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Historicist: The Adventures of Sydney Newman

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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Sketch of Sydney Newman. Detail from cover of Cinema Canada, August-September 1974.

To Sydney Newman, television drama was all about appealing to the common man. Described in an obituary as “brash and charmingly outrageous,” Newman “shrewdly cast himself as the low-brow who punctures the pretensions of high-minded rivals.” In a film and television career that included major posts in Canada and Great Britain, the Toronto native used his hustling, straight-talking, frank approach to production to bring viewers down-to-earth dramas, time-travelling aliens, morale boosts during wartime, and even a hockey game or two.


Suffer Little Children, directed by Sydney Newman, 1945. National Film Board.

Born in 1917, the son of a Russian immigrant shoe-store owner, Newman studied commercial and fine arts at Central Tech. He worked as a commercial artist before joining the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) in 1941, where he was initially a film splicer and photographer. By the end of World War II, Newman directed installments of Canada Carries On, a series of morale-boosting shorts developed by the NFB to instruct the public on the government’s war strategy. He worked closely with NFB Commissioner John Grierson, who often joked “Newman, you’ve got a B-picture mentality” because of Newman’s developing belief in making the content of films relate to the concerns of average viewers.
Newman moved to CBC in 1952 as it prepared to launch its television service. His early duties included directing sportscasts, among them the first televised Grey Cup and the first hockey game to be shown from Maple Leaf Gardens (twenty years later, he expressed disappointment that Hockey Night in Canada still used the same camera angles). He soon transferred to the drama department and rose to become supervising producer, where his prime responsibilities included programming the showcase for new plays, General Motors Theatre. Of the productions made under his watch, the best known is Arthur Hailey’s Flight Into Danger, whose story about a flight beset by food poisoning was later adapted for the films Zero Hour (seriously) and Airplane! (not so seriously).


The Hard Knock, an episode of Armchair Theatre which originally aired on July 8, 1962. Produced by Sydney Newman and directed by fellow Toronto native Ted Kotcheff.

Flight Into Danger was among twenty-six CBC plays that were bought by the BBC. Newman’s name garnered attention in British television circles, which led to his hiring by Associated British Corporation (ABC) as head of drama in 1958. “I started off on the wrong foot,” he noted in a 1960 interview. “I was a little too frank, and a little stupid when I first came over…and told them what was wrong with British television. I went on with the lousiest set of plays ever seen and got a terrific lambasting from the press. Everyone wondered how long I’d last.” He was soon dubbed “the abominable showman” and “the crude colonial” by those unimpressed with his candid manner, sometimes described as “brash North American Jewish,” that echoed old Hollywood movie moguls.

He soon won over the critics with Armchair Theatre, a series devoted to contemporary dramas that dealt with social and psychological issues that “the ordinary guy” could relate to. “Before this, the British working class never got into plays except as comedy relief. Treat them seriously and you can find strong drama in their everyday lives. Do Oedipus Rex in Notting Hill Gate and you’ve got something very powerful.” His “kitchen sink” approach worked, as Armchair Theatre regularly placed in the top ten rated shows by the end of 1959.


Opening and closing titles for The Avengers, 1961.

Among the other series he developed for ABC was The Avengers, which began as a straightforward crime series in 1961 revolving around a doctor avenging his wife’s murder and the mysterious man who assisted with the cases. Newman was long gone by the Steed and Mrs. Peel era of the show.

In December 1962, Newman assumed the head of drama post at the BBC, importing his populist philosophies to the chagrin of the organization’s establishment types. As the Globe and Mail’s Dennis Braithwaite noted in a 1963 profile, “meeting Sydney Newman, a short, shaggy, comfortable man who wears a bow tie, wrinkled jacket and slacks and suede shoes, it is hard to believe that he is head of drama for the august British Broadcasting Corporation. The explanation, of course, is that the BBC is not and hasn’t been for years the stuffy maiden-auntish institution pictured in British movie comedies.” Through series like The Wednesday Play, he offered an early showcase for the likes of writers Harold Pinter and Dennis Potter and director Ken Loach.


Opening titles for Doctor Who, 1963.

One programming slot that Newman saw as problematic was the late Saturday afternoon ratings graveyard between sporting events and Juke Box Jury. He looked to replace a tired series of classic literature adapted for children and picked up on reports circulating around the BBC that investigated the possibility of a youth-focused science fiction program. Newman reviewed proposals from writer C.E. Webber, green-lighting some elements (a time travel machine), rejecting others (one of the lead character’s secrets was that he wanted to destroy the future, to which Newman simply wrote “nuts!” on the proposal sheet—Newman saw the lead as “a senile old man…who had escaped from a distant planet in a spaceship”). Thus was born Doctor Who, which made its first journey through time in November 1963.

While on a summer visit with his wife’s family in Ottawa in 1967, rumours spread about a meeting with Secretary of State Judy LaMarsh. Though Newman claimed he was visiting an old friend, it was suspected that he had been offered the position of general manager of CBC. He joked to a reporter that “I am, of course, the most experienced broadcaster in the world, untainted by recent events in Canada.” Feelings of homesickness developed and, after a disastrous stint as a producer from a British film company, he returned to Canada in January 1970 to assume an advisory position with the CRTC. Concentrating on television programming issues, Newman quickly found himself battling private broadcasters, especially CTV, over the new Canadian content regulations—they felt he had been out of the country too long and had little grasp of the financial aspects of the industry, while he felt that they had nobody but themselves to blame for the new rules:

The hell of it is that regulations should even be necessary to engender creativity. If the broadcasters had any brains they’d know that the better programs they make the more money they’d make, but they’ve got so fat and lazy that their idea of programming is to buy the cheapest and lousiest American shows they can get.

In a March 1970 interview with the Toronto Star, Newman, who felt that “all the fun and spirit of adventure“ in 1950s Canadian television had vanished, described his vision for Canadian broadcasting:

I want to see it come alive again…broadcasting can make or break our future as a country. But we don’t have to let nationalism run away with us. All Canadian content really means is programming that is pertinent to us as Canadians, that helps explain us to ourselves, that expresses or reflects the thoughts of the public that it can’t articulate itself. And I don’t buy the argument of [CTV President Murray Chercover] that it’s going to cost a lot more money. Some of the best movies being made today are low-budget movies and they also happen to be the ones that are raking in the profits. What it is going to cost is a hell of a lot more effort and imagination and guts and enterprise. If we haven’t got these or aren’t willing to use them, we might as well throw in the towel right now and let the Americans take over. But I happen to think we do have them and that’s why I took this job. If the broadcasters were doing their own jobs the way they should be we wouldn’t need a commission or me to tell them how to do it…We can’t tell the broadcasters how to spend their money. All we can do is prod them in the right direction.


On Est Au Coton, directed by Denys Arcand, 1970. National Film Board.

Newman’s post at the CRTC lasted until August 1970, when he was named chairman of the Board of the NFB and federal film commissioner. With typical brashness, he told NFB staff that their films were boring because “you don’t love the audience enough.” He reduced staff levels, improved the NFB’s relationship with the CBC by securing prime time slots for productions, and switched all production to colour. When asked how he felt after his first year on board, he said “it’s the best job I ever had. It’s absolutely great. I love it…there is the thought that one is doing something for one’s country—although some people will probably think that sounds corny.”

One of the most controversial aspects of Newman’s tenure at the NFB was his relationship with Quebec-based filmmakers, especially those with separatist leanings. One flash point was Denys Arcand’s documentary on labour practices in the Quebec textile industry, On Est au Coton, which Newman had locked away. His issue with the film was that “there are many factual errors either through bad research or overzealous attempts to show the evils of capitalism. The general tone is a slashing attack on the English-controlled textile industry. I tell people, ‘if you want to make a smear film, make sure you present invincible arguments.’ This one didn’t.” He felt that it was a difficult balance between meeting the needs of a government agency and the artistic freedom of the filmmakers, and found reaching compromises with the Quebec artists difficult. Arcand felt that the film had been buried due to a combination of heavy pressure from the textile industry and Newman’s inability to understand Quebec culture (it didn’t help that Newman was unilingual). Bootleg copies spread among separatist student groups for several years until the film was finally released in 1976.

By that point, Newman was gone from the NFB, as his contract was not renewed after it expired in 1975. He spent the rest of his life working as a consultant on both sides of the Atlantic, including a stint at the Canadian Film Development Corporation and offering proposals for a revamp of Doctor Who. Two weeks after suffering a heart attack, Newman died at Wellesley Hospital in October 1997. Reminiscing in the Globe and Mail, Martin Knelman summed up Newman’s final years. “With justification, he felt his talent was wasted and his achievement unacknowledged. In the end, he himself had become the protagonist in a drama of the downtrodden. It was a story of paradise lost.”

Additional material from the November 28, 1963, October 2, 1971, and November 25, 1997 editions of the Globe and Mail; the January 23, 1960, January 21, 1961, April 18, 1962, August 2, 1967, March 14, 1970, September 4, 1971, and July 28, 1979 editions of the Toronto Star; and Doctor Who: Origins (BBC, 2006).

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