Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Newman, Sydney (1917-1997)

Producer, Director, Executive

Main image of Newman, Sydney (1917-1997)

Sydney Newman (b. Sydney Cecil Newman, Toronto, Canada, 1917. d. Toronto, Canada, 1997) earned his reputation as the pace-setter of British television drama by employing virtuoso directors, innovative young writers and by devoting the greater part of his output to ground-breaking new plays reflecting the realities of life in postwar Britain. It was from this artistic high of the 'golden age' of British TV drama (this 'agitational contemporaneity', as Newman coined it) that a new generation of TV playwrights emerged.

Educated at Ogden Public School and the Central Technical School, Toronto, he studied painting, stage craft, industrial and interior design. In the late 1930s, as a commercial artist, he designed posters for cinema and theatre in Toronto. Rather ambitiously, he went in 1938 to Hollywood, where the Walt Disney company, impressed by his graphic work, offered him a job. Unfortunately, he could not get a work permit and returned to Canada, where, in 1941, he joined the National Film Board of Canada as an assistant film editor.

He soon attracted the attention of John Grierson, the distinguished founder and head of the Film Board, who promoted him to editor and director of Armed Forces training films and wartime information shorts.In 1944 he was made executive producer of the renowned Canada Carries On series of films (1940-1959), created initially to outline the country's war efforts. Later he became executive producer of all Canadian government cinema films, including shorts, newsreels, films for children and travelogues.

From 1949 to 1950, Newman was assigned to NBC-TV in New York to research and compile a report to the Canadian government on American television techniques, especially in drama, documentary and outside broadcasting. In 1952, when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation started its television service (CBC-TV), Newman was appointed supervising director of features, documentaries and outside broadcasts (which included the first TV transmissions of National Hockey League games and the first Canadian football Grey Cup game).

He was named Supervisor of Drama and Producer in 1954 and became responsible for the early anthology series CBC Television Theatre/Ford Television Theatre (1952-61), General Motors Theatre (1953-56), On Camera (1955-58) and the magazine-style outside broadcasts of Graphic (1956-57).

It was during this period that Newman encouraged new writers to work for television and formed a stable of young directors, such as Alvin Rakoff, William (Ted) Kotcheff, Silvio Narizzano and Charles Jarrott, to foster television drama in the budding Canadian industry.

The most successful and encouraging work to rise from this period was Arthur Hailey's 'Flight into Danger' (tx. 20/8/1956) for General Motors Theatre, a gripping suspense story about the crew and passengers on an in-flight plane who are stricken with food poisoning, later filmed as Zero Hour (US, d. Hall Bartlett, 1957). The CBC play was bought for showing on BBC TV (tx. 25/9/1956) and came to the attention of Howard Thomas, managing director of the London weekend franchise holder, ABC Television. In 1958 Thomas invited Newman to join the company and produce a new Saturday night series of thrillers for the fledgling ITV network.

He had barely arrived when ABC's drama supervisor, Dennis Vance, was moved 'upstairs' and Thomas offered the post to Newman. He took the offer with the proviso that he could personally produce a new Sunday night slot of serious, contemporary plays and bring over his proven Canadian team to direct them.

He was put in charge of the drama series Armchair Theatre (ITV, 1956-69; 1970-74) and his first productions began in late 1958. Throughout 1959, with such works as Ted Willis's 'Hot Summer Night' (tx. 1/2/1959) and Tad Mosel's 'Ernie Barger is 50' (tx. 8/2/1959), followed by Mordecai Richler's 'The Trouble with Benny' (tx. 12/4/1959), Ray Rigby's 'Wedding Day' (tx. 31/5/1959) and Angus Wilson's 'After the Show' (tx. 20/9/1959), Newman personally produced 48 individual plays for live broadcast. By the end of the year Armchair Theatre was enjoying an average audience of 12 million viewers.

In his approach to the type of plays to be written and produced for Armchair Theatre, Newman had been inspired by seeing John Osborne's invigorating angry-young-man drama Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court in 1957.

Eschewing British television's formula for heavy literary adaptations and presentations of theatre-derived plays, he brought his fascination with social life in late 1950s Britain to television by seeking out new, young writers to create works reflecting the gritty realism of working-class Britain.

This 'kitchen sink' or 'dustbin' drama, as it was dubbed by astonished and alarmed critics, brought about a significant change in British television drama. Newman's concerns, incidentally, were equally with the viewer: he recognised that television was a mass medium that needed to appeal across the social strata, from porters to professors. His policy, therefore, was to present plays about contemporary life in a contemporary idiom.

He brought in writer-producer Peter Luke as Armchair Theatre's first story editor. Luke turned up such writers as Bill Naughton, Clive Exton, Alun Owen and Harold Pinter to create plays about, as Newman put it, "the sort of people who are going to watch them; plays dealing with working class life in which the characters are something other than comic foils".

Through Armchair Theatre, he brought to the home screen Alun Owen's 'No Trams to Lime Street' (tx. 18/10/1959) and 'Lena, O My Lena' (tx. 25/9/1960), Harold Pinter's 'A Night Out' (tx. 24/4/1960), and, in an unusual turn, a musical comedy with a social slant, 'His Polyvinyl Girl' (tx. 22/10/1961), written by the young American author-composer team of Steven Vinaver and Carl Davis.

However, the ITA banned one 1959 play, 'Three On a Gas Ring', based on a play by David Osborn, on the grounds that it may encourage immorality; the story told of a single girl who became pregnant and decided to bring up the child herself.

For the summer months of the television season, Newman created Armchair Mystery Theatre (ITV, 1960-65), launching the strand with actor-writer Leslie Sands' 'Eye Witness' (tx. 5/6/1960), a suitably offbeat play featuring a situation in which the only witness to a crime is paralysed and unable to speak. The play starred Diana Wynyard and was introduced (as were all the other early Mystery Theatre presentations) by the enigmatic Donald Pleasence. Later came another efficient thriller, James Mitchell's spy drama 'Flight from Treason' (tx. 10/7/1960), featuring John Gregson as an artful Intelligence officer investigating espionage at a secret defence plant, which may well have been a trial episode for a possible series.

Although his main concern was always Armchair Theatre, Newman oversaw production on the children's serials Counter-Attack (ITV, 1960), about the German occupation of the Channel Islands during the Second World War, from scripts by Peter Ling, and the science fiction six-parter Target Luna (ITV, 1960), written by Malcolm Hulke and Eric Paice.

Produced for the Sunday afternoon slot, Target Luna placed youngsters rather than the usual adult heroes in the central roles in a comic-book yarn about an experimental flight around the moon. The similar, serialised Pathfinders in Space (ITV, 1960), Pathfinders to Mars (ITV, 1960-61) and Pathfinders to Venus (ITV, 1961) followed.

Continuing the science fiction theme, Newman's Armchair Theatre play 'Dumb Martian' (tx. 24/6/1962), from a story by John Wyndham, introduced the anthology series Out of This World (ITV, 1962), hosted by Boris Karloff (although this latter series was produced by Leonard White).

With ABC's drive to capture Saturday-night viewers, Newman was asked to devise a series of action-adventure thrillers for the network. He helped create the short-lived crime drama Police Surgeon (ITV, 1960), featuring Ian Hendry as the title character in an unremarkable series of routine police casebooks.

When the 12-episode run of Police Surgeon came to an end, Newman was instrumental in developing The Avengers (ITV, 1961-69), returning Hendry to co-star with Patrick Macnee as a couple of trench-coated crime-busters; Hendry's character was, again, a doctor-cum-amateur sleuth and Macnee appeared as a rather shadowy government agent called John Steed.

When the first series was brought to an abrupt halt due to an actors' strike, the second, almost a year later, introduced a new format (and a more prominent espionage theme) and partnered Macnee's Steed character with the first of several independent-minded female associates: inaugurated by Honor Blackman's emancipated, leather-clad Cathy Gale.

For The Avengers, Newman (via series producer Leonard White) brought in writers adept at the television thriller genre (Brian Clemens, Richard Harris, Dennis Spooner, James Mitchell, among others) and gave them free rein to exercise their action-adventure imagination. The long-running success of this high-spirited series remains as a testimony to Newman's (and ABC's) original concept of providing stylish escapism for the Saturday-night viewing audience.

When Sir Hugh (Carleton) Greene became Director-General of the BBC in 1960, he was anxious from the start to revitalise BBC TV's drama output by bringing in Newman (by this time the most influential person in British television drama) to supervise programming.

In early 1962 Newman was approached by Kenneth Adam, BBC's Director of Television, and was offered the post of Head of Television Drama. Newman joined the BBC in December 1962 (at a salary reported to be £3,000 a year less than he was earning with ABC) and immediately set about revamping the Drama Department into three separate units: Plays, Series and Serials.

One of his first projects for the BBC was to revive the late Saturday afternoon period - between the sports coverage of Grandstand (BBC, 1958-) and the pop music of Juke Box Jury (BBC, 1959-67; 1979; 1989-90) - which had been the traditional slot for the children's classic serial. For this Newman created Doctor Who (BBC, 1963-89; 2005- ), brought onboard his former production assistant at ABC, Verity Lambert, as producer and moved the children's classic series to Sunday afternoon.

After only five episodes, and with the introduction of Terry Nation's 'The Daleks' (tx. December 1963-February 1964), the science fiction serial was an overwhelming success, thrilling the nation's children as well as captivating their parents.

In a similar science-fantasy vein, some three years later, Newman was responsible for developing the adventures of Adam Adamant Lives! (BBC, 1966-67), also produced by Lambert. The series, featuring the crime-fighting exploits of an Edwardian adventurer who was resurrected in mid 1960s London, was seen by some as a BBC countermeasure to the highly popular ITV series The Avengers.

According to BBC documentation, Newman's idea originally was to produce a series about the British detective character of Sexton Blake, a sort of two-fisted imitation of Sherlock Holmes first published in 1893. At the last minute, however, the Blake project was dropped (due to a failure of agreement with the publishers) and the would-be series' basic format was developed into Adam Adamant Lives!.

In September 1963 Newman had launched First Night (BBC, 1963-64), a series of new plays written especially for television. Alun Owen's 'The Strain' (tx. 22/9/1963) and Simon Raven's 'The Scapegoat' (tx. 15/2/1964) were among the notable dramas produced until, in spring 1964, a BBC Audience Research Department special bulletin reported that the corporation's stock was at its lowest for eight years and perceived the main cause as 'the relative unpopularity of the plays'.

In an attempt to reverse the trend the BBC decided to pursue comedies, thrillers and whodunnits; writers and producers were instructed to supply plays with strong storylines and more plays with narrators explaining the action were planned.

The result, in a somewhat modified form, was The Wednesday Play (BBC, 1964-70). Newman, an astute administrator, trusted The Wednesday Play to producers James MacTaggart and, later, Tony Garnett.

The MacTaggart-produced plays introduced to television new voices with realistic and often controversial attitudes towards television drama: among them, Dennis Potter, John Hopkins, David Mercer, Jeremy Sandford, David Rudkin, Jim Allen, Tony Parker, Nell Dunn, and Colin Welland.

The Wednesday Play began to explore the borderline between fiction and documentary, with directors like Ken Loach, Jack Gold and others extending the scope of drama by taking it out into the streets, away from the traditional studio artificiality.

Making an even greater impact than he had with Armchair Theatre, five of Newman's best-remembered plays under The Wednesday Play banner were Dennis Potter's 'Stand Up, Nigel Barton' (tx. 8/12/1965) and 'Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton' (tx. 15/12/1965), taking a wry look at politics and political machinery; 'Up the Junction' (tx. 3/11/1965), Nell Dunn's vivid observation of working-class life in a south London community; 'Cathy Come Home' (tx. 16/11/1966), Jeremy Sandford's disturbing story (or 'semi-documentary', as Radio Times described it) about the inadequacy of welfare and housing facilities in Britain; and David Mercer's moving study of a schizophrenic young woman, 'In Two Minds' (tx. 1/3/1967).

Under Newman's guidance, BBC2's Opera 625 presentation of the Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (tx. 28/2/1965), a parable about the city where all pleasures are within reach, was received to great acclaim. It was director Philip Saville's first job in opera and, in keeping a wide view of the scenes and the people in them, he delivered an extraordinary television production.

The decision to revive Z Cars (BBC, 1962-65; 1967-78) as a twice-weekly serial in March 1967, after the pioneering police series had moved some of its characters on to Softly, Softly (BBC, 1966-70), was an exciting one for Newman, reflecting his obvious affinity with the programme's unerring eye for visual authenticity and its shrewd ear for language.

One of Newman's last acts before leaving the BBC in 1967 was giving the go-ahead (albeit reluctantly) to producer Donald Wilson's adaptation of the epic John Galsworthy novel, The Forsyte Saga (BBC, 1967). Newman, apparently, had little confidence in the project when Wilson first proposed it in 1965 and it was considered for only 13 episodes. However, a 26-part budget (of close to £300,000) was approved and the serial was produced and shown worldwide to an enthusiastic audience.

During his five years with BBC Television, Newman was responsible for over 730 dramas a year, from half-hour to nearly three hours long, as well as for studio opera. Under his general supervision were 26 producers and 73 directors, with an annual budget in the region of £10,000,000.

At the end of his BBC contract in November 1967, Newman decided to move into feature production - during a (American-backed) boom in British cinema production - but after a brief and disappointing 18 months with Associated British Productions as executive producer he returned to Canada in 1970.

He became a Special Advisor to the Chairman and Director of the Broadcast Programmes Branch of the Canadian Radio and Television Commission (August 1970). Between 1970 and 1975 he was the Canadian Government Film Commissioner and Chairman of The National Film Board of Canada, following this with a period as the Special Advisor on Film to the Secretary of State (Canada). He was the Chief Creative Consultant to the Canadian Film Development Corporation from 1978 to 1984, where he had been Director from his return to Canada until 1975. He was also Director of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) from 1972 to 1975.

Newman returned to London in the mid 1980s in a vain attempt to persuade Channel 4 to take a series about the school of writers and aesthetes known as the Bloomsbury Group. He did, however, produce with Thames Television Benjamin Britten's children's opera The Little Sweep (tx. 25/12/1989) for Channel 4.

In a celebration of British television's past, producer (and former TV archivist) Paul Madden presented in 1987 a documentary introduction to a six-programme revaluation of surviving Armchair Theatre productions, And Now For Your Sunday Night Dramatic Entertainment... (C4, tx. 8/2/1987), in which Newman was interviewed and honoured as the principal architect of this formative and exciting period in British TV history.

Newman's multiple awards and memberships include: The Ohio State Award for Religious Drama, 1956; Liberty Award for the Best Drama Series, 1957; The Desmond Davis Award (BSFTA), 1967; Fellow of the Society of Film and Television Arts, 1968; Society of Film and Television Arts award, 1968; Presidents Award, 1969; Zeta Award (The Writers Guild of Great Britain), 1970; Canadian Motion Picture Pioneers Special Award, 1973; Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers Special Recognition Award, 1975.

He was a Fellow of the Royal Television Society, 1990; Fellow of The Society of Film and Television Producers of Great Britain; Fellow of the Royal Society of Art, GB; Honorary Life Member, Directors Guild of Canada; member of The New Western Film and Television Foundation; member of BAFTA; member of The Royal Television Society. He was made a Knight of Mark Twain (USA) and an Officer of the Order of Canada (the second highest civilian award in Canada) in 1981.

Tise Vahimagi

More information


From the BFI's filmographic database

Related media

Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Adam Adamant Lives! (1966-67)Adam Adamant Lives! (1966-67)

Very 'swinging' 60s swashbuckler starring the dashing Gerald Harper

Thumbnail image of Avengers, The (1961-69)Avengers, The (1961-69)

Ultra-stylish '60s spy drama that all but invented cult TV

Thumbnail image of Cathy Come Home (1966)Cathy Come Home (1966)

Classic Ken Loach-directed drama about homelessness

Thumbnail image of Night Out, A (1960)Night Out, A (1960)

Harold Pinter's first television play, about an oppressed 'mother's boy'

Thumbnail image of Police Surgeon (1960)Police Surgeon (1960)

Early ITV drama that served as a dry run for The Avengers

Thumbnail image of Up the Junction (1965)Up the Junction (1965)

Ken Loach's powerful drama about young women in Clapham

Thumbnail image of Z Cars (1962-78)Z Cars (1962-78)

Groundbreaking cop drama introducing new grit and realism

Related collections

Thumbnail image of Armchair Theatre (1956-74)Armchair Theatre (1956-74)

Hugely influential ITV anthology drama series

Thumbnail image of Doctor Who (1963-89, 2005-)Doctor Who (1963-89, 2005-)

Recently regenerated time-travelling adventures

Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Owen, Alun (1925-1994)Owen, Alun (1925-1994)

Actor, Screenwriter, Playwright

Thumbnail image of Pinter, Harold (1930-2008)Pinter, Harold (1930-2008)

Writer, Director, Actor