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A Minute in a Life of Years

A Tribute to Sydney Newman

By Paul Scoones

[Sydney Newman]Often recognised as the creator of Doctor Who, research in recent years has somewhat diminished Sydney Newman's role in the series' creation, recasting him instead as one of a trio of individuals - also including Donald Wilson and C.E. Webber - who were responsible for devising the initial concept. Nonetheless it was indisputably Newman who provided much needed guidance and support during the series' complex gestation, overseeing important decisions and championing its cause to the upper echelons at the BBC. His death in October 1997 has robbed Doctor Who of the last member of its founding triumvirate.

Sydney Newman's contribution to television however extends far beyond his role in devising Doctor Who. It was Newman who put in place at the BBC the familiar producer-script editor-director structure that we now take for granted. He helped devise the hugely popular 'telefantasy' series The Avengers and - most importantly of all in the context of British television history - revolutionised the style of television drama plays to reflect the interests and concerns of the mass audience.

In a 1986 interview Newman remarked that he'd done a million things, of which Doctor Who was just one. "I paint pictures, sculpt and I love driving a car," he said. "These and Doctor Who are minutes in my life of years." 1

Sydney Newman was born 1 April 1917 in Toronto, Canada. He decided at the age of 11 that he wanted to be a cartoonist, but although he did very well in art his failure at academic subjects prevented him from graduating from art school. He worked as a commercial artist, a photographer and as an art teacher. It was whilst teaching art that he was given a movie camera to experiment with and soon became passionate about filmmaking. Newman went to Hollywood in 1938 and tried unsuccessfully to get a job as a cinematographer. He was however offered a position at Walt Disney as an animator, but was prevented from accepting it because he did not have an American work permit. Returning to Canada he continued working as a successful commercial artist.

Soon after the Second World War broke out, Newman saw a Canadian-produced war propaganda film that inspired him to join the National Film Board in 1941, initially as a splicer boy. Within six months he had directed his first film and by 1946 Newman had risen to the post of Executive Producer. At the time Canada did not yet have television but it had recently started in the United States. Newman saw television as the future of film production and persuaded the National Film Board to send him to New York to study television production. Newman spent 13 months with the NBC in the United States working on many different television shows. When he returned to Canada he discovered that the Film Board were not interested in television but on the strength of the reports he'd been sending back from the States on television he was invited to join the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation which started the first Canadian television service in 1952. Newman spent two years as Head of Outside Broadcasts then stepped into the role of Head of Drama.

Early Canadian television drama consisted of rehashed America scripts with the place names changed to Canadian settings and stage play adaptations. Newman started using the work of Canadian script writers in a drama anthology series called General Motors Theatre (sponsored by General Motors), produced a half hour series called On Camera and supervised a children's science fiction series based partly on Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. One of Newman's productions was the first television drama by Arthur Hailey (who later found fame as the writer of Airport).

Newman's name began to get noticed in Britain after the BBC purchased and transmitted 26 of his Canadian dramas, all of which had Newman listed on the credits as Supervising Producer. In 1957 whilst Newman was visiting the BBC's Head of Drama, Michael Barry, Dennis Vance of BBC rival ABC Television approached him with an offer to take over as producer of the ABC's successful Sunday night single play anthology series Armchair Theatre. Newman took up the position in early 1958, and just three days after his arrival, was also made Head of Drama at ABC.

During his four years at ABC Television Newman developed a reputation as a producer who broke all the accepted ground rules. He produced hard-hitting, realistic plays about real issues of interest to working-class people - the proverbial 'kitchen sink' drama - contrary to the previously middle-class bias of television drama. He discovered new playwrights such as Harold Pinter and used the work of writers such as Alun Owen, Clive Exton and Ray Rigby, Canadian author Mordecai Richler and American Rod Sterling to achieve not only the 'original' TV look to his productions but also to introduce characters and settings with which the ordinary viewing household could identify. It was regarded as a very radical approach for its time.

Newman had a life-long interest in science fiction and in 1960 produced a new SF half hour episode serial about the interplanetary exploits of a space-age family called Target Luna which spawned three sequels - Pathfinders in Space, Pathfinders to Mars and Pathfinders to Venus, all of which were written by Malcolm Hulke and Eric Paice, with Newman as producer.

Newman also commissioned a series called Police Surgeon starring Ian Hendry. When the series failed to capture an audience, Newman and producer Leonard White completely revamped it in 1960, giving the series a new name, Hendry a new character and introducing a shadowy undercover agent called John Steed played by Patrick Macnee. It was Newman who suggested Macnee for the part, having worked with him in Canada, and also persuaded Macnee to take the part. Newman told Macnee "We're calling it The Avengers. I don't know what it means, but it's a hell of a good title." 2

Newman was also involved in the casting of a female sidekick for John Steed to fill the gap left by Ian Hendry's departure after the first season. Two actresses that were under consideration for the part of Cathy Gale were Nyree Dawn Porter and Honor Blackman. Newman firmly believed that Porter had been cast, and was horrified to find that in his absence, producer Leonard White had chosen Blackman. Newman thought Blackman was too ordinary and once she had been cast, was of the opinion that she should play the role with a withered arm to make her more visually distinctive. This idea was not adopted and public opinion of course proved Newman wrong.

Newman's success with ABC Television led to an approach from Kenneth Adam, the managing director of BBC Television, who offered Newman the position of Head of Drama in 1961. Although it represented a significant drop in salary, Newman saw it as an exciting opportunity to explore new areas of creativity. Although he wanted to accept the offer, he still had the last 18 months of his contract left to serve before ABC would let him join their opposition. Newman reluctantly told the BBC he couldn't accept their offer, but was surprised to discover that they were prepared to wait nearly one and a half years before he was freed from his ABC contract.

Newman joined the BBC on 12 December 1962 on a five-year contract, replacing Michael Barry as Head of Drama. This position involved far greater responsibility and resources than his job at ABC, placing him in charge of programmes across the whole range of drama - from children's shows to opera to popular series. In January 1963, Newman received the welcome news that Drama was to receive a 40% increase in budget to accommodate the creation of a second channel, BBC2. This allowed Newman to hire people whose work he admired, and indeed he recruited many of his former staff from ABC.

Finding himself in charge of an unwieldy pool of around 175 directors, all of whom were immediately answerable to him as the Head of Drama, Newman set about creating a more efficient and manageable system in early 1963. The production team structure established by Newman at the BBC was essentially the same system that had been in place at the ABC during Newman's tenure. One of his first moves was to disband the BBC's Children's Department, making the Drama Department responsible for children's drama programmes. He divided Drama up into three separate departments - Plays, Series and Serials - each with its own Head who would exercise control and be answerable to the Head of Drama. The roles of producer and director were separated with producers given individual responsibility for specific programmes.

The BBC's Script Department, whose job it was to create and find scripts to give to the directors, was abolished by Newman, who believed that every producer should have his or her own story editor. The editors who had worked for the department were assigned to the producers and the head of the Script Department, Donald Wilson, was appointed as the first Head of Serials.

In March 1963 the BBC Chief of Programmes Donald Baverstock told Newman that a new Saturday evening serial was required to fill the slot between the sports programme Grandstand and the pop music show Juke Box Jury. Newman decided he needed a programme which would bridge the states of mind of sports fans and the teenage pop music audience, but which would also appeal to children. Among the ideas he considered for this slot was one about two pupils in a boarding school but he rejected this, as he did not think it would appeal to the adult sports fans. Science fiction however had been a lifelong interest of his and after considering many options, he chose take this direction. The responsibility for coming up with a science fiction series was then passed to Donald Wilson.

Wilson presented Newman with a report compiled by his script department staff (including C.E. Webber), which contained several format variations including a time machine theme that Newman favoured. It was Newman who insisted on adding a young teenager to the suggested line up of a youngish hero and heroine, and devised a frail and grumpy old man called the Doctor in place of the 'Maturer Man, 35-40' character which appeared in the proposal. History does not record who came up with show's title, although Rex Tucker, who served briefly as the show's caretaker producer in mid-1963 maintains that the name 'Doctor Who' came from Sydney Newman.

Script Department writer C.E. Webber prepared a format document in early May which after input from both Newman and Wilson was produced in a revised form, credited to all three men and dated 16 May 1963, which Newman submitted to Donald Baverstock with a memo stating that "If things go reasonably well and the right facilities can be made to work, we will have an outstanding winner." 3

Perhaps Newman's boldest -and most fruitful - move in participating in establishing Doctor Who was to appoint a very unlikely candidate as its first producer. Newman's first choice, experienced producer/director Don Taylor, turned down the offer and Shaun Sutton - then a BBC director and later appointed Head of Serials by Newman - recalls also being offered the job. Newman eventually approached Verity Lambert, a twenty-eight year old woman who had worked as his production assistant on Armchair Theatre. Newman encountered resistance from traditional-minded colleagues at the BBC over his appointment of Lambert - partially because she was a woman, because she was much younger than most other BBC producers and because she was from outside the BBC - but mostly because she had no producing or directing experience. Newman however defended his choice; in his view she had a fresh outlook and wasn't afraid to speak her mind, and it was these qualities which convinced Newman that she was exactly right for the position: "I remember Verity as being bright and, to use the phrase, full of piss and vinegar! She was gutsy and she used to fight and argue with me, even though she was not at a very high level as a production assistant." 4

Following Lambert's appointment, Newman took more of a back seat role in the development of the series but continued to offer advice and feedback. In later years he expressed annoyance at the production team's decision to make Susan the Doctor's granddaughter, feeling that this was an unnecessarily conservative response to the concept of a young girl living with an old man. "I've never forgiven Verity for that! I wanted one character with whom my children's audience could identify and who was a stranger to Doctor Who, but somehow it turned out that Doctor Who was her grandfather. And I never wanted that - ever!" 5 Although Newman did not intercede to change this, he did insist on the pilot episode being re-recorded before transmission.

Newman was initially completely against the idea of what he labelled 'bug-eyed monsters' appearing in Doctor Who, insisting that the stories set on other worlds should be firmly rooted in scientific fact. He very famously had a row with Lambert when he first learned of the Daleks, seeing them as exactly the kind of monsters he wanted to avoid using in Doctor Who. Lambert defended her use of the Daleks, and Newman was of course soon forced to admit that he was wrong when the Daleks proved to be a major hit with the public, turning the series into an instant success. "Of course, the Daleks took off and captured everybody's imagination. Some of the best things I have ever done are the things I never wanted to do. It's true! It's worked out that way." 6 In saying this Newman might have been mindful of his objection to the casting of Honor Blackman in The Avengers on which occasion public opinion had also soon proved him wrong.

As Head of Drama, Newman had overall responsibility for hundreds of programmes each year and after the series began had nothing to do with the day-to-day production of Doctor Who. He did however keep a eye on the series, and around August 1966 he once more briefly took a more active involvement in the series - albeit briefly - with the development of Patrick Troughton's Doctor; an unprecedented change of identity for the lead character, seen as crucial to the series' survival. Shaun Sutton, whom by this time was Head of Serials, recalls that Newman was not pleased with the choice of Troughton for the new Doctor and was talked around to the idea. It was Newman who put forward the idea of a 'cosmic hobo', which was seized on by Troughton. Newman was also called upon to pass judgement on the various test fittings for the new Doctor's costume, and consequently his 'cosmic hobo' concept was reflected in Troughton's on screen appearance.

Another cult series that Newman helped originate was Adam Adamant Lives! which was about the exploits of a gentleman-adventurer who is frozen in ice in 1902 and reawakened in 1966 where he continues to fight crime in a very unfamiliar society. Newman credited moral values campaigner Mary Whitehouse with providing the inspiration for the series. He perceived Whitehouse as having the mind of a Victorian and this led him to wonder how a person from that era would react in the liberated 1960s. Newman originally tried to acquire the rights to the detective Sexton Blake to use as the central character, but when this wasn't possible he thought up the name Adam Adamant. Verity Lambert produced the series after she left Doctor Who, although Newman wasn't entirely satisfied with her realisation of his ideas and cancelled the show after two seasons. "I gave it to Verity to produce because she wanted a change from doing Doctor Who. But she could never quite get this Victorian mentality to contrast with the swinging Sixties... Verity worked out my ideas on Doctor Who but she didn't quite manage it on Adam Adamant Lives!" 7

One of the most memorable series created under Newman's tenure at the BBC was the 26-part dramatisation of The Forsyte Saga, which was produced by Donald Wilson and screened in 1967. The BBC2 series drew a massive worldwide audience and won a number of prestigious awards. Newman was also responsible for setting up The Wednesday Play series that followed in the groundbreaking style of Armchair Theatre. The series began in 1964 and showcased writing talent including Dennis Potter, David Mercer, Fay Weldon and John Hopkins.

Newman's five-year contract with the BBC came up for renewal at the end of 1967 and although the BBC were keen to keep him on as Head of Drama, he was again looking for fresh challenges, and took up an offer to move into the British feature film industry as Head of Production for the Associated British Picture Corporation at Elstree Studios. Unfortunately for Newman, the British film industry was entering a decline, and although he worked on several proposals during 1968, nothing was produced and in early 1969 the company was taken over by EMI. By the end of June that year Newman was made redundant.

Although the BBC apparently offered Newman an executive producer position following his redundancy, he returned to Canada in 1970 where he became Special Adviser to the Canadian Radio-Television Commission and then joined the National Film Board once again, this time as Chief Commissioner. In 1975 he was made Special Adviser on Film to the Secretary of State for Canada, and after two years he retired but still served as a consultant to the Canadian Film Development Corporation.

The death of his wife Betty in 1981 prompted Newman to return to England to revive his career in British television. He worked for Channel 4 setting up a Benjamin Britten opera and developing a six-hour mini-series called Bloomsbury: Private Passion, Public Good. In 1986 he briefly renewed his association with Doctor Who when BBC1 Controller Michael Grade asked Newman to come up with ideas for revamping the series. Newman drafted a proposal and suggested that he should be taken on as executive producer of Doctor Who and his name added to the end credits. Although Grade and Newman met to discuss these ideas, nothing came of the proposal. 8 Newman was quite open in his dislike of the direction 'his' show had taken. "Frankly, I think the series is a bit of a bore. The Doctor has become pretty infallible. He's too damn intelligent and too damn smart." 9

Sydney Newman spent his last years living in Toronto back in his native Canada. He died 31 October 1997 aged 80, two weeks after suffering a heart attack.


1 Interview by Tim Collins & Gary Levy. DW Bulletin, Winter-Spring Special 1987, p.30
2 Quoted in The Ultimate Avengers, p.16
3 Quoted in Doctor Who: The Handbook - The First Doctor, p.183
4 DW Bulletin, Winter-Spring Special 1987, p.15
5 Interview by David Auger & Stephen James Walker, Doctor Who Magazine No.141, October 1988, p.14
6 Doctor Who Magazine No.141, p.14
7 Doctor Who Magazine No.141, p.16
8 Sydney Newman's proposal is reproduced in Doctor Who - The Eighties, p.93-94.
9 Interviewed by David Caruba. Creating Doctor Who, Starlog No.116, March 1987, p.64


Auger, David & Walker, Stephen James, 'Back to Basics', Doctor Who Magazine No.141, October 1988
Caruba, David, 'Creating Doctor Who', Starlog No.116, March 1987
Collins, Tim & Levy, Gary, 'The Sydney Newman Interview', DW Bulletin, Winter-Spring Special 1987
Hearn, Marcus, 'The Dawn of Knowledge' Doctor Who Magazine No.207, 22 December 1993
- 'A cross between Genghis Khan and a pussy cat', Doctor Who Magazine No.260, 14 January 1998
Howe, David J; Stammers, Mark & Walker, Stephen James, Doctor Who - The Sixties, Virgin 1992
- Doctor Who: The Handbook - The First Doctor, Virgin 1994
- Doctor Who - The Eighties, Virgin 1996
- Doctor Who: The Handbook - The Second Doctor, Virgin 1997
Pixley, Andrew, 'In Memoriam: Sydney Newman 1917-1997', TV Zone No.98, January 1998
Rogers, Dave, The Ultimate Avengers, Boxtree 1995
Vahimagi, Tise, British Television: An Illustrated Guide, Oxford 1996

Thanks to Bevan Lewis and Jon Preddle for reference material and advice.

This item appeared in TSV 53 (March 1998).