore, was to present plays about contemporary life in a contemporary idiom."

However, it is also noted by critics and academics that the success of Newman's achievements at the CBC, ABC and BBC were not down to him alone. "His skill can be located in an ability to successfully exploit the best of already favourable circumstances with an incorrigible enthusiasm and clarity of vision," notes his biography on the Museum of Broadcast Communications website. They also posit that "In retrospect Newman's ... conscious characterisation of BBC drama output as static and middlebrow is unfair. His counterpart at the BBC during the late 1950s, Michael Barry, also attracted new young original writers ... and hired young directors ... However, it was the newness and innovation which Newman encouraged in his drama output that is most significant: his concentration on the potential of television as television, for a mass not a middlebrow audience."

There were also some elements within the British theatrical and television industries who were openly hostile to Newman's influence on the drama genre. Director Don Taylor, in particular, did not welcome the Canadian's arrival at the BBC in 1963. "Sydney was not formally educated ... He also had a contempt for 'intellectuals'... I was in a group lunching with him one day after Philip Saville's production of Hamlet was screened ... It was clear that Syd didn't know the play, hadn't read it, and had seen it for the first time on screen ... To put it brutally, I was deeply offended that the premier position in television drama, at a time when it really was the National Theatre of the Air, had been given to a man whose values were entirely commercial, and who had no more than a layman's knowledge of the English theatrical tradition, let alone the drama of Europe and the wider world."

In contrast to Taylor's views, John Caughie, author of the book Television Drama: Realism, Modernism, and British Culture, which analyses British television drama from the 1960s to the 1990s, believes that it was Newman's concentration on material written directly for television rather than adapted from other sources, the very non-theatrical nature which Taylor professed to despair of, which was his greatest contribution to the genre in the UK. "Newman's insistence that the series would use only original material written for television made Armchair Theatre a decisive moment in the history of British television drama, and both he and Ted Kotcheff, the ambitious young director he brought with him from Canada, belonged to a television culture which had no particular reverence for the classics of theatre and literature."

References on Doctor Who

The BBC Wales version of Doctor Who has paid tribute to Newman on two occasions. In the 2007 episode Human Nature, the Tenth Doctor, in his second life as human John Smith, tells a woman that his parents were named Sydney and Verity — the latter being a reference to Verity Lambert. Later in TV: The End of Time, one of the final humans the Tenth Doctor saw before his regeneration was Verity Newman, a descendant of Joan Redfern, an obvious combination of the two names.

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