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Sydney Newman obituary

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1997-11-01 Times.jpg


Sydney Newman, television drama producer, died on October 30 aged 80. He was born on April 1, 1917.

Although he was born and spent much of his life in Canada, Sydney Newman will be remembered as a pioneer of "realistic drama" on British television. "When I came to Britain in the 1950s," he said, "I was sure that British television should reflect the nation's social changes, and that my own productions must be made for the very people who owned the television sets - the working class."

During his Toronto childhood he developed a passion for every form of visual art, and his main hobbies as a boy were drawing, painting, and cinema-going. His first job was to design posters for the cinema and the theatre. Soon afterwards, and very ambitiously, he went to Hollywood, where Walt Disney, impressed by his graphic work, offered him a job. Unfortunately he could not get a work permit, but on his return to Canada he soon became the highest paid graphic artist of the National Film Board of Canada.

John Grierson, who headed Canada's Film Board, was the greatest influence on Newman's work. Grierson soon noticed his potential, and in 1944 Newman became the producer of the wartime propaganda series Canada Carries On. Three years later he was granted an attachment to NBC in New York, where he gained his first experience of television production, especially in drama, documentary and outside broadcasts. Returning to Canada in 1952, he became an executive at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

The early 1950s are regarded as a golden age of American television drama, and Sydney Newman was deeply influenced by what he saw, realising for the first time that television was much more than showbiz. Among the plays he re-membered most of all were Paddy Chayefsky's Marty , Reginald Rose's Twelve Angry Men , and Gore Vidal's Visit to a Small Planet . "Television was now the medium for new writers, actors and directors," he said. "If Shakespeare were alive today he'd be working for television."

Newman came to Britain in 1954, but for the next few years he failed to find really rewarding work. In 1957, he went to the Royal Court with Michael Barry, the BBC's head of television drama, to see Look Back in Anger , a play he came to regard as "the dazzling light on my own road to Damascus". He was fascinated by social life in Britain in the late 1950s, and wanted passionately to make plain statements to a mass audience, falsified neither by sentiment nor doctrinaire beliefs. He believed that the main value of contemporary drama should be an "agitational contemporaneity" - though of course that in itself is doctrinaire.

His great opportunity came in 1958, when ABC Television put him in charge of the Sunday night drama series Armchair Theatre, which was in direct competition with the BBC's Sunday Play. His first transmissions began early in 1959, and later in the year Armchair Theatre was in the Top Ten for 32 weeks out of 37, with an average audience of 12 million.

He built up a team of directors who shared his views: Wilfred Eades, the Canadian Ted Kotcheff, Herbert Wise and John Moxey. Among the dramatists he approached were Harold Pinter and Alun Owen, the Liverpool playwright whose work he had first seen at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith. The result of his meeting with Owen was No Trams to Lime Street, followed by Lena O My Lena, both directed by Kotcheff. "Sydney's main theme", Owen said, "was always the changing face of Britain, and of course I went along with that myself."

It was typical of Newman and his directors to employ regional actors, such as Billie Whitelaw, rather than players from the West End. Newman contributed to many other programmes in ABC's drama output - especially The Avengers - but his main concern was always Armchair Theatre.

He had many jealous admirers at the BBC, where the drama output in the late 1950s rarely reflected the social issues of the time, subjects that were usually left to documentary makers. When Sir Hugh Greene became Director-General of the BBC in 1959, he felt the Corporation "must get away from the middle-class view...we can only bring about change, and change in people's minds, by shocking them, by showing them things they don't really like, but ought to know about." The opportunity for change came in 1959 when Michael Barry left the BBC. A year later, Newman took his place.

In the words of one of his successors at the BBC, "he hit us like a whirlwind". He soon broke the drama department into three separate units: plays, series and serials. He promoted the realistic attitude of such writers as Jeremy Sandford, Nell Dunn and David Mercer, and such producers and directors as Ken Loach, Tony Garnett and Kenneth Trodd. Old- fashioned drama was abandoned in favour of memorable productions including Cathy Come Home, Up The Junction and In Two Minds.

In other areas of drama Newman was less reliable - though he was always proud of devising Dr Who - and he remembered his initially hostile reaction to a "crazy proposal" by Donald Wilson to serialise The Forsyte Saga in 26 parts.

At the end of his BBC contract in 1967, Newman decided to move into feature films, but a brief period with Associated British Productions was a failure, and in 1970 he returned to Canada to take up executive posts with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the National Film Board of Canada. Lacking the opportunity for personal creativity, he was unhappy. He returned to London in the early 1980s, and tried vainly to persuade Channel 4 to accept a series about the Bloomsbury Group. His last British production, also for Channel 4, was of Benjamin Britten's children's opera The Little Sweep, and he returned to Canada in 1990.

He became a fellow of the Society of Film and Television Arts in 1958, and a fellow of the Royal Television Society in 1990. His wife, Elizabeth, died in 1981. He is survived by their three daughters.

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