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Grade, Michael (1943-)


Main image of Grade, Michael (1943-)

Michael Grade is one of the few executives in television to be instantly recognisable outside the industry. His controversial and colourful celebrity profile has ensured maximum publicity for each of his dramatic television career moves. In spite of this, in the wake of the Hutton crisis that disposed of both the BBC's Director General and Chairman, his appointment as Chairman of the BBC board of governors in April 2004 was met with almost universal approval.

He was born in 1943, son of Leslie Grade, the theatrical agent who, with brothers Lord (Lew) Grade and Lord (Bernard) Delfont, built perhaps the most powerful show business network in the world in the postwar period. Early in the century, the Winogradski family had escaped anti-semitic intimidation in the Ukraine and settled in London's Brick Lane. There, the young brothers moved from dancing in the Music Halls to organising shows and then spotting and managing talent. Leslie Grade, a self-effacing man compared with his extrovert brothers, booked household names like Bob Hope, Doris Day and Danny Kaye. After the start of commercial television they also represented film directors and writers and formed The Grade Organisation, and Lew Grade ran one of the new commercial TV companies, ATV.

Michael Grade was educated at Stowe and St Dunstan's in south London and left school with two A Levels. Reluctant at first to join the family business, Grade started out on £10 a week as a trainee sports journalist on the Daily Mirror, arriving on his first day in his father's chauffeur-driven car for a job his father had arranged with the editor.

But in 1966, when his father suffered a stroke, he was urged to join the Grade Organisation to learn the business and take the pressure off his disabled father. Trained by Billy Marsh, who had discovered, among others, Bruce Forsyth, Morecambe and Wise and Norman Wisdom, Grade learnt to put together variety shows and to manage the finances. When EMI bought out the company but had to divest itself of agency interests, Billy Marsh, Denis van Thal and Michael Grade launched London Management. Gradually, Grade built a talent list that was to prove useful when he was tempted into the medium of television, with the offer of head of light entertainment at London Weekend Television (LWT).

Grade had to work hard under the tough and charismatic programme controller, Cyril Bennett, to master the essential differences between television and the theatre of variety. After a faltering start with the two editions of A Special Tommy Steele (ITV, 20/1/1973, 7/4/1973) and a John Curry ice-skating spectacular, he produced the successful Two's Company (1975-79), a comedy vehicle for Elaine Stritch and Donald Sinden, and the black working-class comedy, The Fosters (1976-77), which launched Lenny Henry and Norman Beaton. When Cyril Bennett tragically died, Grade was made director of programmes by the new managing director, Brian Tesler. In this post he went on to launch The South Bank Show (1978- ) and The Professionals (1977-83); to learn the art of scheduling in the federal ITV system; and to deal with both the powerful unions and the regulatory body, the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA). Grade attempted to dislodge BBC's Match of the Day, which dominated the Saturday night schedule, with a daring £5 million bid for exclusive rights to football, called by the press 'snatch of the day'. Although the high-octane row that followed restored the programme to the BBC, the BBC was forced to agree alternation rights with ITV for all key sporting events.

Although LWT retained its franchise in 1980, Grade was seduced two years later by the lure of Hollywood and better financial prospects as president of Embassy TV, an independent American production company making situation comedies. But he found the relentless high-pressure salesmanship dispiriting and missed the responsibility for a broad range of programme production. However, it was here that he developed his trademark accoutrements: big cigars, red socks and braces.

Embassy eventually backed him to set up his own company (The Grade Company) but he had begun talks with his friend Bill Cotton, the managing director of BBC Television, about returning to the UK to take control of BBC1 from Alan Hart. He eventually joined the BBC in September 1984, with a drastically reduced salary, and set about improving falling BBC ratings, in an atmosphere he describes as akin to an 'Oxbridge senior common room'.

At this time the BBC was under pressure from a Thatcher government. The glossy American mini-series, The Thorn Birds (1983), was being compared unfavourably with ITV drama offerings Brideshead Revisited (1981) and The Jewel in the Crown (1984). Grade dramatically reversed a ratings decline and by 1985, the two channels were attracting 47.5% of viewers. He achieved this by refocusing research on audience composition and working systematically through the programme schedule, creating more fixed points. EastEnders (1985- ) was started, and timed to compete with ITV's Emmerdale Farm; the chat show Wogan (1982-92) was scheduled for three nights a week at 7pm; Neighbours (1986- ), the Australian soap, was screened at lunch time and just before The Six O'Clock News; and he moved Panorama (1953- ) to 9.30pm, just after the news. To those who feared a tidal wave of vulgarian programming he famously said, 'quality and popularity are not mutually exclusive'. During his years at the BBC he championed, to his credit, The Monocled Mutineer (1986), gave generous space to writers Alan Bleasdale and Dennis Potter, incurring the wrath of the governors over a sexually explicit scene in The Singing Detective (1986), and cleared the schedule for Bob Geldof's Live Aid (tx. 13/7/1985). Amongst BBC programme makers he was credited with managing talent successfully.

Controversially, he axed Dr Who (1963-89), which he found dreadfully old-fashioned, and almost didn't allow Blackadder (1983-89) to go beyond the first series. There was disagreement with government, which had already criticised the corporation for its coverage of the Falklands war. The BBC was handling two dramas on the topic: one, from the well-known rightwing writer, Ian Curteis - commissioned, unusually, by the Director General, Alasdair Milne - and the other, Tumbledown, offered by Charles Wood. Grade broadcast the latter in the face of pressure from government and the BBC board of governors, and rejected the Curteis version for script reasons.

In June 1986 he replaced Brian Wenham as director of programmes, but also kept control of BBC1. Soon after, Marmaduke Hussey was appointed by government as chairman of governors. In 1987, Alasdair Milne was sacked and although Grade applied for the post, he lost it to Michael Checkland. However, Grade became Managing Director of Television Designate, with the impending retirement of Bill Cotton. Although they had been friends at LWT, the subsequent appointment of John Birt as Deputy Director General led to a power struggle, which culminated in the constitution of the appointments panel for the new controllers of BBC1 and 2. Grade felt that there had been an undermining of the responsibility of the Managing Director, and was certain that Birt's career strategy was to weaken Grade's authority because in the future, he himself wanted the job of Director General. Grade was later to lambast Birt's management of the BBC in his MacTaggart lecture at the 1992 Edinburgh Television Festival, when he accused Birt, by then Director General, of over centralising and commercialising the BBC, stifling any internal independence of spirit, and significantly reducing staff morale.

Soon after the disputed appointment panels, interviews for the chief executive post at Channel Four took place and Grade could see an exit from the unhappy rivalry at the BBC. He offered his services to Sir Richard Attenborough (later Lord), the chair of the Channel Four board of governors, and was selected, taking up the post early in 1988. It was a controversial choice and was met with considerable opposition. The outgoing chief executive, Jeremy Isaacs, was furious and threatened to 'throttle him' if he screwed up. Commentators questioned whether this showman was able to take on the 'sacred trust' of Channel Four, or understood its public service remit: to serve minorities, to innovate and to experiment.

Grade felt that Channel Four needed more rigorous financial structures and more quality control of its independent suppliers, and should acquire a more professional look than the fledgling channel of the early '80s. After some months of managing the programmes, the new chief executive appointed as Director of Programmes first Liz Forgan and then, in 1992, John Willis. Unable to compete with the BBC or ITV with annual programme budgets the channel made a virtue out of its quick commissioning decisions.

Under Grade, the channel developed a clearer schedule, with films on Sunday evenings, popular high quality American acquisitions, strong factual strands such as Cutting Edge (1990- ), and quality drama such as Alan Bleasdale's GBH (1991). The Big Breakfast (1992-2002) was a departure from usual breakfast time TV, making a star of Chris Evans, who later fronted other Channel Four successes with the game show, Don't Forget Your Toothbrush (1994-95) and the music and chat show, TFI Friday (1996-2000). Film on Four had a string of successes during the '90s, among them Four Weddings and a Funeral (d. Mike Newell, 1994) and The Madness of King George (d. Nicholas Hytner, 1994). To his credit, he was heavily involved in the acquisition of the Italian football rights and also with Dennis Potter's final interview (tx. 5/4/1994), before he died. At the same time, he did not support the commission for the off-beat comedy series, Father Ted (1995-98), which went on to be very popular and to win awards. And those who had championed the innovative foundations of Channel Four questioned whether he ever had a vision for its remit. But during Grade's tenure, Channel Four secured a firm financial footing and by the time he left he had moved the channel into purpose-built premises in Victoria and increased its audience share from 8.4% to 10.6%.

During the Channel Four years, the Home Secretary asked Grade to chair a working group on the fear of crime, and he was a member of the National Commission of Inquiry into the prevention of child abuse. In 1991 he was made a Fellow of the RTS, in 1994 a Fellow of BAFTA, and in 1998 he was awarded a CBE.

Perhaps Grade's biggest success was resisting strong government pressure to privatise Channel Four. Backtracking on a view, earlier expressed, that the channel should be privatised, he launched a successful campaign to preserve its public status and remit. But the 1990 Broadcasting Act demanded that Channel Four take over the selling of its own advertising and compete with ITV and other commercial channels. To protect the channel, and its remit, from the wild fluctuations of the market, he negotiated a 14% safety net of terrestrial net advertising revenue, to be underwritten by ITV. But the channel was to be penalised if it did too well by sharing excess profits over 14% with ITV. As Channel Four proceeded to sell its advertising well, the formula became a financial millstone as payments to ITV climbed in the 1990s to £70-80 million a year.

He then led a second successful campaign against the consequences of the 1990 Broadcasting Act, persuading government to phase out the funding formula, but resigned in 1997 before the channel had benefited from the extra money previously paid to ITV, saying that he had become too distant from programmes and was tired of political lobbying. But Grade was also perhaps hurt by a subliminal on-screen attack by Chris Morris in Brass Eye (1997) and unhappy with the insistent tag, 'pornographer-in-chief', given him by Paul Johnson's shrill articles in the Daily Mail commenting on Channel Four's controversial programmes, notably Eurotrash (1993- ) and Dyke TV (1995-96), and in particular, on the university rag style pranks of The Word (1990-95).

There followed a rather low-key period in his career. First he again took over the family firm, First Leisure, which operated health and fitness clubs, bingo halls, nightclubs and, famously, the Blackpool Tower, but left after selling off many of its assets, including the Tower, and incurring a drop in its share price. From there he became executive chairman of Pinewood-Shepperton Ltd, which was floated on the Stock Exchange in 2004 as part of its expansion programme. Other chairmanships included Hemscott, a financial information group, the National Film and Television School Foundation, Index on Censorship, the National Theatre's Development Council and, in 2002, Camelot, the National Lottery operator. Grade's directorships included the Scottish Media Group, the Television Corporation, Charlton Athletic football club and the Millennium Dome project.

Losing out to Gavyn Davies when he tried for the Chairmanship of the BBC in 2002, he said that he was too 'independent' for the Government. In a strange twist of fate, his very 'independence' was probably the most significant factor in his appointment to that role in April 2004, in the post-Hutton period. When he accepted the post, he was obliged to divest himself of his directorships, but insisted on keeping his 4% stake in Pinewood/Shepperton Studios - in spite of a potential conflict of interest, as some BBC programmes are made there. As he took up the post in May he emphasised his support for the licence fee and committed the BBC to editorial independence. In his first speech, entitled 'Building Public Value', Grade announced a set of measures to assess the public value of every BBC activity.

Commentators have noted that his chairmanship of the BBC, after a period of intense conflict with Government, and at the time of its Charter renewal process, will not be an easy one, and one of his major tasks will be to review the role of the governors and strengthen their knowledge and experience of broadcasting, new and online technology. His own political acumen and experience in television will be his greatest assets.

Grade, Michael, It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time, (Macmillan,1999)
'Building Public Value', text, Michael Grade's speech, 29th June 2004
'Auntie's New Man', The Daily Telegraph, filed 4th April 2004
Janine Gibson and Maggie Brown, 'Amid the Suits, a Man Who Stands Out' The Guardian, April 3rd 2004
'Happy Honeymoon Michael', editorial, British Journalism Review, vol.15, No 2, 2004, pp3-5

Ann Bloss

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