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D.A.N. Jones on Sidney Newman

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I had a word with Sidney Newman on his last day as BBC-TV Head of Drama, when everyone in the Corporation seemed to be calling with compliments and making him mellow and over-kindly. To cloud his brow a little, I showed him Malcolm Muggeridge's reference to his work in the previous week's Listener. Muggeridge was commenting on his own conversation with John Reith: 'He considers that he should have stayed on to save the nation from Cathy Come Home and other delectable "gutsy" (the Drama Director's own felicitously chosen word) items.' Sidney Newman is quite proud of Cathy Come Home, one of the most effective dramas in his Wednesday Play series—if only because it forced general attention on the way in which poor people can be deprived of homes. Newman said: ' Muggeridge is a little old man who can only indulge in knocking copy. I want to believe he means well but I can't understand why the nation should have to be saved from Cathy. I wouldn't have thought Muggeridge was that cynical. His obsession with the sex he's running away from is to me ridiculous; but never mind ... He just doesn't entertain me any more.' Particularly irritating was the fact that the Reith interviews should be the context for these strictures. Sidney Newman admires Reith, sharing the widespread feeling that there is still time for him to be fully stretched.

Reith is a dead honest Old Testament man. I was brought up, in Canada, as an orthodox Jew and my wife is a Scots Presbyterian. I'm a product of John Grierson. I worked under him when he reorganised the National Film Board of Canada. Again the Scots Presbyterian influence. My concept of public service and responsibility I get from Grierson. He lives in England and I still see him and recharge the old purity batteries.'

But what about that word gutsy'? It may be better language than Muggeridge's debased Augustan ('delectable', 'murky', felicitous'), but what does it mean? ' Art that is graphic, sharply delineated. From the gut: that is, honest, without side-effects. Fresh. I mean, Cathy was important because of its form more than its content. It was on the side of the angels but it was treading old ground. Look, I'm old. I've been through the Thirties and I remember Agitprop. But TV brings that content afresh, to a new audience, people who want to see their own lives dramatised. The actors shouldn't look like actors, for instance. I say "graphic" because I used to be a painter. But the school I went to was not artsy. Mostly it taught kids to be commercial artists and I was told that a good poster was one that would get the motorist when he was driving past at 25 miles an hour.

Painters talk about "reading" a picture. Now most people can't read a work of art; they can't read creative things. Art is a pimple on the arse of society—no, not even that, it doesn't irritate. It's the bow on the box of chocolates. Most people don't know that art is really a catalyst for intangible truths. I want plays that reveal truths in a way that's useful to ordinary people. I don't frankly care about pleasing the post-A-level group as a group: they're just as philistine as anyone else: I've told my guys to make their plays useful first, not beautiful. Viewers are looking for kicks and also for a drama that draws on their own experience of life. If on top of that you get something beautiful, that's the jackpot. I've been one of the big purveyors of art in this country; but I'm not interested in providing art for artists. They can look after themselves, I want to give work which is immediate, for the time, for the audience. It's a journalistic approach.

I came into the BBC from commercial television. But I don't think that's an example of ITV influencing the Corporation, because I didn't change my beliefs when I came over. I did Armchair Theatre for ABC and Hugh Greene saw it and gave me the BBC job. Now I'm going to work for the Associated British Picture Corporation.' (Warner Brothers own 25 per cent.) I'll still be myself. The professional limits of this world are new to me and I won't make pronunciamentos. Cinema in this country was dead by 1958 but the last three or four years have seen improvements and there's room for cinema. You've got to give people a reason for going out and making a social thing of it. I want to do stories about today which will be seen by millions and add a fresh layer of meaning to their lives, and to make money for my bosses.

'Perhaps ITV has influenced the BBC in the sense that it was after a mass audience and did things to attract them. Perhaps the BBC was too well-fed in its monopoly position and ITV stretched it. The tragedy of socialist endeavour is that we all need competition. The EEC rose to that competition, realising that you mustn't yield to the leadership class if you want mass audiences. ITV provides the best commercial television in the world. Because the Bay exists? Possibly. Or because of the outsid authority, so that commercial advertisers don't directly influence programme co tent. When I put on plays for General Motors, I couldn't mention their competitors' cars and I couldn't even discuss strikes and industrial situations.

'We've always thought too much of live theatre. I feel like McLuhan. It's a medium we're all still impressed by because it was great 50 years ago. Its social impact now is simply that it influences people in other fields of drama. The BBC covers the whole range of drama—it's beautifully balanced.

'I've picked good people. You have to be able to talk to creative people and understand something of the creative process—and protect them within the organisation. Not that the organisation's a nasty enemy. ... This is the unspectacular, grubby side of my job. If I didn't have these beliefs, how could I do Dr Who? Or, come to that, the Galsworthy? I'm as proud as anyone of The Forsyte Saga, but I've got no illusions that it's gutsy, any more than Anouilh is. Softly, Softly is a simple thing I like. An even simpler thing we do is The Newcomers; but, by God, it shines with a kind of simple truth.

'People concentrate on the Wednesday Play. I used to get critical letters before but I'm aware of much more pressure from the public upon the sec, because we have more responsibility. I've been one of Mary Whitehouse's targets. If I'm quoted as saying " gutsy drama", it's not only Muggeridge but 50 others complaining and associating it with women taking off their stockings or something. I admire my colleagues in the BBC who go on, year in, year out, taking pot shots from people. I don't know how Hugh Greene does it. But these people can't " read " creative things, they can't tell real life from a story and they think reproduction of bad things in real life is encouragement. If I have a Cubist painting, they think I expect people to be made of cubes.'

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  • APA 6th ed.: Jones, D.A.N. (1967-12-14). D.A.N. Jones on Sidney Newman. The Listener p. 784.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Jones, D.A.N.. "D.A.N. Jones on Sidney Newman." The Listener [add city] 1967-12-14, 784. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Jones, D.A.N.. "D.A.N. Jones on Sidney Newman." The Listener, edition, sec., 1967-12-14
  • Turabian: Jones, D.A.N.. "D.A.N. Jones on Sidney Newman." The Listener, 1967-12-14, section, 784 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=D.A.N. Jones on Sidney Newman | url= | work=The Listener | pages=784 | date=1967-12-14 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=23 May 2024 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=D.A.N. Jones on Sidney Newman | url= | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=23 May 2024}}</ref>