NEWMAN, SYDNEY

British Programming Executive/Producer

Sydney Newman has been seen as the most significant agent in the development of British television drama. He was to preside over the transformation of television drama from a dependence on theatrical material and forms to a significant art form in its own right. However, this achievement does not belong to Newman alone; his skill can be located in an ability to successfully exploit the best of already favourable circumstances with an incorrigible enthusiasm and clarity of vision.

Born in Toronto in 1917 he trained initially as a commercial artist, before joining the National Film Board of Canada as film editor, director and executive producer where he made award-winning documentary films and worked with John Grierson. He subsequently spent a year as a working observer for NBC Television in New York, before becoming Supervisor of Drama at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. It was here, working on General Motors Theatre, that he developed the policy of working with contemporary dramatists who attempted to confront current issues in their work.

In 1958 he moved to Britain to work for ABC, one of the commercial companies which made up the ITV network. In 1955 commercial television broke the broadcasting monopoly held by the BBC, and ABC Television Ltd. was a regional company given the franchise for supplying weekend programming in the North and Midlands. Even before Newman's arrival as Head of Drama at ABC, the company had acquired a reputation for some of the best ITV drama. Its Armchair Theatre anthology was transmitted every Sunday evening, inheriting a large audience from the highly popular variety show Sunday Night At The London Palladium.

Newman took over from Dennis Vance as drama head in April 1958. Like Rudolph Cartier at the BBC, Newman arrived in Britain unimpressed with the state of television drama. He also arrived during a sea change of ITV fortunes; after two years of loss the new commercial ITV network companies were just beginning to make substantial profits, and by 1958 television audience for their programmes reached over 70%. At the same time the renaissance of British theatre was well underway. As Newman admitted:

I came to Britain at a crucial time in 1958 when the seeds of Look Back in Anger were beginning to flower. I am proud 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 middle-class manners.

(Daily Express, 5 January 1963)

Inspired by his experience in drama at CBC and unimpressed by the BBC's continuing policy of mopping up old theatre scripts (according to Newman) he immediately set about organising a policy of producing plays written for the medium, plays which would reflect and project the experience and concerns of a new working-class audience. As Newman put it in a 1979 interview, "I said we should have an original play policy with plays that were going to be about the very people who owned TV sets--which is really a working class audience."

This explicitly populist "theatre of the people" quickly became characterised by the press as "kitchen sink" drama--unfair considering the wide variety of plays and genres which Newman's Armchair Theatre produced. What they did have in common was their ambition to capture contemporary trends and popular experience and reflect these back to the television audience. To this end

Newman discovered and nurtured new writers, some of whom were to become the best of their generation, including Clive Exton, Alun Owen, and Harold Pinter. Newman not only encouraged the transformation of the television landscape in terms of subject matter but also in terms of style. If the content of British television drama consisted of bourgeois theatre and its limited concerns, then--according to Newman--the shooting style was also limited, constrained by a static respect for theatrical performance. Newman collected together a group of young directors from North America, such as Philip Saville, Ted Kotcheff, Charles Jarrott, as well as poaching directors from the BBC. With these directors--in particular Saville and Kotcheff--he encouraged stylistic change as well as a thematic change, insisting on a new, self-conscious, mobile camera style for the drama productions. As Ted Kotcheff remembers, "We wanted to push against the limitations of the medium, the way it was presently covered--to approach the freedom of film, and not to enslave it to the theatrical tradition in which we found it when we arrived here...."

The combination of fresh contemporary material and the freedom Newman gave to his directors (and set designers) to innovate with that material opened up the potential of television drama for all to see. Newman was never far behind them, often photographed on the studio set writing notes, his white-suited swagger suggesting a blazing showbiz evangelist. Contrast the early dramas of "Reith's BBC" and their "photographed stage plays", respectfully static and distant, with Newman's Armchair Theatre drama productions: plays like "Afternoon of a Nymph" (1961) have an ingenious mobility, with multiple cameras performing a frantic ballet, prodding their lenses into the action, spiraling in and between the sets and actors, until their movement itself becomes the significant performance. This new spectrum of theme and style can be seen in other plays such as "The Trouble with Our Ivy" (1961), "A Night Out" (Harold Pinter, 1959), and "No Trams to Lime Street" (Alun Owen, 1958).

Newman's real insight--and the real difference with the BBC of the late 1950s--was his estimation of the television audience as discerning, intelligent and capable to handle new and innovative subject matter. As a producer he saw himself as a "creative midwife" bringing together the best technical and creative skill.

In fact, Newman's organisational abilities were to find a home at the BBC. In another well-timed move Newman began work as BBC Head of Drama Group in January 1963. At this point the BBC under Director-General Hugh Greene was beginning a period of modernisation and liberalisation. Newman, in a less hands-on, more executive capacity, re-organised the drama department and oversaw the production of the controversial The Wednesday Play drama anthology. Here Newman was able to draw upon a creative team of writers such as Dennis Potter, John Hopkins, Neil Dunn and David Mercer, and directors such as Don Taylor, Ken Loach and Gareth Davies. He left the BBC in 1967 and returned to Canada where he worked for the National Film Board and the National Film Finance Corporation.

In retrospect Newman's achievements with Armchair Theatre and his conscious characterisation of BBC drama output as static and middlebrow is unfair. His counterpart at the BBC during the late 1950s, Michael Barry, also attracted new young original writers (including Paul Scott and John Mortimer), and hired young directors such as John Jacobs and Don Taylor. However, it was the newness and innovation which Newman encouraged in his drama output that is most significant: his concentration on the potential of television as television, for a mass not a middlebrow audience.

-Jason Jacobs

 


Sydney Newman
Photo courtesy of the British Film Institute

SYDNEY CECIL NEWMAN. Born in Toronto, Ontario, 1 April, 1917. Attended Ogden Public School, Toronto; Central Technical School, Toronto. Married: Margaret Elizabeth McRae in 1944 (died 1981); three daughters. Moved to Hollywood, 1938; worked as painter, stage, industrial and interior designer; still and cinema photographer, 1935-41; joined National Film Board of Canada under John Grierson, as splicer-boy, 1941; editor and director of Armed Forces training films and war information shorts, 1942; produced over 300 documentaries; executive producer for all Canadian government cinema films, 1947-52; assigned to NBC in New York by Canadian government to study U.S. television techniques, 1949-50; director for outside broadcasts, features and documentaries, Canadian Broadcast Corporation, 1953; drama supervisor and producer, General Motors Theater, 1954; supervisor and producer of Armchair Theatre, ABC-TV, England, 1958-62; head of drama, BBC Television, 1963-67; commissioned and produced first television plays from Arthur Hailey, Harold Pinter and others; special adviser, Broadcast Programmes branch, Canadian Radio and Television Commission, Ottawa, 1970; Canadian Government film commissioner and chairman, National Film Board of Canada, 1970-75; trustee, National Arts Center, Ottawa, 1970-75; board member, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Canadian Film Development Corporation; director, Canadian Broadcast Corporation, 1972-75; special adviser on film to Secretary of State for Canada, 1975-77; chief creative consultant, Canadian Film Development Corporation, 1978-84; president, Sydney Newman Enterprises, 1981; producer, Associated British Pictures; has since worked as creative consultant to film and television producers. Officer of the Order of Canada, 1981; Knight of Mark Twain (USA). Fellow: Society of Film and Television Arts, 1958; Royal Society of Arts, 1967; Royal Television Society, 1991. Recipient: Ohio State Award for Religious Drama, 1956; Liberty Award for Best Drama Series, 1957; Desmond Davis Award, 1967; Society of Film and Television Arts President's Award, 1969; Writers' Guild of Great Britain Zeta Award, 1970; Canadian Pictures Pioneer Award, 1973; Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers Recognition Award; Venice Award; Canada Award. Address: 3 Nesbitt Drive, Toronto, Ontario M4w 2G2, Canada.

TELEVISION SERIES

1954     General Motors Theater (supervisor and producer) 1954      Ford Theater (supervisor and producer)
1954      On Camera (supervisor and producer)
1958-62 Armchair Theatre (supervisor and producer)
1960      Police Surgeon (creator)
1960-61 Pathfinders
1961-69 The Avengers (creator)
1962-89 Dr Who (creator)
1964-70 The Wednesday Play (creator)
1966      Adam Adamant Lives! (creator)
1967      The Forsyte Saga (creator)

TELEVISION SPECIALS (selection; producer)

1960 O My Lena
1962 Dumb Martian
1963 Stephen D.
1965 The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany
1965 Tea Party
1989 Britten's The Little Sweep

STAGE (producer)

Flight Into Danger; Course for Collision.

FURTHER READING

The Armchair Theatre: How to Write, Design, Direct, Act and Enjoy television play. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1959.

Barry, M. From the Palace to the Grove. London: Royal Television Society, 1992.

Shubik, I., Play For Today: The Evolution of Television Drama. London: Davis-Poynter, 1975.

Taylor, D. Days of Vision. London: Methuen, 1990.

Taylor, J.R., editor. Anatomy of a Television Play. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1962.

 

See also Wednesday Play; Garnett, Tony; Loach, Ken