Sydney Newman: The Man Who Made Who

PrintE-mail Written by Graeme Burk

100 years ago this April 1st, Sydney Newman was born. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was an ebullient Canadian émigré that worked as a television executive in Britain, first for independent network ABC as a producer, then for the BBC as Head of Drama.

And you honestly wouldn’t have got what we know as television in the 1960s in Britain, or indeed even British television today, without Sydney Newman.

The obvious examples of this are The Avengers and Doctor Who. Newman created both. True to form for Newman, both were created to solve practical dilemmas he was facing at the time. 

The Avengers came about, according to Newman’s upcoming memoir (finally being published by ECW Press this autumn) when Newman was looking for a vehicle for Ian Hendry, star of Police Surgeon – a series Newman felt didn’t quite take off with the public. According to Newman, “One day we were having a chat in my office. Ian was striding back and forth as we talked when suddenly, still talking, he leaped into the air and did two back flips in rapid succession.” He asked Hendry how he learned to do that and it turned out that during his National Service, Hendry had been in a motorcycle team that did stunts.  “So, to exploit Hendry’s qualities I decided to create a new, one hour series — a fun series that would get away from the realism of Police Surgeon … an action-adventure-thriller. I felt that I could capitalise on the current literary popularity of the John le Carré/Ian Fleming spy genre. Why not, in fact, make fun of the whole spy-nonsense? I was getting somewhere.”

Newman worked this idea into the story of a GP (played by Hendry) whose fiancée is murdered and subsequently becomes embroiled in intrigue with a spy played by Patrick Macnee, a man who only a few months earlier, had come back to the UK after a lengthy stint acting in the US and Canada – having brought some shirts from Canada to Newman as a favour to him! And The Avengers was born.


In similar fashion, Doctor Who came into being to solve a scheduling problem. As Newman writes in his memoir, “My programme bosses, BBC1 Chief Donald Baverstock and Stuart Hood, his boss, were unhappy about the Saturday afternoon drop in ratings because of the traditional placement of [the drama department’s] children’s classic serials. They first said, rightly, that something with broader appeal was needed to follow Peter Dimmock’s highly popular Saturday sports coverage and to more strongly lead into the teenage hit, Juke Box Jury, which followed our serial. Dramatisations of novels such as David Copperfield and Nicholas Nickleby could just as easily be moved to Sunday, but only if drama could devise a new, high-rating serial to bridge the two popular programmes. How could I refuse?”

Newman thought this “Saturday serial” could be a science fiction idea, turned it over to a collection of boffins organised by Newman’s Head of Serials, Donald Wilson, who came up with ideas that Newman found unsatisfactory. Newman says he then came up with the idea of Doctor Who: a 700-ish-year-old man who travels in a police box that’s really a time machine who encounters some school teachers and a student before being whisked off into adventures to painlessly teach science and history.

With both The Avengers and Doctor Who, Sydney Newman created the initial idea. Newman freely credited that what the two series became were down to the producers of those programmes, who often made choices over Newman’s objections. On The Avengers, when Ian Hendry left, Newman and producer Leonard White decided to change tack and have Patrick Macnee’s spook John Steed partnered with a woman, someone widowed by the recent Mau Mau uprisings for added “ripped from the headlines” appeal. Leonard White wanted Honor Blackman, a choice Newman hated. Newman ordered White to cast Nyree Dawn Porter. White cast Blackman … and White was ultimately right. The Avengers grew in popularity with Blackman’s casting and it ultimately became the series we now know it to be. 

Likewise, with Doctor Who, Newman had appointed his old production secretary at ABC, Verity Lambert, to be producer. He wanted Lambert, the first woman producer at the BBC, to act as a “new broom” within the drama department. One of her first decisions was to go forward with Terry Nation’s scripts about the survivors of a world devastated by a nuclear war, the antagonists of which were mutants who travelled inside a robotic machine. The Daleks. Newman hated everything about the creatures and felt they were Bug-Eyed Monsters that deviated from the educational approach he wanted. But, as with Leonard White and the casting of Honor Blackman, Newman reluctantly agreed to let the Daleks be in Doctor Who. And, with the Daleks, the series became an overnight sensation.

But that’s the genius of Sydney Newman right there. He came up with the stunning initial ideas, and had definite opinions on how those ideas should be developed but he also hired the right people to implement those ideas and knew when to stand back and let others make their creative choices. In other words, he created the environment for things like Doctor Who and The Avengers to thrive.

What genre fans often forget is that what Newman did for Doctor Who and The Avengers he did for all the programmes he worked on or supervised during the 1960s. Moreover, Newman had a canny sense of the zeitgeist in broadcasting at the time. The first series he produced at the ABC, Armchair Theatre, became a sensation because he saw the future of drama not in stodgily continuing the traditions of Shaw and Coward in the drawing rooms of the upper-middle classes, but in plays like John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, set among the working classes. Newman eschewed the artsy and staid approach to television plays and instead looked toward plays about the working classes, speaking in their own regional accents – a remarkable innovation in an era of Received Pronunciation. Alongside series produced by Newman’s competitors like Coronation Street and Z-Cars, it ushered in a trend of edgy drama with a desire for realism.

In the mid-1960s, Newman fought BBC1 controller Donald Baverstock to prevent Baverstock from pushing aside the series of anthology plays Newman had developed with others. The series, First Night, hadn’t found its footing and wasn’t creating the same magic that Armchair Theatre had done for the ABC. Newman felt he had found the right person to take over – a producer, writer and director named James MacTaggart, who had produced a series Newman liked called Diary of a Young Man (which was directed by a very young Ken Loach). Newman also felt Baverstock was attempting to do away with single plays in favour of series and serials, which Newman disagreed with as an approach. Baverstock scoffed at Newman’s accusations, and at Newman’s assertions that MacTaggart could turn things around.


And yet, that’s just what happened. The anthology series was rechristened The Wednesday Play and MacTaggart and his script editor (and later sometime producer) Tony Garnett exploded television drama as we know it in Britain in the 1960s. It gave us the first television by Dennis Potter and a stunning series of plays directed by Ken Loach, including what are now considered the pinnacle of British television drama of the 1960s Up the Junction and Cathy Come Home – ironically, the latter drama was a play that Newman had passed on doing three years previously! And Newman was right: ten million viewers watched.

The influence of this revolution in television drama was felt for decades afterwards. The dramas of Jimmy McGovern, Russell T Davies, Jed Mercurio, Abi Morgan and others all have that mix of thoughtful writing and what Sydney Newman termed “agitational contemporaneity”: a willingness to use drama forcefully to explore contemporary issues.

Sydney Newman created the environment that made television drama in Britain in the 1960s among its best. He came up with the idea for two of its most popular and enduring dramas in British television.  “For ten brief but glorious years, Sydney Newman, who has died aged eighty, was the most important impresario in Britain,” W. Stephen Gilbert wrote in his obituary of Newman in the Guardian. “The period that is now conventionally referred to as the ‘golden age’ of television drama was presided over by this feisty Canadian who blagged his way into the industry and dared to challenge its conventions and new voices.”

100 years after his birth, those new voices are still being heard, thanks to this “crude colonial” who changed television.

Head of Drama: the Memoir of Sydney Newman, which includes the previously unpublished memoirs of Sydney Newman and a biographical essay on his career in television and film, will be published by ECW Press in September.

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