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Sydney Newman Memorial Service – 5th February 1998

Sydney NewmanI could bore for England about Sydney, such was his influence upon me; but time is short and there are many speakers. I will confine myself to a couple of snapshots.

I first met him in his office (which was bigger than most of the flats I’d lived in), having been marched in by Jim MacTaggart and Roger Smith. I expected a big formal interview.

Instead he looked at Jim and said “Hell, I don’t know what to ask.” Then at me, “Oh hell. Did you see the show last night?” The show, as he put it, was “Hamlet”. At Elsinore. Shot as an Outside Broadcast. Directed by Philip Saville. I had seen it, and launched into a pompous and pretentious critique. He listened. Didn’t interrupt. Little smile playing on his face. I finally shut up. “Well,” he said, “Philip wanted to do it. And I didn’t know the play.”

What did he mean, he didn’t know the play? This was the Head of BBC Drama. Was this his faux naive trick? Did he mean it? I should have asked him.

By the way, I got the job. I already had the job. If it was O.K. with Jim, it was O.K. with Sydney. He believed in delegation. He was always in charge, but never felt the need to be in control. He just wanted to meet the new troublemaker.

There used to be a rule at the Beeb – maybe there still is – that no-one could give an interview to the papers without the BBC Press Office being present. I talked to journalists in those days – it flattered my vanity – so when the man from the Daily Mail called I went, without telling the Press Office.

He must have had a sense of humour because he suggested lunch at Leoni’s in Soho – where Karl Marx and his wife Jenny had lived. It was a good, long lunch. With wine.

I had been back at my office at the Centre 5 minutes and the ‘phone rang. It was Sydney. “Enjoy your lunch?” How did he know!?!

“So what did he say?” Uh uh. “And what did you say?” The relentless interrogation went on and on. “Uh uh.” “Anything else?” “Well, he said give me three names of people who interest you. Don’t think. The first three that come into your head.” “And I said, Castro, Courreges, Lennon.” “Vladimir Ilyich or John?”

He wasn’t thrown – he was amused – by our lefter-than-thou militancy. He’d been there.

I suppose I loved Sydney for his faults as much as for his qualities. The whole man was always on display. I loved him because he didn’t leave his humanity behind every morning, he took it to the office with him.

Tony Garnett

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