Un­sung hero be­hind TV’s golden age

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - BY DAVID HER­MAN

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

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