Interview: Michael Grade

The man who ran the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 and put ‘EastEnders’ on our screens, is bringing a little bit of showbusiness to Parliament.


By Michael Freedland, March 10, 2011
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Michael, now Lord Grade, says he is  particularly proud of  commissioning “quality” programmes like the drama series, The Singing Detective

Michael, now Lord Grade, says he is particularly proud of commissioning “quality” programmes like the drama series, The Singing Detective

Michael Grade is not the man he was. When we last met, a long time ago now, he was everything that the caricatures made of him. He sat in a plush office, red braces and red socks, smoking a giant cigar. As boss of Channel 4 at the time, he was every bit the big mogul. But now, here he is a bit out of breath, apologising for being late - he had just been to his child's school concert - taking a seat in a cramped office off the King's Road, a room that does not exactly indicate one of the really big men in British entertainment.

Actually, he is as busy as ever and no doubt earning as much as ever (a TV series on variety is currently being broadcast and another on music hall is in the works). But only the red socks and the infectious laugh seem the same. Maybe it is because he has a new job - sitting in the House of Lords, under the Conservative whip.

I could not help telling him I was surprised. The newly ennobled Baron Grade of Yarmouth does not seem to be a Tory. He does not sound like a Tory. But then I did not know he thought that a lot of what Margaret Thatcher did was "wonderful" in her early years and he thought that John Major was "great". As for David Cameron, he is the "perfect Prime Minister". Perfect enough for Grade to go into the Lords on Dave's recommendation and speak mainly on the creative arts and business.

That is not so surprising, I suppose, when you realise that his work has straddled both fields and he is still chairman of numerous companies ranging from the Ocado grocery delivery firm to Pinewood Studios.

But he has not always been a Conservative. No matter how much he liked John Major, he voted Labour in 1997. The Conservative government was, as he puts it delicately, "in dred" - dead and about to be buried.

A week before, the new rabbi of the West London Synagogue, Baroness Julia Neuberger, had explained her extremely varied career to me by claiming to be part of a mythical "rent a job" organisation. The same might be said of Grade: sports reporter on the Daily Mirror - "Hugh Cudlip, the Mirror chairman, said I could have been sports editor - I'd have loved that"; theatrical agent; head of programmes for the BBC, controller of BBC1, head of Channel 4, chairman of the BBC and then of ITV.

He says he has loved everything he has done - "that's because I always achieved what l set out to do". He stayed long enough in each position to achieve his aims, he says, and then get out once the job had been done.

Snapshot

Born: March 1943. Father, Leslie, a theatrical agent. Uncles, impresarios Lew Grade and Bernard Delfont
Career: Daily Mirror journalist 1964-66; theatrical agent 1966-73; London Weekend Television 1973-81, director of programmes; independent producer in Hollywood 1981-84; controller of BBC1 1984-86; Channel 4 chief executive 1987-97; BBC chairman 2004-06; ITV executive chairman 2007-2009
Personal life: Married three times. Three children

Not that he was not involved in controversy in almost everything he took on - not least when he went from the BBC to ITV. Following which he took legal action over comments made by former BBC director general, Greg Dyke.

And when he became boss of Channel 4, his predecessor, Sir Jeremy Isaacs, was scathing. "I hand you a precious gift," he said, and Grade as well as everybody who heard Isaacs, could read what he was really thinking.

"Oh, that's Jeremy," Grade says now. "It didn't bother me."

At Channel 4, he introduced new programmes with new ideas. "A lot of what Jeremy did was sensational, but a lot of it was just unwatchable. We took Channel 4 from a dependant relative of ITV to an earn-our-living business. When I went there, I said I wanted us to lose our amateur status and become a proper broadcaster."

Of course, he knew showbusiness by then as well as he knew his own name - Grade rather than Winogradsky, which was what his father, Leslie and his uncles Lew, Lord Grade of Elstree, and Bernie, Lord Delfont, were called until they changed it.

He speaks more than just affectionately about the men who were plainly his biggest influences, Lew and Bernie, immigrants from the Ukraine who became the masters of British entertainment. "In effect, I had three fathers," he says. His actual father, Leslie, was, he maintains, the best showbusiness agent in Britain, who died much too soon in his early sixties. "He was always on the phone," Grade says. "Can you imagine what he would have been like if there were mobile phones and emails at that time? I loved him dearly."

As he did Lew and Bernie. Grade left the Daily Mirror to join the family business when Bernie rang him and said he had to come into the firm. "I had a wonderful time, booking marvellous acts," he recalls.

His move into TV came in 1973 when he joined London Weekend. He left eight years later for a stint in Hollywood, selling sitcoms to networks all over the world. But after three years, producing his only ever TV show, a nine-part series based on Jeffrey Archer's novel, Kane and Abel, he had had enough. "When you read 30 or 40 comedy scripts a week, you get a bit barking." He wanted to get back into British TV. He was asked what he admired about Hollywood. "Valet parking," he replied. "I missed public service broadcasting, real drama, news, current affairs," he says now.

By this point, the early 80s, he had been divorced and married again. His then wife persuaded him to accept the job of controller of BBC1.

"I took the biggest pay cut in history, he says, "from half a million dollars a year, plus huge bonuses and so on, to £37,500. But I got a place in the car park! BBC1 was in a mess. By the time I left, we had given ITV a hell of a run for its money. We had also done some amazing programmes - The Singing Detective, EastEnders. We did some fabulous programming, some fantastic work. I was the impresario. You go with your hunches. We were in the ascendancy with quality, not shlock. "

He was involved in controversy constantly, which he says was different from "internecine civil war". "I had no interest in doing that. I was interested in programmes that's all. Not politics."

Grade left to go into business, but sold a lot of the companies he owned. "A lot of them have subsequently gone bust, so it was the right thing to do."

Then, he applied for the job of chairman of the BBC - after once being turned down. "My job was to settle the place down, appoint a new director general, work on the new charter. It all happened." Controversy came when he switched to ITV as chief executive. "It had suddenly dawned on me that I was becoming a regulator at the BBC. I didn't want that."

Not bad, one might think, for a Yiddisher boy. Except, hallachically, he is not that. His non-Jewish mother left when he was a young child - he only met her once as an adult and had no desire to repeat the experience. "I suppose I am what you might call a secular Jew and certainly a cultural Jew. I feel 100 per cent Jewish. I have strong faith and just occasionally go to shul." In his case, the Liberal Jewish synagogue in St John's Wood.

"I absolutely find that an oasis of calm and sanity and the ritual is minimal. But I don't like the politics of organised religion."

He was brought up by his grandmother who was, he says, the "archetypal Yiddisher Mama". He adored her, a woman who was illiterate in English, but not in Russian or Yiddish.

He loves to tell stories about her - particularly the one of when she presented the Queen Mother with a bouquet after being schooled by Bernie Delfont not to speak till she was spoken to. The Queen Mum said she knew Mrs Winogradsky had brilliant children.

"And so," she answered, "have you."

Last updated: 2:54pm, August 28 2014