Sydney Newman and the beginnings of TV's Doctor Who

Who knew? One legacy of the time Canadian Sydney Newman spent at the BBC would be "a silly program" that was still in production more than half a century later - Doctor Who.

Who knew? A Canadian drama head at the BBC was present at the birth of the Time Lord, in 1963

Sydney Newman is seen in a 1956 photo. He was the producer of the CBC-TV series Graphic. (CBC Still Image Library)

It was Nov. 23, 1963 when the first episode of Doctor Who, titled "An Unearthly Child," aired on the BBC. 

The show was the brainchild of writer Cecil Webber, and a seemingly unlikely contributor — Canadian Sydney Newman, who had begun his television broadcast career at the CBC in the 1950s.

Newman, who had left Canada in 1958 for a highly successful four-year stint as producer of Armchair Theatre for ABC Television in Britain, had by 1962 moved over to the BBC. It was there he became the head of its drama group.

In 1966, fellow Canadian William Ronald met the bowtie-attired Newman in his BBC office, and asked him at length about his career, including his role at the BBC.

Sydney Newman, then head of the BBC's drama group, in Nov. 1966. (CBC Archives/The Umbrella)

"Can you describe your job here a little bit to me?" asked Ronald, when interviewing Newman on CBC-TV's The Umbrella.

Newman explained his role as head of the drama group. 

"I run the drama, all the drama work the BBC does in television," Newman said, breaking down the group into three sections — "one department does the serials, one department does series, one department does single plays, the latter department also does opera."

Sydney Newman is seen seated at his desk at the BBC with toy Daleks, in 1966. (CBC Archives/The Umbrella)

He then elaborated on the material produced by the various groups — The Forsyte Saga, a "gritty, realistic" police series called Softly, Softly, and Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd. 

'A silly program like Doctor Who'

And tucked into that list is the mention of a "silly program like Doctor Who," which Newman described as "a fictional sci-fi kind of thing for family viewing," casually picking up and displaying a toy Dalek from his desk.

"This thing comes from it," he said, referring to the Dalek.

Sydney Newman, BBC drama head, on the serial Doctor Who

3 years ago
Duration 1:11
Sydney Newman, Head of Drama Group at the BBC, talks about the type of programming he oversees, including Doctor Who.

The program also launched the career of its producer, Verity Lambert. 

She had worked at ABC Television with Newman, and he invited her to produce the new children's series, thereby becoming the youngest and only female producer in the drama group at the time. 

The BBC website biography of Lambert describes her as a champion of the popular Dalek characters, in spite of Newman's "no bug eyed monsters" request when the show was being developed.

The sci-fi program, originally created simply to fill a void in the late-afternoon Saturday programming, is still in production more than a half-century later, with the recent introduction — for the first time— of a female doctor, played by Jodie Whittaker.

Sydney Newman, in an undated photo. Newman was a producer with the CBC for the launch of television and left to work in England in 1958. He returned to the CBC in 1970. (CBC Still Image Library)

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