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Newman, G.F. (1946-)

writer, producer

Main image of Newman, G.F. (1946-)

The criminal justice system and the health service have preoccupied G.F. Newman throughout his career as scriptwriter and novelist, from his first two series for television, Law and Order (BBC, 1978) and The Nation's Health (Channel 4, 1983), to the more recent Judge John Deed (BBC, 2001-07) and New Street Law (BBC, 2006-07). His passionate views on the legal system, democracy, vegetarianism (he has long been a strict vegan) and alternative forms of health care have informed all his work. While the radicalism of his controversial early work may have become less marked in recent years, understandable perhaps given the increasing conservatism in British television since the 1980s, his anti-establishment views have been remarkably consistent in a career spanning four decades.

Gordon Frank Newman was born in Kent on 22 May 1946. He is fond of recounting a childhood story about the time when, walking home with his shirt stuffed with pears, he was cuffed round the ear by a policeman who accused him of stealing. The blow left Newman deaf in his right ear and perhaps sowed the seeds of a lifelong distrust of the police. Attending acting school at the age of 16 he learnt about Stanislavski, but really wanted to be a star. His first script was written, at the age of 18, for the ITV police series No Hiding Place (1959-67), and his first novel, Sir, You Bastard (1970) was published two years later, its title pronouncing a sceptical attitude to authority figures that has remained constant throughout his career.

While trying to break into TV in the 1960s Newman attended a Z Cars (BBC, 1962-78) script conference, but his proposal that the upright Sgt Watt should be seen taking a bribe was rejected. Several years and a number of novels later, Newman finally got his break with the four-part Law and Order. Produced by Tony Garnett and directed in documentary style by Les Blair, the series examined the judicial system from four points of view: detective, criminal, lawyer, and prisoner. Newman showed corruption to be endemic and the series proved highly controversial, attacked for its 'bias' against the police and the judicial system, with questions asked in parliament.

'Billy' (Play for Today, BBC, tx.13/11/1979), based on his 1972 novel of the same name and directed by Charles Stewart, confirmed Newman's talent for exposing the failings of social institutions with a bleak account of an abused child who is taken into care. In 1983 he turned his attention to the National Health Service in another Les Blair-directed series, The Nation's Health, the episode titles - 'Acute', 'Decline' 'Chronic' and 'Collapse' - illustrating his concern to show a health service in crisis, where doctors do more harm than good.

The collaboration with Blair continued with a feature film, Number One (1984), about the exploitation of a snooker player by a professional promoter, but it was another five years before his next dramas were screened. 'Here Is the News' (Screen Two, BBC, tx.5/3/1989) followed an investigative journalist whose attempt to expose industrial and governmental subterfuge is suppressed by his newspaper. The journalist Duncan Campbell, believing the character to be based on him, took out a libel case which cost the BBC £100,000. At the insistence of the BBC, '1996' (Screen One, BBC, tx.17/9/1989) was rewritten and relocated to a future Wales, because of concerns about its parallels with the John Stalker 'shoot to kill' investigation and other real-life controversies in Northern Ireland.

Continuing the examination of contemporary politics, For the Greater Good (BBC, 1991), directed by Danny Boyle, used each of its three episodes to focus on the involvement of a different political figure in an attempt by a Conservative government to radically reform the prison service. Newman's pessimistic perspective on politics and social institutions was also evident in his Screen One drama 'Out of the Blue' (BBC, tx.27/9/1992), which suggested little change in British policing since the 1970s, except that now the more corrupt coppers were not averse to incinerating villains in the local crematorium, a depiction that demonstrated that Newman had lost none of his ability to provoke.

The Healer (BBC, 1994) saw him return to the health service, this time unashamedly advocating the embrace of alternative approaches to health, epitomised in the figure of a doctor who has the power to heal by touch. The two-part drama was directed by Mike Hodges. Apart from the 10-minute BBC2 film 'Woe to the Hunter' (10 x 10, tx.5/12/1996), written and directed by Newman, about a farmer who is haunted by previous kills when a shooting party arrives for a day in the country, it was seven years before Newman was able to get another series produced as the prospects for radical drama receded in the 1990s.

When Judge John Deed made its debut in 2001, with Martin Shaw as a liberal judge and spokesman for Newman's anti-establishment views, it had an entertaining gloss far removed from the stark realism of much of his previous work, even if the radical politics were still in evidence in the slightly unlikely figure of a high court judge. The change in style was a recognition on Newman's part of the importance of ratings if dramas were to get commissioned - that the series lasted seven years proved his success in adapting to the new climate. Another, similarly stylish legal drama, New Street Law, was less successful in ratings terms and was cancelled after two series.

With several projects in development, including a new version of Law and Order, Newman shows no sign of retiring. He is a rare example of a radical writer from the 1970s-80s still working in television with his principles more or less intact.

Lez Cooke

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Judge John Deed (2001-07)Judge John Deed (2001-07)

The life and trials of a radical high court judge

Thumbnail image of Nation's Health, The (1983)Nation's Health, The (1983)

Uncomfortably realistic depiction of the British medical profession

Thumbnail image of Nineteen96 (1989)Nineteen96 (1989)

Provocative drama charting a police investigation in a near-future Wales

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Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Blair, Les (1941-)Blair, Les (1941-)

Director, Producer, Writer