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.
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
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:
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.
Express, 5 January 1963)
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."
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
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...."
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).
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.
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.
Photo courtesy of the British Film Institute
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.
1954 General Motors Theater (supervisor
and producer) 1954 Ford Theater
(supervisor and producer)
1954 On Camera (supervisor
1958-62 Armchair Theatre (supervisor and producer)
1960 Police Surgeon (creator)
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)
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
Into Danger; Course for Collision.
Armchair Theatre: How to Write, Design, Direct, Act and Enjoy television
play. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1959.
M. From the Palace to the Grove. London: Royal Television Society,
I., Play For Today: The Evolution of Television Drama. London:
D. Days of Vision. London: Methuen, 1990.
J.R., editor. Anatomy of a Television Play. London: Weidenfeld
& Nicolson, 1962.