Canadians Who Changed the Face of British Film and Television
By Wyndham Wise
(July 3, 2020 – Toronto, ON) Two remarkable Canadians, Harry Saltzman (1915–94) and Sydney Newman (1917–97), changed the face of British film and television during a time of seismic cultural upheaval known as The Swinging Sixties. Saltzman, from Sherbrooke, Quebec, co-produced nine of the first films in the James Bond franchise and launched the careers of Sean Connery, Albert Finney and Michael Caine. Newman, from Toronto, launched The Avengers (the British series, not Marvel’s super group) and the long-running sci-fi series Doctor Who. Both men were part of a large and largely undocumented influx of creative Canadians that arrived in London in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
The gregarious Herschel (Harry) Saltzman landed in England with his family in the mid-1950s. Coming of age during The Great Depression, he literally ran away from home at 15 to join the circus. From such an auspicious beginning, he spent a lifetime in show business. Moving to pre-war France, he discovered he had an eye for picking theatrical talent and learned the ropes on the European vaudeville circuit. This took him to Hollywood and eventually he managed a travelling circus on the East Coast. At the start of the Second World War he signed up with the Royal Canadian Air Force and after the war he was back in Paris signing talent for film and the stage. He returned to America in the early 1950s, this time operating a profitable company that installed coin-operated Hobby Horses in department stores.
In England, he turned his considerable energy and promotional talents to producing theatre. Here his timing was prescient. It was pre-Swinging London and the theatre of the ‘angry young men’; a time of working class ‘kitchen sink’ dramas and films of the British New Cinema. He formed a production company with up-and-coming director Tony Richardson and playwright John Osborne. They produced the seminal Look Back in Anger in 1958 starring Richard Burton and Claire Bloom from the hit play by Osborne and directed by Richardson, The Entertainer (1960) starring Laurence Olivier, again from a play by Osborne and directed by Richardson, and Karl Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), which made Albert Finney a star in England before his international breakthrough three years later in Richardson’s Tom Jones.
Although critics hailed these films as a breath of fresh air blowing through the stuffy British cinema, they were only moderately successful at the box office and Saltzman was eager for a hit. He found it, when, in early 1961 he came across Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger, the seventh book featuring the suave British spy, and made a successful bid to buy the film rights to the character of Bond… James Bond. Leaving his partnership with Richardson and Osborne behind him, he was introduced to the American producer Albert R. Broccoli, who was also interested in the Fleming books. Saltzman wouldn’t sell, but given that he was still a neophyte film producer he sensibly formed a partnership with the more experienced Broccoli whose previous producing partner had been Irwin Allen. In 1962 they created a parent company Danjat (combing the first names of their wives) and Eon Productions to produce the films, starting with Dr. No in 1962. The title character was played by Canadian-born Joseph Wiseman. In an extraordinary moment of cultural synergy, Dr. No opened Friday, October 5 in London, the same day as “Love Me Do,” the first single by The Beatles, dropped.
Sean Connery was not United Artist’s first choice for the lead. The studio, which agreed to back the film when others turned it down, wanted a recognizable star for its investment and turned to Cary Grant, but he was judged too old and would only sign for one film. David Niven was considered next (he would later play Bond in the 1967 spoof Casino Royale), as was Roger Moore who had just begun his seven-year stint with The Saint. At the time he was considered too ‘pretty’ and would have to wait his turn to fill the Bond shoes. The producers settled on the rugged Connery, a former Scottish bodybuilder who only had a few movie credits to his name and was not a star. However, the savvy talent scout Saltzman saw a diamond in the rough, signed him to a five-picture deal and ordered a complete Savile Row makeover.
When the film was released, a star was born. Even though Dr. No was only a modest hit, it caused a sensation with its causal treatment of violence and indulgence in sex. The next installment in the series, From Russia with Love (1963), was a huge international hit, launching the longest-running series in movie history that is still going strong – six Bonds later – with the 25th film, No Time to Die, coming out later this year.
Not content with just one successful spy series, Saltzman, through a separate production company he owned, purchased the rights to Len Deighton’s Harry Palmer character. He then launched a second series staring Michael Caine as the unflappable spy, a sort of working class, downbeat version of Bond. The Ipcress File was not the hit Saltzman had hoped for and the reviews were mixed; however, he did go on to produce two more Palmer films starring Caine, Funeral in Berlin (1966) and The Billion Dollar Brain (1967).
Michael Caine was another roll of the dice by Saltzman that paid off big time. Toiling in British television for nearly a decade, Caine got his break playing against type as the posh Lt. Gonville Bromhead in Zulu (1964), a dramatic account of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift during the Boer War, still one of the most popular British movies ever made. Coming just one year before his breakout role in Alfie, The Ipcress File, directed by Canadian Sidney J. Furie, is now regarded as one of the most influential British films of the period. It’s not just the downbeat world the film portrays that contrasts notably with the glitz and international glamour of the Bond films. It’s Caine’s magnetic presence as the ultra cool Palmer that dominates every scene he’s in and remains fresh to this day. The story falls off towards the end, but Caine papers over the plot holes and delivers a performance worthy of comparison to the King of Movie Cool, Steve McQueen in Bullet.
In April 1966, Time magazine hailed “Swinging London” on its cover. It was a magical time for England when it was the centre of the fashion and music world. Mary Quaint and Twiggy ruled the fashion world with polka dots and mini skirts sold on Carnaby Street in Chelsea. The Beatles were on top of their game and had just released Revolver, now regarded as the best rock album of all time, and England won the World Cup, beating Germany 4–2 in overtime (the first and last time that would happen). In the middle of all this incredible national pride and boundary-breaking creative energy was a portly Canadian who, by simply being in the right place at the right time, helped make international box office stars out of three iconic Oscar-winning actors.
However impressive an accomplishment this might seem for any one producer, for pure cineastes this pales in comparison to his greatest gift to the canon of world cinema – coming to the rescue and saving Orson Welles’ Chimes of Midnight (1966). Welles had started the film a year before without securing final financing and had to stop production when he ran out of money (not an unusual situation for him). He turned to Saltzman for the funds to complete his masterpiece.
While Saltzman was taking a gamble with the always-unreliable Welles, he thought it worth the risk, and if completed, the film would at least make its money back. It barely did that when it was first released to mixed reviews, but over time it is now regarded as one of the finest Shakespearian adaptions on film. It was Welles’ personal favourite and hands down his best film since Citizen Kane. Chimes of Midnight combines story elements from Richard II, Henry IV Parts I and II, Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor with Welles in a towering central performance as Shakespeare’s greatest comic creation, the noble and tragic Sir John Falstaff.
Saltzman continued his partnership with Broccoli through to the Man with the Golden Gun (1974), the second Roger Moore film, then due to numerous financial difficulties sold his half in the franchise to United Artists in 1975. Always impeccable in his judgments regarding talent, Saltzman nearly made a huge misstep with the music for Moore’s first outing as the iconic spy. Paul McCartney had been commissioned to write a killer theme song to reboot series with a bang. Saltzman was set on hiring a powerful black vocalist such as Shirley Bassey, whom he had previously used to great effect for the Goldfinger and Diamonds Are Forever opening numbers. The Beatles’ producer George Martin, who was the middleman in this particular negotiation, told him in no uncertain terms either Paul sang the song or there would be no song. Needless to say, McCartney’s rousing To Live and Let Die is the most popular Bond theme song ever written and a staple in his live performances to this day.
Sidney Newman (née Nudelman) arrived in England in 1958 to start his new job as Head of Drama at the Associated British Corporation (ABC), which was part of the ITV Network and one of only a few independent broadcasters at the time. Prior to this Newman had tried to break into the film business in Canada and U.S. as a graphic artist. He was not entirely successful, however it did lead him to a job as an editor at the newly established National Film Board of Canada. Impressed by his producing and managerial skills, in 1943 John Grierson, the founder of the NFB, put Newman in charge of its flagship wartime series Canada Carries On. After the war, when Grierson left the Board and went south to work for American television, he invited Newman to join him in New York City. He spent a year at the NBC learning the ropes and reporting back to the Canadian government on American television techniques.
This led to a position at the fledging CBC-TV as Supervisor of Drama Production in 1954. He oversaw the live shows sponsored by GM, General Motors Theatre (1954–60), and one in particular, Arthur Hailey’s Flight into Danger, was sold to the BBC, the state-run broadcaster in the U.K., which is how Newman’s name came to the attention of the management at ABC. Flight into Danger was a major television hit on both sides of the Atlantic and provided the template for almost every airline disaster movie to come, including the brilliant 1980 satire Airplane!
Newman spent four years with ABC and during that time established himself as hard working, imaginative producer who oversaw 152 episodes of ABC’s flagship Sunday night drama, Armchair Theatre. Like his contemporary Saltzman, Newman had a taste for the contemporary working class ‘kitchen sink’ drama that was popular at the time and hired the likes of Harold Pinter and Alun Owen (who wrote the screenplay for The Beatles’ A Hard Days Night) to write original work for the anthology strand. In 1960 he developed the drama Police Surgeon with actor Ian Hendry that ran for a season but was not considered good enough to be renewed. The pair reworked the premise and came up with The Avengers, a series about the adventures of John Steed, a sophisticated, bowler-wearing, tightly-rolled-umbrella-carrying secret agent played by Hendry, who had a partner played by Patrick Macnee.
The first season was cut short due to a strike, at which point Hendry left for a career in film and Macnee took over the part of Steed and over the years his partners were Honor Blackman (later Pussy Galore in Goldfinger) and most famously, butt-kicking Diana Rigg in her tight-fitting leather outfits. The Avengers was one of the first British series to be sold to American prime time television. In total it ran for six seasons and is regard as one of greatest British cult hits of all time. It certainly attracted the attention of the BBC and in 1962 Newman was offered the job as Head of Drama. He accepted.
Seen as an outsider at the entrenched old-boy network, he was brought in to shake up ‘Aunty BBC’ and develop contemporary programs employing freelance writer-directors. He was immediately put to work overseeing production of The Wednesday Play, an anthology strand not unlike the Armchair Theatre. Launched in 1964, the series gained a reputation for presenting serious, thought-provoking social dramas and drew on the emerging talents of Dennis Potter (the future author of The Singing Detective wrote eight entries) and Kenneth Loach (who directed 10 entries). It is regarded as one of the most influential and popular programs to be produced by the BBC during the 1960s, and two entries, Peter Watkins’ The War Game, a powerful anti-war docudrama so controversial it was withdrawn before broadcast and later released as a theatrical film (it was finally showed on the BBC in 1985), and Cathy Come Home, Ken Loach’s drama about the homeless in contemporary England, are considered classics of British television.
Yet despite all the praise and accolades heaped on The Wednesday Play, what Sidney Newman will always be remember for is his creation of the Doctor Who series in 1963, one of the most successful and enduring sci-fi shows ever produced for television, pre-dating Star Trek by six years. The BBC was looking for something new to bridge the gap between its Saturday afternoon sports programing strand and an early evening pop-music show; in other words, something for the entire family.
Newman pitched the idea of an educational sci-fi show, something he had always wanted to do, and wrote the initial outline with BBC producer Donald Wilson, the series’ first showrunner, and co-creator C.E. Webber. Newman is credited with coming up with the time-travelling character of “The Doctor” and the idea that the inside of his time machine, the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space in the distinctive shape of a British police box), would be larger than the outside. Newman left BBC after five years in 1967, leaving behind an impressive lasting legacy. He literally changed the face of British television. He returned to Canada in 1969 for a controversial stint as Film Commissioner at the NFB (1970–75), the organization that launched his career back in the 1940s.
Some of the other notable Canadians of influence to work in England during The Swinging Sixties include directors Ted Kotcheff (28 episodes of Armchair Theatre and Life at the Top starring Laurence Harvey, the sequel to Room at the Top), Paul Almond (the documentary Seven Up!, one episode of Armchair Theatre), Sydney J. Furie (Leather Boys, The Ipcress File), Alvin Rakoff (10 episodes of Armchair Theatre), and Allan King (who established a branch of Allan King Associates in London); actors Donald Sutherland (The Avengers, The Saint and a half-a-dozen low-budget horror films leading up to his breakout role in The Dirty Dozen, which was shot in England), John Vernon (the voice of Big Brother in the film version of George Orwell’s 1984), Douglas Rain (the voice of HAL in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey), Lois Maxwell (Ms. Moneypenny in 14 Bond films, Armchair Theatre, The Wednesday Play), and Cec Linder (CIA agent Felix Leiter in Goldfinger and a small part in Kubrick’s Lolita); writers Mordecai Richler (three episodes of Armchair Theatre, Life at the Top) and Lister Sinclair (one episode of Armchair Theatre); and two gifted animators, ex-NFBer George Dunning (Yellow Submarine) and Toronto-born Richard Williams (future Oscar winner for his work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit).
Wyndham Wise is the editor of Take One’s Essential Guide to Canadian Film and the former editor and publisher of Take One: Film & Television in Canada (1992–2006).