Obituary: Sydney Newman

Sydney Cecil Newman, television producer: born Toronto 1 April 1917; staff, National Film Board of Canada 1941-52; staff, CBC TV 1952- 54; Producer, Armchair Theatre, ABC England 1958-62; Head of Drama Group, BBC TV 1962-67; Associated Picture Corporation 1969-70; Director of Programs, CRTC Ottawa 1970; Chairman, National Film Board of Canada 1970-75; Director, CBC 1972-75; OC 1991; married 1944 Elizabeth McRae (died 1981; three daughters); died Toronto 30 October 1997.

Sydney Newman was a Canadian who looked like a Mexican. He had a major influence on the drama output of both ITV and BBC television in Britain, as well as on CBC and the National Film Board in Canada.

Newman's drama policy was to select plays about contemporary life in a contemporary idiom. "I am proud," he wrote, "that I played some part in the recognition that the working man was a fit subject for drama, and not just a comic foil in a play on middle-class manners." Two of his best- remembered plays were controversial. Up the Junction (1965), by Nell Dunn, concerned back-street abortion. Cathy Come Home (1966), by Jeremy Sandford, dealt with homelessness.

Leonard Marsland Gander, then the doyen of media correspondents, asked Newman "What do you call this kind of drama? It's not a play and it's not a documentary." Newman replied: "I suggest you call it `agitational contemporaneity'." Newman was immediately accused of butchering the English language. But Gander looked up the word "contemporaneity" and found that it was first used in the 19th century by Cardinal Newman (no relation).

Sydney Newman was born in Toronto in 1917 and was given a thorough training in graphic design. At the age of 20 he joined the National Film Board of Canada, then headed by John Grierson, the Scottish founding father of film documentaries. Grierson soon put Newman in charge of training films for the armed services, and for the propaganda series Canada Carries On. Altogether he made 300 documentaries for the Film Board.

In 1949 Newman was assigned to NBC in New York to report to the Canadian government on American television techniques. This led to his appointment to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as director of features and outside broadcasts, and supervisor of drama.

In 1956 the newly established commercial broadcasting companies in Britain were increasingly dependent on Hollywood imports such as I Love Lucy, Gun Law and Superman for their weekly fare of entertainment programmes. A countervailing sign was a Canadian import shown on BBC. It was a play called Flight into Danger by Arthur Hailey. It told the story of an outbreak of food poisoning aboard an airliner. The captain and co-pilot were both stricken and a passenger with only a small experience of flying a light plane was bullied into taking the controls and bringing the big DC4 safely down.

There was none of the elaborate treatment Hollywood would have given the story. There were no film stars, nor even any film inserts. It was produced very simply with two or three studio sets. But the action was intimate and utterly convincing. The producer's credit read "Sydney Newman".

Newman had long hankered after a role in British television. In 1958 he was invited to take over the production of Armchair Theatre, ABC's weekend contribution to the ITV network which followed ATV's Sunday Night at the Stadium. His productions included the first televised plays of such writers an Alun Owen, Harold Pinter, Angus Wilson and Peter Luke. Armchair Theatre attracted audiences of over 15 million and was frequently in the Top Ten.

Sir Hugh Greene, the BBC's reforming Director-General, was anxious to revitalise BBC's drama output by bringing in Newman, then the most successful person in British television drama. Newman joined the BBC in December 1962 at a salary somewhat above that of the television chiefs with whom he was working.

One of Newman's first tasks at the BBC was to devise a spot on Saturday afternoons which would get bigger audiences for children between the sports coverage and the Six Five Special pop music programme. It was the traditional spot for the children's classic serial. The jump-in appeal between the fabulously rated sports coverage and Charles Dickens was too great. It had been decided to move the classic serial to Sunday afternoon, but what to put in its place? Newman dreamed up the idea of Dr Who and brought over Verity Lambert, one of his production assistants at ABC, to be the producer.

At the weekly Programme Review meeting some of the other departmental heads declared that Dr Who was frightening the hell out of kids every Saturday afternoon. The late Huw Wheldon, who was chairing the meeting, burst out laughing. "I've got two kids at home," he said, "one four, one two. They're running around with wastepaper baskets over their heads yelling `Exterminate, exterminate!' " Everybody else laughed and the situation cooled down.

It did not take Newman long to become dispirited with the staff he had inherited. "They are just too bloody old," he complained. The expansion of the drama staff by 40 per cent in preparation for the start of BBC2 gave him the chance to introduce new blood.

Newman divided the Drama Group into Series, Serials and Single Plays. To produce the single plays, grouped under the title The Wednesday Play, Newman sometimes liked to employ freelance directors. This was not always successful. Some were liable to seize on the chance of using the BBC's name and resources to enhance their personal reputations by wildly extravagant over-expenditure. With a staff director this would be recompensed by a cut in his next programme budget. A freelance, basking in the reviews of his spectacular production, would leave it to others to pick up the pieces.

Moreover, The Wednesday Play caused indignation among some puritans whose spokeswoman was Mary Whitehouse and among some BBC Governors, and when Newman's contract ran out in 1967 there was no move to extend it. He moved into feature films, but a brief period with Associated British Productions at Elstree was a failure, and in 1970 he returned to Canada to take up important executive positions first with the Canadian Radio and Television Commission in Ottawa and then with his original employer, the National Film Board of Canada, whose chairman he became later the same year. Two years afterwards he also became one of the directors of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Newman was given many professional awards, both in Britain and Canada. In 1991 he was given his country's highest honour, the Order of Canada. His wife, Elizabeth, died the same year and he returned to Britain hoping, unsuccessfully, to persuade Channel 4 to produce a series he was planning on the Bloomsbury Group.

He was a talented person whose private creativity included sculpture and painting as well as making films.

- Leonard Miall

Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
art
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features staging of a playground gun massacre
Travel
travel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
News
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Sport
sportVan Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
Life and Style
Martha Stewart wrote an opinion column for Time magazine this week titled “Why I Love My Drone”
lifeLifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot... to take photos of her farm
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
filmReview: Sometimes the immersive experience was so good it blurred the line between fiction and reality
News
i100
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Environment
Tyred out: should fair weather cyclists have a separate slow lane?
environmentFormer Labour minister demands 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists
News
people
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

VB.Net Developer - £40k - Surrey - WANTED ASAP

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: .Mid Level V...

Digitakl Business Analyst, Slough

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Competitive Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Dig...

Mechanical Estimator: Nuclear Energy - Sellafield

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Car, Medical, Fuel + More!: Progressive Recruitmen...

Dynamics NAV Techno-Functional Consultant

£50000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: An absolutely o...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices