Unsung hero behind TV’s golden age
IF YOU saw the 2013 BBC drama by Mark Gatiss about the creation of Doctor Who you will immediately picture Sydney Newman, born 100 years ago on April 1.
The actor Brian Cox brought him to life perfectly: fast-talking with a JewishCanadian accent, high-energy, no-nonsense. You could easily see how Newman revolutionised TV drama in the 1960s. He invented Doctor Who, but also The Avengers and The Wednesday Play. Sydney Newman, the Jew from Toronto, made British TV the real national theatre of our age.
Newman was born in 1917, the son of a Russian-Jewish immigrant father who ran a shoe shop. He was one of three great
Sydney Newman Jewish cultural figures born in Canada early in the 20th century, along with Mordecai Richler and Saul Bellow. Just before the war, he briefly worked for Walt Disney in Hollywood but because of work permit problems had to return to his home country where he made his breakthrough working as a film editor and then producer for the legendary National Film Board of Canada.
In the 1950s he joined CBC and then in 1958 the head of ABC in Britain headhunted him and brought him to Britain as head of drama. Newman was not impressed by British TV drama. In a later interview, he said: “I found this country to be somewhat classridden. 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!’”
He took over ITV’s leading drama series, Armchair Theatre, which he ran between 1958-62, producing over 150 episodes. He made it the place to watch plays by leading young playwrights, including Harold Pinter, whose A Night Out was watched by over six million viewers.
By the end of its first season Armchair Theatre was enjoying an average audience of 12 million viewers and was frequently in the top 10 of the TV ratings.
These were the days of live TV drama and early in Newman’s time at ABC, in November 1958, an actor collapsed and died during while a play was being broadcast. The following year, another play was banned for encouraging immorality; the story told of a single girl who became pregnant and decided to bring up the child herself.
At the end of 1962 Newman joined the BBC as head of drama. From his home in West Hampstead he went on to revolutionise British television. In 1964 he founded the drama strand, The Wednesday Play, which launched the careers of writers and directors like Dennis Potter, Jeremy Sandford, who wrote Cathy Come Home, and Ken Loach. Television drama, said Newman, “must walk right into the middle of society and examine it to find out what makes people tick.”
A journalist once asked him, “What