Friday, July 1, 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.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Actress Elaine Stewart Passes On

Elaine Stewart, a model and an actress who appeared in such films as Brigadoon (1954) and The Rise of Legs Diamond (1960), passed on 27 June 2011 at the age of 81 following a lengthy illness. 

Elaine Stewart was born Elsy Steinberg on 31 May 1930 in Montclair, New Jersey. She was only a teenager when she signed a contract with the Conover Modelling Agency and adopted the name "Elaine Stewart." With measurements of 34-25-36, dark hair, and a beautiful face, Miss Stewart proved to be very popular as a model. In 1952 she was voted "Miss See" in See Magazine. She appeared in magazines ranging from Photoplay to Playboy.  It was in 1952 that producer Hal Wallis hired her to play the uncredited role of nurse Lt. Saunders in the Martin and Lewis comedy Sailor Beware. Miss Stewart then appeared in small roles in such films as Singin' in the Rain (1952), You For Me (1952), Desperate Search (1952), and Sky Full of Moon (1952).

It was her role as Lila in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) that made her film career. In a scene lasted only one minute, Miss Stewart had to saunter onto a balcony with a Martini in hand, wearing a skin tight evening gown. The beautiful brunette made an impression with the movie's audience, as MGM was deluged with mail asking who she was. That same year she would appear on the cover of  the23 March issue of Life, an accomplishment many successful actresses, let alone budding starlets, never achieved. For the next several years Elaine Stewart appeared in such films as Young Bess (1953), The Adventures of Hajii Baba (1954), The Tattered Dress (1957), Escort West (1958), and The Rise of Legs Diamond (1960). On television she appeared on The Third Man and Bat Masterson.

In the Sixties Miss Stewart appeared in the films The Most Dangerous Man Alive (1961) and Peccati d'estate (1962).  She guest starred on Burke's Law and Perry Mason. In 1964 she married game show producer Merrill Heatter and retired from the entertainment industry. She would return to show business as the co-host with Wink Martindale of the game show Gambit in 1972. In 1974 she co-hosted High Rollers with Alex Trebek.

In her early films Elaine Stewart was promoted by MGM as a "dark haired Marilyn Monroe." While my fellow fans of Miss Monroe may wish to disagree, I honestly think Elaine Stewart was more beautiful than Marilyn. It is definitely Miss Stewart's beauty that comes to mind when one thinks of her, although she was also an extremely talented actress. In The Bad and The Beautiful she played the sultry, "other woman." In The Adventures of Hajii Baba she played the caliph's daughter, Princess  Fawzia. In Night Passage (1957) she played the wife of a railroad tycoon. Elaine Stewart played these all of these diverse roles convincingly. Elaine Stewart was indeed beautiful, but she was a very good actress as well as a gorgeous pinup girl.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

"Run to Me" Performed by Material Issue

Tonight this has been going through my head over and over and over again. It is a cover of The Bee Gees' song "Run to Me" by Material Issue. The original version was the first single from The Bee Gees' album To Whom It May Concern. It reached #9 on the UK charts and #16 on the U.S. charts. Material Issue recorded their version of the song for the 1994 tribute album to The Bee Gees, Melody Fair.

"Run to Me" is quite possibly my favourite song by The Bee Gees and I believe it is the most romantic song they ever recorded.  After all, the singer essentially telling the object of his desire to run to him any time she has a problem. In other words, he is pledging to be her knight in shining armour. For me the fact that The Bee Gees could record this sort of song (as well as much of their early work, such as "New York Mining Disaster 1941") makes their descent into disco all the more sad for me.

Anyhow, without further ado, here is Material Issue's version of "Run to Me."

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Actor Don Diamond Passes On

Character actor Don Diamond, who was a regular on both Zorro and F Troop among many other roles, passed on 4 June 1921 at the age of 90. The cause was heart failure.

Don Diamond was born 4 June 1921 in New York City. He studied drama at the University of Michigan. Following his graduation in 1942 he enlisted and served stateside in the United States Army Air Corps. He began working in radio dramas while waiting to be inducted into the military. He made his film début in the movie Borderline (1950) , but it would be television on which Mr. Diamond would spend much of his career.

Indeed, his television début would come in 1951 in the regular role of El Toro, Kit's sidekick, on The Adventures of Kit Carson. The Adventures of Kit Carson would run until 1955. Later in the decade Don Diamond would play Corporal Reyes on the TV series Zorro. He also guest starred on the shows Frontier, The Adventures of Jim Bowie, Adventures of Superman, Lassie, Trackdown,Circus Boys, Peter Gunn, The Life and Legend of  Wyatt Earp, and The Untouchables. He appeared in the movies Omar Khayam (1957), Raiders of Old California (1957), The Old Man and the Sea (1958), and The Story of Ruth (1960).

In the Sixties Don Diamond was a regular on F Troop as Crazy Cat, second in command to Chief Wild Eagle of the Hekawis. He also appeared on the shows Route 66, The Jack Benny Programme, Burke's Law, My Favourite Martian, Rawhide, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Wild Wild West, Run For Your Life, The Big Valley, Get Smart, and The Immortal.  He appeared in the films Irma la Douce (1963), Fun in Acapulco (1963), The Carpetbaggers (1964), and How Sweet It Is (1968).

From the late Sixties into the Seventies Don Diamond provided the voice of Toro in "The Tijuana Toads" series of theatrical cartoons from Depatie-Freleng. In the Seventies
hHe guest starred on such shows as Mission: Impossible, Columbo, The Odd Couple, Emergency, The Rockford Files, and Lou Grant. He appeared in the films Mrs. Polifax-Spy (1971), Breezy (1973), The Toolbox Murders (1978), and Herbie Goes Bananas (1980). In the Eighties Mr. Diamond provided the voice of Sgt. Gonzalez on the animated series The Adventures of Zorro. He guest starred on the shows Dynasty, Dallas, MacGyverL. A. Law, and Newhart.

Don Diamond's prolific career as an actor was due to his mastery of accents and dialects. While many of his portrayals today would be considered racist (he played in both everything from Native Americans to Mexicans), there can be no denying that he had a gift for shaping his voice to anything he wanted it to be. Mr. Diamond also had a gift for comic timing. He was a very good comic actor, which also made him very much in demand in television shows in the Fifties and Sixties. While the average person probably does not recognise Mr. Diamond's name, there is little doubt that they would probably recognise his face and voice.

Monday, June 27, 2011

A Father, A Son, and Two Detective Shows

It is not unusual for sons to follow their fathers into acting. One need look no further than Michael Douglas, who followed  his father Kirk Douglas into acting, or Beau and Jeff Bridges who followed their father Lloyd Bridges into acting. While the sons of many actors have followed their fathers into the field, however, it is rare that their careers will follow much the same path save for a few notable exceptions (Douglas Fairbanks Jr. being one). This holds true of Timothy Hutton, who followed his father Jim Hutton into acting.

In the Sixties Jim Hutton's career was a duke's mixture of comedies (Where the Boys Are and Who's Minding the Mint), Westerns (Major Dundee and Hallelujah Trail), and assorted other films. By the Seventies he was mostly doing television. In contrast, Timothy Hutton's career began with appearances in television movies before moving onto dramatic films such as Ordinary People (1980) and Turk 180. It was a path on which his career would remain for much of the Eighties and Nineties, with the occasional foray into comedy (Made in Heaven), crime drama (Q&A), and horror (The Dark Half). Timothy Hutton's career would have one thing in common with his father Jim's, however, as both had the honour of playing legendary, literary detectives in television series set in the past.

In the Sixties Jim Hutton had appeared primarily in movies. By the Seventies Jim Hutton primarily worked in television and most often on TV movies. When the creators of Columbo, William Link and Richard Levison, were given the chance to bring another mystery series to the small screen, they naturally thought of the Ellery Queen novels. The writing partners had been fans of the series of novels since they were boys. Indeed, some of their early short stories they had sold to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

Here it should be pointed out that Messrs. Link and Levinson were not the first people to ever pursue an Ellery Queen television series. Beginning in 1950 on Dumont and later moving to ABC, The Adventures of Ellery Queen starred Richard Hart and, after Mr. Hart's death, Lee Bowman, as the detective. After moving back to Dumont, the series continued with Hugh Beaumont (most famous as Ward Cleaver of Leave It to Beaver) in the role. It ended in 1952. Another series, The Further Adventures of Ellery Queen, starred George Nader and later Lee Phillips in the title part. It ran from 1958 to 1959. In 1971 Peter Lawford starred in a disastrous television movie entitled Ellery Queen: Don't Look Behind You. Despite the fact that Ellery has always been a native New Yorker, Mr. Lawford still had his English accent.

While the earlier Ellery Queen series and, fortunately, the TV movie with Peter Lawford would be forgotten, William Link and Richard Levinson's television adaptation of the literary detective, simply titled Ellery Queen, is still remembered to this day. There can be no doubt that much of this was due to the casting of Jim Hutton as the legendary amateur detective. Jim Hutton would first play Ellery Queen in the movie pilot for the series, originally titled Ellery Queen but also known as "Too Many Suspects," which aired on NBC in the spring of 1975. The pilot, like the series, was set in the late Forties when it is generally considered that the best Ellery Queen novels were written.  In addition to Jim Hutton, the pilot and the series also featured David Wayne as Ellery's father, Inspector Queen of the NYPD, and Tom Reese as Inspector Queen's assistant, Sergeant Velie.

The format of Ellery Queen was essentially the same as that of the classic novels. Ellery Queen was a mystery writer who solved crimes on the side, much to the consternation of his police inspector father. A crime would be committed, after which Ellery would uncover clues which even his father had missed. Immediately before Ellery revealed whom the murderer was in any given novel, there would be printed a "Challenge to the Reader," which would summarise both the suspects and the clues, and challenge the reader to solve the mystery. The tradition of the "Challenge to the Reader" on the TV series was kept by having Ellery Queen speak directly to the viewers, summarising the clues and suspects, and challenging them to solve the mystery.

Not only would the series Ellery Queen be remembered to this day, but arguably the legendary detective would become the role with which Jim Hutton is now most identified. It might be surprising for some to learn, then, that the series received mixed reviews upon its début. In September 1975 Jay Sharbutt of the Associated Press gave Ellery Queen  a good review, writing, "It's old fashioned whodunitry, but it works well, thanks to costars Hutton and Wayne." In the 15 September 1975 issue of Time Richard Schickel gave the show a less favourable review, writing, "Ellery Queen (NBC, Thursday, 9 p.m. E.D.T.), starring Jim Hutton, is a garage-sale period piece. The presence of Guy Lombardo, some ancient autos and the oldest of detective story conventions (all suspects are assembled in one room to await the results of the detective's ratiocinations) are supposed to evoke nostalgia. They do not−and the format's stasis is numbing." Not only did Ellery Queen receive mixed reviews, but it also lasted only one season--a whole 22 episodes. Of course, here I must point out that one season was actually a long run for a show in the Seventies, when networks were inclined to cancel shows after only a month!

Regardless of what critics said of the series or how long it lasted, Ellery Queen would prove to be the best remembered adaptation of the detective on television. What is more, the role of crime solving mystery writer Ellery Queen would become the one for which Jim Hutton was best remembered, despite the many movies in which he had appeared. Sadly, Jim Hutton would die of liver cancer at the age of only 45 in 1979.

While his father would work later primarily in television, from the Eighties into the Nineties Timothy Hutton continued to work in feature films, only occasionally appearing on television in more upscale TV movies such as Zelda (in which he played F. Scott Fitzgerald) and Aldrich Ames: Traitor Within (in which he played the title role). Given the projects in which Timothy Hutton had been involved, it should hardly have been surprising when he was cast as Archie Goodwin, leg man and general, all around assistant to the brilliant detective Nero Wolfe and a great detective in and of himself. The project was a television movie based on the 1953 novel by Nero Wolfe's creator Rex Stout entitled The Golden Spiders for the A&E cable network. Planned as the first in a series of two hour telefilms, The Golden Spiders : A Nero Wolfe Mystery aired on 5 March 2000 and proved so successful that A&E green lighted A Nero Wolfe Mystery as a regularly scheduled, one hour series.

A Nero Wolfe Mystery was set in a vague time period that could have been the Forties or the Fifties and was extremely faithful to Rex Stout's original short stories and novels. It starred Maury Chaykin as eccentric but brilliant detective Nero Wolfe, who much preferred to remain in his brownstone with his orchids and gourmet food than to go out and interact with people. While it would be Nero Wolfe who solved the cases, then, it was his assistant Archie Goodwin, and occasionally additional detectives such as Saul Panzer, who did much of the actual investigating. Archie was particularly suited to the role, having an incredible memory that allowed him to recall conversations verbatim and a wealth of detail. These he would summarise in reports to Nero.

Just as Ellery Queen had been seen previously on television, so too had Nero Wolfe, although it would only be following Rex Stout's death. Rex Stout had been disappointed by the motion picture adaptations of the Thirties and so he would not allow the great detective to adapted to television either. It would not be until 1977, two years after Rex Stout's death, that the television movie Nero Wolfe would air on ABC. The telefilm was based on the novel The Doorbell Rang and stared Thayer David as Nero Wolfe and Tom Mason as Archie Goodwin. Thayer David's death in 1978 prevented a television series from developing out of the TV movie. In 1981 NBC proceeded with it s own Nero Wolfe series, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe, starring William Conrad as Wolfe and Lee Horsley as Goodwin. Despite its title, only a few episodes were adapted from Rex Stout's work. It lasted only 14 episodes.

It is little wonder, then, that A&E's A Nero Wolfe Mystery would become the best remembered adaptation of Rex Stout's creation, better remembered than either the movies or the radio shows before it. Indeed, the series did not simply adapt Rex Stout's works, but sought to duplicate their plots and even dialogue as precisely as possible. Unlike the 1977 telefilm or the 1981 series, A Nero Wolfe Mystery was a period piece, set in an era that could have been anywhere from the Forties to the late Fifties. The series featured all of the major characters from the novels, including Nero's cook Fritz (Colin Fox), private detective Saul Panzer (Conrad Dunn), Inspector Cramer (Bill Smitrovich), and others.  Timothy Dutton would actually do more on the series than play Archie Goodwin. He was also one of the executive producers of the series and directed four of its episodes.

A Nero Wolfe Mystery would début to nearly universal critical acclaim. John Leonard in the 16 April 2001 issue of New York Magazine proclaimed, "Imperious and mysterious, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe was always a natural for television. Finally, A&E got him right." Laura Urbani of The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review would write in its 22 April 2001 issue, "Hutton has found a series of which he can be proud. Most actors would kill to be a part of such a witty and classy production." By no means were these reviews unusual. A Nero Wolfe Mystery was praised in most of its reviews, with bad reviews an absolute rarity.

Sadly, such reviews would not be enough to save the series from cancellation after twenty episodes and two seasons. A&E never gave an official reason for cancelling the series, although it could have been due to the sheer costs of the series. This may be confirmed by a statement issue at the time of the cancellation of A Nero Wolfe Mystery in 2002 on the official A&E web site: "We at A&E remain extremely proud of Nero Wolfe. It is a high quality, beautifully produced and entertaining show, unlike anything else currently on the television landscape. Although it performed moderately well amongst tough competition for two seasons, it simply did not do well enough for us to be able to go on making it, given the current television climate." Sadly, it would only be two years after the cancellation of A Nero Wolfe Mystery that A&E would delve more and more into fare of much less quality--reality television.

One does not have to be a great detective to see the parallels between Jim Hutton's series Ellery Queen and Timothy Hutton's series A Nero Wolfe Mystery. Both shows were based on works featuring famous, fictional detectives (albeit one an amateur, Ellery, and one a professional, Nero). Both works were period pieces, with Ellery Queen set in the late Forties and A Nero Wolfe Mystery set in a vague period that could have been the Forties or Fifties. Both series sought to be faithful to the works upon which they were based, although Ellery Queen never went to the extent that A Nero Wolfe Mystery would in adapting the very dialogue of the novels. Sadly, both series would be short lived. Ellery Queen lasted only a season, producing 22 episodes. A Nero Wolfe Mystery would last two seasons, but because those seasons were shorter, it only produced 20 episodes. The parallels are quite interesting.

Of course, if Jim Hutton and Timothy Hutton both starred in two remarkable mystery series based on classic detectives, it is perhaps because both men knew quality when they saw it. Both Ellery Queen and  A Nero Wolfe Mystery have maintained legions of this fans to this day. Indeed, despite their short runs, both series have been released on DVD. What is more, both series have been successful on DVD. It is a unique honour that Jim Hutton and Timothy Hutton have. A father and his son, they each played a classic detective and saw a good deal of success in doing so.

(Credit Where Credit is Due Department: This post emerged largely through discussions with my friend Casey of the blog Noir Girl, who loves Jim Hutton, Timothy Hutton, and A Nero Wolfe Mystery as much as I do)