We’ve all seen Brian Cox’s performance as Newman in Mark Gatiss’ dramatisation of the early years of Doctor Who in An Adventure in Space and Time, the larger than life television mogul with his “Pop! Pop! Pop!” catchphrase, but how accurate was that portrayal? This is a question Danes’ book will attempt to answer, concentrating on Newman’s Canadian childhood and the love of art and film which brought the young designer and stills photographer into the world of television; “Sydney learned that the right balance between action and realism is a good way of grabbing people’s attention,” says Danes, and it was this approach that famously led to his instruction to Verity Lambert that Doctor Who should not include any Bug-Eyed Monsters, an approach that had served Newman well with his successful Pathfinders series for the commercial channel between 1960 and 1961.
Or perhaps it was the circumstance of Newman’s birth that engendered in him a no-nonsense approach to getting what he wanted – and what he wanted was invariably synonymous with what he thought was best for the world. In a passage from the book, “he emerged from the warm body of his mother feet first. The legs had to be pushed in again to reverse the as yet unborn baby. Then the doctor barely suppressed a curse as he faced yet more trouble – the right arm was somehow entangled under the chin. With a shrug and a murmured ‘What the hell?’, the doctor fumbled around and deliberately broke the baby’s arm and, a moment later, the boy emerged and began bawling lustily.”
If Newman’s beginnings were troubled, they certainly didn’t prevent him from taking on the world on his own terms.
His other credits include the creation of The Avengers for ABC Television in 1961 – another series which, much as Doctor Who would do, quickly outgrew Newman’s input to become something rather different than what he had had in mind – the development of Armchair Theatre (also at ABC), and the establishment of the BBC’s equivalent The Wednesday Play in 1964. The Wednesday Play would run for six years, and as well as providing early opportunities for the likes of Dennis Potter, would be the strand in which both Up the Junction, Nell Dunn’s play about back-street abortion, and Jeremy Sandford’s legendary Cathy Come Home would be broadcast, both directed by a young Ken Loach. “I am proud,” Sydney Newman wrote, “that I played some part in the recognition that the working man was a fit subject for drama, and not just a comic foil in a play on middle-class manners.”
“At that time, I found this country to be somewhat class-ridden,” Newman went on to say in 1988, about his arrival in Britain. “The only legitimate theatre was of the ‘anyone for tennis’ variety, which on the whole gave a condescending view of working-class people. Television dramas were usually adaptations of stage plays and invariably about the upper classes. I said, ‘Damn the upper classes: they don’t even own televisions!’”
“He had spent many hours working in cinemas collecting tickets, and he studied the audiences so he knew what got a reaction,” adds Danes. “Making them react emotionally on some level got them coming back to watch next week, and this worked with drama as well as documentary if the balance was right.” The Wednesday Play was the first of Newman’s creations which would draw the attention of campaigner Mary Whitehouse… John Caughie, professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of Glasgow, said of its predecessor at the ABC Armchair Theatre, “Newman’s insistence that the series would use only original material written for television made Armchair Theatre a decisive moment in the history of British television drama.”
Although Doctor Who fans will know of Newman’s part in the commissioning of the BBC reports into science fiction in 1962 that eventually led to the series’ creation – the second of which included Newman’s four stipulations that would inform the development of the programme: “They do not include Bug-Eyed Monsters”; “The central characters are never Tin Robots”; “They do not require large and elaborate science fiction type settings”; and “They do provide an opportunity for genuine characterisation” – and the background and concept notes which followed in 1963, the man is still essentially a bit of a mystery to many, beyond his association with what is now regarded as cult British television (an association which included him being rather more involved than might have been expected, in the casting of William Hartnell’s replacement as Doctor Who in 1966).
Danes’ book will tell the story of how Newman was appointed at the age of twenty to the National Film Board of Canada by John Grierson (the man who coined the term documentary), where Newman learned and built his trade on training films and the propaganda series Canada Carries On, will relate the success of Newman’s Flight into Danger (written by Arthur Hailey) and of how its broadcast on British television was potentially the impetus for Newman’s appointment at the ABC, and will cover the early episodes of the Newman produced The Canadian Howdy Doody Show which featured the character of Mr X, a puppet who travelled through time and space in his “Whatsis Box” teaching children about history, and who was later removed from the show after parents complained he was too scary for their children. A case of repetition breeding success, perhaps.
In January 1970, after a two-year appointment with the Associated British Picture Corporation during which time none of his projects ever made it to screen, Sydney Newman left the UK to return to Canada, describing his experience in the British film industry as “a futile waste.” The Sunday Times said of his departure, “British television will never be the same again.” Newman was appointed the Chairman of the Film Board of Canada and continued to work in his native country until the 1980s, whereupon after being awarded the Order of Canada he once again tried his hand at production in the UK, albeit unsuccessfully. By the 1990s, Newman was back in Canada and in 1997 he died of a heart attack in Toronto, the city of his birth.
Newman’s legacy in British television alone is comparable with the changes wrought in American movies after the arrival of Marlon Brando and the Method approach to acting; Doctor Who might be his best remembered success, but Newman’s philosophy wasn’t so very far away from that of John Reith, the man who had established the BBC as an independent public broadcaster decades before. Reith’s purpose for the BBC was to “inform, educate and entertain”, and Sydney Newman was the man who wrested this credo out of its middle-class complacency and thrust it firmly into the powers of those that watched it. It’s no exaggeration to say that without Sydney Newman, British television would have languished in a state of resisted evolution for considerably longer than it did. Newman didn’t simply create Doctor Who, he created the environment within which a programme like Doctor Who could exist and flourish; he was both its parent and its midwife, and his gift to a nation that wasn’t even his own is considerable.
The Man Who Thought Outside the Box: The Life and Legacy of Doctor Who Creator Sydney Newman by Ryan Danes, which will include brand new interviews with a number of important figures in Newman’s story, is published on April 22nd and is available to pre-order now at http://www.digitalentropy.co.uk.