A profile of the life of Sydney Newman at ABC
Sydney Cecil Newman OC (April 1, 1917 – October 30, 1997) was a Canadian film and television producer, who played a pioneering role in British television drama from the late 1950s to the late 1960s. After his return to Canada in 1970, Newman was appointed Acting Director of the Broadcast Programs Branch for the Canadian Radio and Television Commission (CRTC) and then head of the National Film Board of Canada (NFB). He also occupied senior positions at the Canadian Film Development Corporation and Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and acted as an advisor to the Secretary of State.
During his time in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, he worked first with 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 television programmes, the spy-fi series The Avengers and the science-fiction series Doctor Who, as well as overseeing the production of groundbreaking social realist drama series such as Armchair Theatre and The Wednesday Play.
The Museum of Broadcast Communications describes Newman as “the most significant agent in the development of British television drama.” His obituary in The Guardian 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.”
Born in Toronto, Newman was the son of a Russian-Jewish immigrant father who ran a shoe shop. After studying at Ogden Public School, which he left at the age of thirteen, he later enrolled in the Central Technical School, studying art and design subjects. He initially attempted to follow a career as a stills photographer and an artist, specialising in drawing film posters. However, he found it so difficult to earn enough money to make a living from this profession that instead, he switched to working in the film industry itself. In 1938, he travelled to Hollywood, where he was offered a role with the Walt Disney Company on the strength of his graphic design work. However, he was unable to take the job due to a failure to secure a work permit. Returning to his native country, in 1941, 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 and propaganda films, including Fighting Norway, which he directed. In 1944 he was made executive producer of Canada Carries On, a long-running series of such films. In 1949 Grierson again assisted Newman’s career, entering him into television, then a new industry, on a one-year attachment to NBC in New York City. His assignment there was to compile reports for the Canadian government on American television techniques, focusing on dramas, documentaries and outside broadcasts.
One of Newman’s reports on outside broadcasting was seen and admired by executives at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), and in 1952 he joined the Corporation as their Supervising Director of Features, Documentaries and Outside Broadcasts. There he was involved in producing not only some of the earliest television editions of Hockey Night in Canada, but also the first Canadian Football League game to be shown on television. After his experience of seeing the production of television plays in New York, he was eager to work in drama despite, by his own admission, “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 Ted Kotcheff and Arthur Hailey, and oversaw shows such as the popular General Motors Theatre.
Writing in 1990, the journalist Paul Rutherford felt that during his time at the CBC in the 1950s, Newman had been a “great champion of both realistic and Canadian drama.” He felt that Newman “came to fulfil the role of the drama impresario with the vision to push people to develop a high-quality and popular style of drama.”
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 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. In 1975 the Head of Drama at the CBC, John Hirsch, noted that the tendency of so many writers and directors having followed Newman to the UK in the 1950s and never having returned to work in Canada had a detrimental impact on the standard of subsequent Canadian television drama.
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 reminisced to 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 programme which had been initiated before he had arrived at ABC, Armchair Theatre. This anthology series was networked nationally across the ITV regions on Sunday evenings, and in 1959 was in the top ten of the ratings for 32 out of the 37 weeks it was broadcast, with audiences of over 12 million viewers. 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 Charles Jarrott and Ted Kotcheff. Writing in 2000, the television historian John Caughie stated that “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.”
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, The Avengers became an international success, although in later years its premise differed somewhat from Newman’s initial set-up, veering into more humorous territory rather than remaining a gritty thriller.
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 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.