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Delfont, Lord Bernard (1909-1994)

Producer, Impresario

Main image of Delfont, Lord Bernard (1909-1994)

According to his biography (East End, West End, 1990), Bernard Delfont was paid the sum of £2 to perform a dance number in front of John Logie Baird's experimental TV camera as a demonstration for a small audience of Baird's potential backers. It was the late 1920s and it was his first experience with television.

The second of three brothers who became moguls of British show business, Bernard Delfont was born Boris Winogradsky on 5 September 1909 in Tokmak, a small town in the Crimea. In 1912 the Winogradsky family left Russia and settled in the East End of London. He left school at the age of 12 and followed his brother Louis - who had made a name for himself in Charleston dancing competitions as Lew Grade - into the music halls.

At this point he changed his surname to Delfont to avoid confusion with his brother. He formed a double act with comic Hal Monty, billing themselves as The Delfont Boys. In 1937, Delfont gave his last appearance as a dancer at the Chiswick Empire and followed his brother Lew into business as an agent and impresario.

In 1949 he started in theatrical management and acquired a series of theatres in the West End. He took over the London Casino and presented such stars as Lena Horne, The Inkspots, and Laurel and Hardy. He joined forces with the impresario Val Parnell and as a result was able to buy the lease on the Prince of Wales Theatre and to stage many of his shows at The Palladium.

His second experience with television came as a stage producer when he was asked to cast the BBC summer season variety show Carefree (tx. 24/6/1950), with music by Eric Robinson and his Orchestra, for producer Richard Afton.

Within months of the launch of ITV, the Saturday evening variety showcase Bernard Delfont Presents (ITV, 1956-58) premiered under Lew's ATV production banner. The song and dance show 'Young and Foolish', a Val Parnell and Bernard Delfont Presents production (ITV, 1956) for ATV, followed. Then, starting in 1959, came Bernard Delfont's Sunday Show (ITV, 1959-62), a summer season variety spectacular bridging the gap between seasons of Parnell's Sunday Night at the London Palladium. Delfont's on-stage performers ranged from popsters Adam Faith and Tommy Steele to a troupe of Bengal tigers (the latter courtesy of Chipperfield's Circus).

Although the Royal Variety Performance had been staged for over 40 years, it wasn't until 1960 that it was allowed to be televised; the theatre owners being nervous that too much exposure would deter audiences from going to see live variety. Soon to become the major TV event to be associated with Delfont, the first Royal Variety Performance (aka The Royal Variety Show) was presented on Sunday 22nd May 1960 across the entire ITV network. The two-and-a-half-hour production, under Jack Hylton, starred comedians Harry Worth, Charlie Drake and Benny Hill, pop singers Cliff Richard and Adam Faith, American actor Robert Horton (co-star of popular Western series Wagon Train), and the flamboyant pianist Liberace, among the sixty or so top-line entertainers.

The following year, the second TV production of The Royal Variety Performance (ITV, tx. 12/11/1961) was presented by Delfont, under his "personal supervision", and featured quintessential Frenchman Maurice Chevalier and American performers Jack Benny, George Burns, and Sammy Davis Jr., among the large cluster of international celebrities. Following the second televised show the annual presentation has alternated between the BBC and ITV, and always makes the top TV ratings.

Delfont was also instrumental in getting the comedy duo of Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise started with their first ITV series, The Morecambe and Wise Show (1961-68; aka Two of a Kind), written by the spirited team of Sid Green & Dick Hills.

In the 1960s business soared and Delfont established himself as the country's leading theatrical impresario. With his brother Lew now one of the most powerful figures in British television and Leslie Grade running the country's biggest agency, the brothers had the most powerful grip on British show business in all forms. To the public he will probably be remembered best as the smart gentleman who always greeted the Queen as she stepped out of her car on to the steps of The London Palladium for The Royal Variety Performance.

He was knighted in 1974 and two years later was made Baron Delfont of Stepney. He was well known in show business for his personal generosity and was much involved with charitable causes. He was a former president of The Variety Club of Great Britain, life president of The Entertainment Artistes Benevolent Fund, and president of the Entertainment Charities Fund from 1983 to 1991. He died on 28 July 1994.

Tise Vahimagi

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