Obituary: Sydney Newman
Tuesday 04 November 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
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