A major influence on the BBC and independent television in Britain in the 1960s, as well as on CBC and the National Film Board in Canada, Sydney Newman acted as head of drama at a key period in the history of television. For the first time, his comprehensive memoirs written in the years before his death in 1997 are being made public.
Born to a poor Jewish family in the tenements of Queen Street in Toronto, Newman’s artistic talent got him a job at the NFB under John Grierson. He then became one of the first producers at CBC TV before heading overseas to the U.K. where he revitalized drama programming. Harold Pinter and Alun Owen were playwrights whom Newman nurtured, and their contemporary, socially conscious plays were successful, both artistically and commercially. At the BBC, overseeing a staff of 400, he developed a science fiction show that flourishes to this day: Doctor Who.
Providing further context to Newman’s memoir is an in-depth biographical essay by Graeme Burk, which positions Newman’s legacy in the history of television, and an afterword by one of Sydney’s daughters, Deirdre Newman.
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Excerpts from Head of Drama: The Memoir of Sydney Newman
On Hockey Night in Canada . . .
In charge of all shows coming from locations away from the studios, I discovered soon enough that my main steady grind was not going to be what I knew and cared deeply about documentary but sporting events. To me, it was reducing my potential and felt like limiting Baryshnikov to Morris dancing.
Growing up as one of those kids who’d rather strike a lino-cut print than a home run, sports were never my bag either as spectator or perspiring participant. The fast action and danger of Grand Prix racing excited me as much as when Joe Louis knocked out Max Schmeling, but my interest of the latter had probably more to do with the Brown Bomber being a black man from neighbouring Detroit vanquishing Hitler’s master-race darling. My stint in New York gave me some sense of boxing and allowed me to see my first football games, admiring its orchestrated team plays, but without a clue as to how it was done.
To my shame, equally ignorant was I about Canada’s national sport, ice hockey. Hockey to me was like hearing symphonic music sounds, not pictures. For year after year, millions of Canadians stayed home on Saturday nights, ears strained to their radios for Hockey Night in Canada! and the thrill of Foster Hewitt’s “He shoots, he scor-r-es!” His emotionally charged comments electrified me as well, but did so as music only. The pictures it evoked in my mind were non-representational Kandinsky.
And that was about it as I faced the prospect of covering sports for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Hockey was to start in October, and the other national mania in November the Grey Cup game in which the best Western football team would play the best Eastern club in Toronto. Canadians might forgive television if its drama or variety shows were not up to scratch, but hockey . . . if that was badly done, the CBC would be slaughtered and I would be the first to go. How the hell did I get myself into this position?
Well, I had made successful films about cooking when I didn’t know how to cook, on weather when I didn’t know a mackerel sky from a cumulonimbus. I figured a bit of research plus a camera team that knew hockey well and a couple of dummy runs would be enough for me. How innocent I was! I did not figure on the weight, the big dough, the crushing importance the mere covering of a sport would have on its sponsor, Imperial Oil of Canada; the owners of the club; Maple Leaf Gardens; the advertising agency, MacLaren’s, and Foster Hewitt himself, who was as nervous as a cat anticipating a bath.
I asked that I be allowed to shoot a trial hockey match so that I could figure out the best camera positions. It was granted. Trouble was, crowding me in the temporary control room were dozens of experts representing the principals, the senior CBC engineers, and my crew incessantly yakking into my earphones at me to do this and do that. The thoughtless bastards wouldn’t give me a chance to think. I got my crew to shut up but the others . . . not a square eyeball among them, incapable of seeing the game in anything more than a series of long shots reducing the fastest game in the world into ants scurrying on white ice.
I prevented myself from blowing my stack out of fear that I might fail, and also fear of the sponsor, the ad agency and Conn Smythe, major owner of the team and Maple Leaf Gardens. No politician, not even the prime minister, had frightened me in the past. Here, in the crowded control room it was money, the smell of big bucks that choked me. No chance they were going to allow me to lose them one penny. Get a hold of yourself, Newman!
Two other factors complicated matters: the same cameras that shot the game had to be used for the commercials, which had to be done live, as well as what was called The Hot-Stove League, in which three sports commentators discussed the game between periods. One final complication was that Foster Hewitt had to be seen from time to time, but he refused to leave his tiny announcer’s box way up in the rafters of the Gardens.
All was solved by building a studio for the live action and cameras up in the rafters about thirty feet away from Foster Hewitt, necessitating my having to use a 200mm telephoto lens to get shots of him.
With no replay facility as there is today, everything had to be done right the first time. Except for the fact that the shots of Foster did not do him justice, the coverage of the game and the program as a whole came off well.
I used camera one to follow the puck, including two or three players; a second covered the action on half the rink and general reaction shots of hockey fans; the third camera stayed on the goal or goalie, off-air, in the event the attacking team fired the puck at it. This camera was also used to get tight shots of a player going into and returning to the ice from the penalty box. Normally, a director tells the technical supervisor which camera to switch to. It was too slow for this fast game, so, after a lot of palaver between the engineering and program departments it was agreed that this “program” function would be performed by the switcher, subject to the producer overriding him. This was the beginning of George Retzlaff’s program career, leading to his becoming supervising producer of sports years later.
One injunction laid down by the sponsor and the hockey league was that I was to avoid showing any fights on the rink or any player injured, which was deemed bad for the game.
I produced Hockey Night in Canada successfully for the whole of the first two seasons, but if you were to ask me today what icing the puck means, I wouldn’t be able to tell you.
On Doctor Who . . .
Back at the Beeb, work for me was all-consuming, deeply engrossing and full of challenges for anyone willing to flex his creative muscles. Very simply, I found the Beeb able to stomach failure. It was in its blood that making programs was a creative process, and therefore each program was a gamble. By careful planning, the risks were reduced to a minimum, but a gamble it was. Had the BBC thought otherwise, I wouldn’t have remained. As head honcho of TV drama and opera, I ran my shop that way and somehow it worked out that I could rarely do wrong. By that, I mean I laid fewer rotten eggs than others in commercial TV who were in the same position I was.
Of course there were plenty of failures, but they were mostly decent ones, honourably inspired.
In the early days when Jimmy MacTaggart was cutting his teeth as producer of The Wednesday Play, he laid a most odorous egg. The intention of the play, “Fable,” was to attack racial prejudice against blacks. Jimmy liked the author’s intentions and the seemingly clever way of getting the story across: An imaginary UK would be peopled by black people, and an immigrant family of whites would try to settle there. When they do, they are discriminated against by the Brits. The play was well-executed, but the critics slated it. God knows what effect it had on many in the audience. The Wednesday Play team seemed to have produced a play contrary to its intentions: according to the bad reviews, it proved that blacks were inherently against white people!
But against the odd stinker, who can forget “Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton,” “Up the Junction” and dozens more that ran week after week, freshly and lively, entertainingly making the UK real to British viewers.
To cajole a reluctant and successful director, MacTaggart, to become producer of The Wednesday Play, called for some mighty fine arguments on my part. He accepted only when I agreed that he could go back to directing after two years as producer.
Get a good man whom you trust to do a job, as MacTaggart was, and he can’t help but gather good people around him. New writers, directors and actors by the score emerged under his direct guidance. He found Tony Garnett, then a successful actor, and made him his story editor. After a year and a half, MacTaggart begged off, and I appointed Tony to produce a number of episodes. It was he who was responsible, with Ken Loach, for what was the most memorable play of the ’60s, “Cathy Come Home.”
Tony in turn recommended to me that a totally unknown Kenith Trodd become his story editor. Somewhat doubtful, but trusting Tony’s judgement, I agreed. Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective was just one of the many fine productions Trodd later produced.
Early on in joining the BBC, an opportunity presented itself for me to have some fun by creating something daffy for kids. Daffier than The Avengers.
My program bosses, BBC 1 Chief Donald Baverstock and Stuart Hood, his boss, were unhappy about the Saturday afternoon drop in ratings because of the traditional placement of my group’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. Dramatizations 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 programs.
How could I refuse?
I asked Donald Wilson if his people could come up with something that would suit children, something with latent educational values that would be exciting enough to hold the sports loving audience and build viewers for the lovers of Juke Box Jury. Nothing came up that I felt confident with.
Being an old sci-fi fan, I had always been intrigued by H.G. Wells’s time machine. It occurred to me that such a device might make the basis for a children’s serial if it had good characters in it who were in a constant state of jeopardy.
The machine could transport characters into the past so that they would be present, say, when Caesar landed in England. What better way to make history real? Space travel being hot news in 1963, wouldn’t it be exciting to also send our audience into outer space to experience what it’s like to be weightless? And what was in the planets beyond ours? And in the future? Or what if our characters in the machine were on earth, but reduced to the size of ants?
Excited, I dreamed on and on, and finally got the idea down in a memorandum, which I sent to Donald Wilson to consider.
In it, I described it as above, but fleshed it out with descriptions of the characters and some strictures. The time-space ship was to be a small, commonplace thing that did not look like a vehicle but was gigantic inside. It was to be operated by a refugee from outer space who had fled in terror from a dreaded enemy who had captured his home planet. He was to be 742 years old, somewhat senile but with flashes of superior intelligence. He would be crotchety and impatient (like some grandfathers), angry with himself because, while he desperately wants to go home, he can’t. He just doesn’t know how to run the blasted time-space ship.
Accidentally, he lands in a junkyard in London. While wandering, lost in a typical London pea-soup fog, he meets two schoolteachers shepherding home a girl student. They decide to help the lost, old duffer who cannot even remember his name. He leads them to his “ship” and invites them in. After they humour him by entering the small thing, they discover that it is vast inside. He tries to demonstrate how the ship works, presses the wrong buttons, and the time-space ship takes off to heaven only knows where, back and forward in time and space.
The memo also contained some strict injunctions. Historical journeys would have to be based on fact and outer space stories be accurate as to the most up-to-date scientific knowledge we possessed at that time. And no bug-eyed monsters! B.E.M.’s were for schlock sci-fi and not for us! As well, each serialized story was to end with the ship landing in an unknown place and be rarely longer than four episodes, each ending with a strong cliffhanger.
Donald Wilson cautiously thought the idea not bad. A lot would depend on the producer we appointed, he thought. No one spectacularly right came to mind.
The fates were with me. I recalled a very bright, no-nonsense young woman who had worked as a production secretary for me at ABC. She was the kind of person who could disagree with her director (or me, for that matter) without ever being disagreeable, and would often be found to be right. And so, I gambled on a hunch. I phoned Verity Lambert and asked her if she would like to become a producer. After a joyous cry of “Yes!” we met. I gave her a copy of my memo describing the serial.
“Sydney, it’s good!” And then, “Yes, I think I can do it.”
It not being my practice to ram something down the throat of an unwilling department head, the next hurdle would be Donald Wilson accepting her. Again, with caution, he accepted her into his department.
Admin matters completed, I gave Verity a copy of the booklet describing my work at ABC with Cambridge University Group studying children’s age of perception, to better understand the young. I demanded that she religiously read The New Scientist magazine each week for story ideas. Later, she told me that she didn’t understood ninety percent of what she’d read in it. I didn’t tell her that I didn’t understand it either.
I also told her to use young directors, too young to be fixed in their ways. She already knew that that was why I picked her.
She took over as if she had been a producer for years, but she wasn’t fully accepted by her equals for some months. I received only a whiff of the rumours. Who was she? A former, lowly personal secretary and, to boot, one from Independent Television; no doubt H.D.G. Tel’s mistress, inserted into the BBC. (Every executive in the BBC went by initials. Mine H.D.G. Tel stood for head, drama group, television.) I’m not protesting too much when I say the closest Verity and I came physically was in the standard showbiz kiss kiss, hug hug accompanying a hello or congrats on a good show.
Over the months of its development I kept an eye on the series development, not, I hasten to add, as the head drama honcho, but as its deviser. Donald, as her immediate boss, gave Verity strong support, one of them by appointing Mervyn Pinfield, an electronic boffin, as her associate producer to assist in the technical wizardry the series would demand. This led her to ask for and get the series’ startling opening titles created by Pinfield and Bernard Lodge and the unforgettable howling musical sounds based on Ron Grainer’s music as it was arranged by Delia Derbyshire in the BBC’s innovating Radiophonic Workshop.
Believe it or not, Donald and I weren’t sure of the look of the title sequence but, as I had learned at ABC, what Verity wants is usually right. Donald also provided her with an experienced story editor, David Whitaker, who added a lot to Verity’s own script instincts. And during the run-up period, somehow the ship became a police callbox, called the TARDIS, and because the old man didn’t know his own name, what better to call the series than Doctor Who?
What genius of hers it was to recommend to me that she cast that acidic sergeant of The Army Game, William Hartnell, to play the Doctor. As his foils, who were desperately wanting to get back to their Earth, Verity picked as the teachers William Russell and lovely Jacqueline Hill, both better actors than they ever had the chance to demonstrate in the series and lovely, not-so-young-as-she-looked Carole Ann Ford, who screamed like a dream.
Waris Hussein, a novice director, did the first serial. The pilot production was crude as hell, and I thought Hartnell was too acidic positively unlikeable. Minor script changes were made, and Verity made sure that Hartnell softened his crotchetiness. Hussein got four cameras for the live production. At a cost of £2,500 per episode, Doctor Who was launched.
The first four-episode serial got off to a reasonably good start. The characters were intriguingly interesting and the magic of the small police callbox, with its astonishing, huge interior and the trip back in time to the Neanderthal age captured everyone’s imagination. From then on, I was ready to have a long-arm relationship to it it was only one show of the dozens I was weekly responsible for. It was clear that we had a winner and I was pleased. The old dog still had it in him!
After that first serial, Betty and I and our three girls turned the TV set on the following Saturday to see what goodies Verity would bring us and millions more.
To my horror, there were the Daleks! Bloody hell! B.E.Ms!
When the episode finished, I immediately phoned Verity and expressed my displeasure. I accused her of disobeying my orders: She had cheapened the series by introducing the Daleks, which were nothing but Bug-Eyed Monsters. She was to appear in my office Monday morning, and I hung up.
When she turned up, I started to rip her to pieces. Verity desperately tried to stem my anger by repeating, “They are not bug-eyed monsters. They are” But I was unstoppable.
Finally, when I ran out of breath, Verity finished her sentence. “Sydney, they are not B.E.M.s. Inside is a human. A brain, really. They are so advanced in time that their bodies have become weakened; the casings around them are needed to replace their atrophied arms and legs and contain their huge brains!”
Did she dream up that excuse or did she believe it? I’ll never know. One thing I do know, though. It was the Daleks that made the series a whopping success.
After the first year, in examining audience figures, it was apparent that stories in the future the sci-fi stuff were more popular than the historical, back-in-time adventures. But Verity was as concerned as I was with the easy, educational values of the latter, and so they continued, regardless of the occasional, minor drop in ratings “hammocked” by the outer space stories.
The Doctor and his earthlings witnessed Nero fiddling while Rome burned, got involved in the French Revolution, travelled with Marco Polo and even avoided getting killed in a cowboy shootout in Tucson, all alternating with stories in the future.
Doctor Who, on at 5:15 p.m., successfully sustained the sports rating while lifting Juke Box Jury audience figures and the BBC captured Saturday night.
Despite its great popularity, there were complaints that some episodes frightened the heebie-jeebies out of children. At one of the Wednesday weekly program review meetings this was raised by a concerned department head, and, to my surprise, a few others agreed with her.
Thank God, Huw Wheldon was controller of programs at the time and boomed out in his best theatrical Welsh style, “Daleks frighten children? Nonsense! It’s good for them, anyway. My offspring, two and four years of age, after seeing Doctor Who, put waste-paper baskets on their heads and rushed about shouting ‘Exterminate! Exterminate!’ They love it!”
No more than I would have anticipated the success of The Avengers could I have guessed that Doctor Who would become a cult program, seen in dozens of countries, with fan clubs, books and magazines dedicated to it and the sale of endless T-shirts, Dalek toys in all sizes and gee-gaws of all sorts merchandized. At the time of writing, twenty-four years later, the damn thing is still going strong.
Table of ContentsForeword by Ted Kotcheff // vii
Head of Drama by Sydney Newman
CHAPTER 1 His Unknown Queen Street // 3
CHAPTER 2 His Dreaded Three R’s // 12
CHAPTER 3 His Sinful Saturdays // 20
CHAPTER 4 My Father of the Doorstep // 32
CHAPTER 5 Nudes, Made Easy // 41
CHAPTER 6 Greetings, Comrade // 54
CHAPTER 7 Love and Other Discoveries // 62
CHAPTER 8 Hello, Hollywood! // 70
CHAPTER 9 Home, At Last // 89
CHAPTER 10 On Board the Film Board // 102
CHAPTER 11 Love + Art = NFB // 134
CHAPTER 12 TV Friend or Foe? // 159
CHAPTER 13 Television, Here I Come! // 187
CHAPTER 14 Among Jarvis Street Virgins // 206
CHAPTER 15 The Play’s the Thing . . . ? // 232
CHAPTER 16 Land of Hope and Glory // 276
CHAPTER 17 ABC, The Avengers Until . . . ! // 323
CHAPTER 18 That Was the BBC that Was // 350
CHAPTER 19 In the Sprocket Hole // 391
CHAPTER 20 His Life Laid Out . . . Why? // 416
From the Saturday Serial, to the Wednesday Play, to the October Crisis, and Beyond by Graeme Burk
CHAPTER 1 November 23, 1962 // 426
CHAPTER 2 An Outsider at the BBC // 429
CHAPTER 3 The Saturday Serial // 433
CHAPTER 4 “Mr. Who?” // 440
CHAPTER 5 Point of Crisis // 460
CHAPTER 6 “Agitational Contemporaneity” // 471
CHAPTER 7 Return of the Prodigal // 483
CHAPTER 8 “Le Boss Unilingue” // 488
CHAPTER 9 One Piece of Advice in Ten Being Taken // 507
CHAPTER 10 Yesterday’s Man // 514
CHAPTER 11 Marked by Letdowns // 518
CHAPTER 12 “Who created Dr. Who?” // 523
CHAPTER 13 Unfulfilled // 536
Notes on Sources // 541
Afterword by Deirdre Newman // 553
Acknowledgements // 560
Index // 561