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Grade, Lord Lew (1906-1998)

Producer, Executive

Main image of Grade, Lord Lew (1906-1998)

Lew Grade is probably the closest the British television industry has ever come to having a genuine showbusiness mogul. A flamboyant and canny operator, for a quarter of a century he was the best-known figure in independent television, and certainly one of the most powerful.

Born Louis Winogradsky in Tokmak in the Ukraine, his birth date is generally given as Christmas Day 1906, although some official records actually have it as 23 January of that year. He and his younger brother Boris came to London in 1912 to escape the anti-Jewish pogroms still rampaging through Tsarist Russia. After leaving school at 14, he entered show business as a dancer, a career that took off after he won a Charleston contest at the Royal Albert Hall in 1926. For the next few years, Lew Grade (as he now was) toured the variety and cabaret circuits, his trademark routine being an ultra-fast Charleston danced on a small oval table, before deciding to turn an occasional sideline into a career, setting up a talent management company with Joe Collins (father of the actress Joan and writer Jackie).

After the war, Grade, now working with his brother Leslie, moved increasingly towards packaging shows as well as representation, made many alliances in Europe and also brokered a deal with the General Artists Corporation of America talent agency, handling their entire roster outside of the United States. The Grade brothers' company grew as it took over several smaller agencies, and in 1948 they became one of the main suppliers of talent for the London Palladium, the most prestigious variety venue in the country, run by Val Parnell for the Moss Empires Group owned by the Littler family. It was with Parnell and Prince Littler that Lew Grade moved into television.

The first franchises for the new ITV network were announced in 1954 and Lew and Leslie put up £15,000 each, going into partnership with Prince Littler and Parnell to set up the Incorporated Television Programme Company Limited (ITP), with backing from Warburgs merchant bankers. Initially their bid was turned down on the grounds that their company was already too powerful in the entertainment world. They finally succeeded, however, when they merged with the Associated Broadcasting Development Company consortium, whose bid had been accepted for the weekday Midlands and weekend London franchises, but which was clearly undercapitalised. Their combined company, Associated TeleVision (ATV), had ABDC's Lord Renwick as its chairman and Val Parnell as Managing Director, with Lew Grade shortly afterwards becoming his deputy.

Grade's roots in variety and music hall never left him, and ATV's output largely reflected his and Parnell's tastes in entertainment, aimed at the broadest possible audience. Early hits included Sunday Night at the Palladium (1955-65), presented by Parnell himself, and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955-59), the first of dozens of popular filmed dramas made over the next twenty years by ITC (Incorporated Television Company), as ITP was now known.

From its inception, Grade wanted ITC to provide fare that could be used to crack the lucrative American market, which he did so successfully that ATV won the Queen's Award to Industry for Export Achievement three times. Eventually Grade became almost as well known as his projects, renowned for his prodigious office hours (from 6 AM to 7.30 PM), dancing the Charleston at his sumptuous press junkets, his gargantuan Havana cigars and Samuel Goldwyn-like witticisms (asked how much two plus two make, he apparently replied, "Are you buying or selling?"), most of which were doubtless apocryphal.

In 1962 Grade ousted Parnell in a boardroom reshuffle that paved the way for his most successful period as a businessman, consolidating his multiple interests in a hugely powerful, vertically integrated organisation. Their full extent was first highlighted when the Sunday Times' respected 'Insight' investigative team published a report in May 1966 entitled 'The Show Business Octopus'. The internecine picture it depicted showed the three brothers controlling most of the important UK talent agencies (not just actors, writers and directors but also variety artists and music performers like Lulu and The Animals, in addition to representing overseas stars like Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland), as well as the theatres in which they appeared (through ownership of the Stoll Moss group) and the cinemas in which their films were shown. All this while Lew Grade was Managing Director of ATV (the largest ITV franchise), which also had such important subsidiaries as its production arms ITC and Gerry Anderson's AP Films (later Century 21). In addition ATV had also diversified into publishing, bowling alleys and the piped-music company Muzak, as well as owning Pye, the UK's third-largest record company.

Allegations of favouritism and collusion and charges of restrictive and unfair business practices were made, in and out of court; the actor's union Equity even petitioned Parliament to reduce Delfont and the Grades' stranglehold over the industry. Inevitably, there were reprimands from the ITA and its successor, the IBA, which calculated that at one point 70% of all music heard on ATV came from the companies it controlled. Slowly but surely the UK caught up with some of the anti-trust legislation which had already been passed in the US, and by the 1970s some of the tentacles of the Grade organisation had been detached.

Facing charges that ATV's programmes were too formulaic or even substandard - particularly popular but cheap programmes like the soap Crossroads (1964-1988; revived 2001-03) - and that the programming didn't reflect its own region enough, when the new franchises were announced in 1968, Grade's wings were clipped slightly. ATV's responsibility for London's weekend programmes was taken away (and given to David Frost's London Weekend Television), while the Midlands franchise was extended for the full week. This period also coincided with Leslie Grade's first stroke, which eventually led to the Grade agency being sold. Equally, Grade's run of successes with the escapist television series made through the ITC subsidiary eventually petered out, notable disappointments including the expensive U.F.O. (1970) and the Shirley MacLaine vehicle Shirley's World (1971), which in her autobiography she characterised as " experience akin to what Vietnam must have been for Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon".

Grade continued to win big audiences with the kind of variety entertainment that he liked best, hosted by the likes of Tom Jones and Julie Andrews, although the most successful of all was The Muppet Show (1976-81), a pet project of Grade's which, with its mixture of comedy, music, American involvement and big name stars probably sums up his approach to TV entertainment more than any other. Nonetheless, in the 1970s he started to look for new challenges.

The death of Lord Renwick in 1973 had a major impact on Grade's outlook, as he had been invaluable to ATV both for his business acumen and his skills as a micro manager with disparate board members. As Grade approached the ITA's mandatory retirement age of 70, he moved the company increasingly towards international feature film production. Through his directorship of its holding company, Associated Communications Company (ACC), Grade had already moved ITC away from episodic television series towards such miniseries as Jesus of Nazareth (1977). When Grade's second big budget cinema film, Return of the Pink Panther (d. Blake Edwards, 1975), was a box office blockbuster, it convinced him that feature film production and distribution was where his future lay.

Most of the cinema films ITC made proved to be commercial disappointments however, with the exception of The Muppet Movie (d. James Frawley, 1979), in which Grade's own image was amusingly sent up by having Orson Welles play an impresario named 'Lew Lord'. Equally, Grade's attempts to side-step the Hollywood studios and set up his own US distribution company, Associated Film Distributors (AFD), ended quickly in disaster, all of which was exacerbated by the colossal failure of Raise the Titanic (US, d. Jerry Jameson, 1981), which cost $33 million (twice its estimated budget) and earned dismal returns. Ironically, shortly afterwards two of Grade's films, On Golden Pond (US, d. Mark Rydell, 1981) and Sophie's Choice (US, d. Alan J. Pakula, 1982) did well both critically and commercially, but by then the films had been sold off to Universal Studios and ACC had been bought up by Robert Holmes à Court. In June 1982 Grade left the company after a series of protracted boardroom battles.

Immediately afterwards Grade became Chairman of Embassy Pictures, before going on to set up The Grade Company for which, in collaboration with director John Hough, he produced four boisterous Regency-set TV movies based on novels by Barbara Cartland. Grade had repeatedly said that he would retire in the year 2000, and he almost made it. Hough's Something to Believe In (1998) proved to be Grade's last cinema project; with its American stars, European locations and its mixture of classical music, disease-of-the-week subplot and orthodox religiosity, it remains a super-typical testimonial to the predilections of its producer.

Lew Grade was knighted in 1969 and in 1976 was made a life peer, taking the title Lord Grade of Elstree. He died on 14 December 1998.

Hunter Davies, The Grades: The First Family of British Entertainment (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1981)
Quentin Falk and Dominic Prince, Last of a Kind: The Sinking of Lew Grade (Quartet Books, London, 1987)
Rita Grade Freeman, My Fabulous Brothers: The Story of the Grade Family (W.H. Allen, London, 1982)
Lew Grade, Still Dancing: My Story (William Collins, London, 1987)
Jack Tinker, The Television Barons (Quartet Books, London, 1980)
Alexander Walker, National Heroes: British Cinema in the Seventies and Eighties (Harrap, London, 1985)

Sergio Angelini

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