Friday, 1 July 2011

Happy Canada Day, Sydney Newman!

I am sure that there are many out there who are reading the title of this post and wondering who Sydney Newman is and what he has to do with Canada Day. Well, Sydney Newman is a man The Museum of Broadcast Communications describes as "the most significant agent in the development of British drama." For those of you still wondering Mr. Newman has to do with Canada Day, well, the man who was one of  the most influential people in British broadcasting was a Canadian.

Sydney Newman was the son of a Russian immigrant and was born on 1 April 1917 in Toronto, Ontario. By 1958, when he accepted a position with the Associated British Corporation (ABC), he had already had a long diverse career. Mr. Newman had started his career as a still photographer and graphic artist who designed movie posters. He then worked for Canada's National Film Board (NFB), first as a film editor and then a movie producer. In 1949 the Canadian government attached Mr. Newman to the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) in the United States with the job of studying American television techniques. It was his year spent studying American television techniques that got him a job at the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC). Initially he was the Supervising Director of Features, Documentaries and Outside Broadcasts, but in 1954 he became Supervisor of Drama Production, largely due to his desire for CBC to produce the sort of television dramas he had seen while at NBC. It would be these dramas Mr. Newman oversaw at the CBC which would lead him to the place where he would receive everlasting fame in international broadcasting history.

Many of the dramas which Sydney Newman oversaw at CBC would be purchased by the BBC for re-broadcast in the United Kingdom. These dramas attracted the attention of Howard Thomas, the managing director of the Associated British Corporation (ABC), one of the companies which provided BBC's rival ITV with programming. In 1958 Mr. Thomas gave Mr Newman the chance to produce his own Saturday night thriller television show. It was not long after Sydney Newman took the position at ABC that Dennis Vance, then Head of Drama, was promoted. Sydney Newman was then made the Head of Drama at ABC. Mr. Newman immediately set about shaking up television drama as it had been known in Britain up to that time. Prior to Sydney Newman's position as Head of Drama at ABC, television dramas were made primarily to appeal to the upper classes. Sensing that the lower classes would be more likely to actually watch television, Mr. Newman remade British television drama to appeal to a broader audience.

It would be through the anthology series Armchair Theatre that Sydney Newman would began reshaping British television drama. Armchair Theatre had debuted in 1956 and in its first few years tended towards material from the United States or more conservative, classical productions. Sydney Newman turned to such young and upcoming writers as Clive Exton, Alun Owen, and Harold Pinter for more modern, decidedly British, kitchen sink dramas. Sydney Newman would go one step further and in 1960 introduced Armchair Mystery Theatre, which specialised in mysteries, as well as the children's serials Counter-Attack and Target Luna. While Mr. Newman shook up the world of British television drama with his kitchen sink productions on Armchair Theatre, his biggest achievement while at ABC would come about because of a failed thriller series.

In 1960 ABC very much wanted to win Saturday nights. For this reason the company asked Sydney Newman to develop action adventure thrillers. One of these was Police Surgeon, which starred Ian Hendry in title role. Police Surgeon failed, although Ian Hendry appeared to be very popular with viewers. As a result Sydney Newman developed a new thriller series. In this show Mr. Hendry would once more play a surgeon, but this time he would be teamed up with a mysterious secret agent named Steed, played by Patrick Macnee. The Avengers would prove to be a smash hit for ABC in 1961. The Avengers would not end when Ian Hendry left the show, but would become even more successful. In the end The Avengers would become not only an international success, but perhaps the most successful show ever produced by a commercial network in Britain. From its earliest days The Avengers was very British (more precisely, very English), yet it was created by a Canadian.

The success of Armchair Theatre and The Avengers under Sydney Newman did not go unnoticed by the BBC. Sir Hugh Greene realised the BBC was in trouble when he took over as its Director General. He wanted to bring in Sydney Newman to do for the BBC what he had for ABC. It was then in 1962 that Kenneth Adam, BBC's Director of Television, offered Sydney Newman the position of Head of Television Drama. Mr. Newman joined the BBC in December 1962. He immediately set forth revamping the BBC's late Saturday afternoon block. In between the sports show Grandstand and the pop music show Juke Box Jury there had been a children's classics show. Mr. Newman moved the children's classics show to Sunday and in its place created a new children's show.

The new children's show was a serial about a time traveller known only as The Doctor, who journeyed through time and the universe in a time machine shaped like a blue police callbox. The series was called Doctor Who. After only five episodes it became a smash hit. Its success would grow even more after the introduction of The Doctor's archenemies the Daleks in December 1963. Doctor Who would become an international success and perhaps the most successful series ever produced by the BBC. It was then a Canadian, Sydney Newman, who created the two most successful British shows of all time, The Avengers and Doctor Who.

While at the BBC Sydney Newman would also revive Z Cars, as well as introduce series designed to showcase plays on British television: First Night and The Wednesday Play. Mr. Newman's most famous show in the United Kingdom besides The Avengers and Doctor Who would not be as well known in the United States as either of those two. The BBC wanted a show that would counter the incredible popularity of ITV's The Avengers. Initially Sydney Newman wanted to do a television adaptation of British detective Sexton Blake. The BBC was unable to reach an agreement with the publishers of the Sexton Blake novels, however, so Sydney Newman had to develop a whole new series. The new series would centre on an Victorian adventurer brought out of suspended animation in Swinging London, where he continued his career of fighting evil of a bizarre nature. The show was called Adam Adamant Lives!

 There can be no denying that Adam Adamant Lives! was similar to The Avengers. The Avengers teamed an Edwardian style gentleman (Steed) with a modern, female partner (first Mrs. Gale, then  Mrs. Peel, then Tara King). Adam Adamant Lives! teamed a Victorian Era gentleman (Adam) with a modern, female partner (Georgina Jones).  The similarity between the two shows ended there, however, for while Steed was a spy with questionable morality, Adamant was a soldier of fortune with a keen sense of honour. Adam Adamant Lives! would only last for two series and would not see the international success of The Avengers or Doctor Who. It proved to be influential, however, perhaps inspiring John Pertwee's portrayal of the Third Doctor on Doctor Who and being one of the possible sources of inspiration for the character of Austin Powers.

Sydney Newman remained with the BBC for five years, then decided not to renew his contract in order to pursue a career in film production. Unfortunately, Mr. Newman would see little success as an executive producer with Associated British Productions. In 1970, after twelve years in the United Kingdom, he returned to Canada. Over the years he would serve in various positions with the Broadcast Programmes Branch of the Canadian Radio and Television Commission, the National Film Board of Canada, the Canadian Film Development Corporation, and CBC. For a time he served as Special Advisor on Film to the Secretary of State of Canada.

Sydney Newman would return to England in 1984. There he produced the children's opera The Little Sweep. He died on 30 October 1997 in Toronto from a heart attack at age 80.

Sydney Newman may have had more impact on British television drama than any other man in the history of broadcasting. He broke away from the staid literary adaptations that had been the rule for much of the Fifties and encouraged writers, directors,and producers to take chances. At the same time that the British New Wave or kitchen sink dramas started to dominate British cinema, Sydney Newman introduced kitchen sink drama to British television. Mr. Newman went beyond kitchen sink realism, however, as he ventured into the fantastic with The Avengers and Doctor Who, which could well be the two most successful British shows of all time.

While much of Sydney Newman's success in Britain may have been due to an inborn talent as to what would work on television (after all, he had seen a good deal of success in Canada as well) and perhaps his experiences at NBC as well (he was exposed to American television drama, which lacked the class consciousness of the early British television dramas), it seems quite likely that much of his success may have also been due to the fact that he was Canadian. As a Canadian Sydney Newman was an outsider. He could look at British television without any bias and see why its dramas were not drawing viewers. Indeed, Mr. Newman realised that in catering to the upper classes, British television had made a grave error. Without catering to the lowest denominator and encouraging quality writing and production, Sydney Newman revitalised British television drama by doing away with the classism. In doing so he not only had an impact on British television, but everywhere The Avengers and Doctor Who has aired.

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