If Lew Grade's autobiography, Still Dancing, isn't the dullest account of a fascinating life ever written, it's near the top. Recording business transactions with the accuracy of a ledger, while laying on the schmaltz about the wonderful stars he had known, it largely fails to convey the man's warmth and humour.
From the 1940s to the 1980s, initially as an agent, then as the omniscient and omnipotent head of ATV and later ACC, Grade was the UK's Mr Entertainment. With his massive cigars and twinkling eyes, this short, Jewish, Russian-born ex-Charleston dancer was how moguls should look. Journalists were enchanted by his antics. Even his rivals liked him. And the turns – from the lowliest juggler to Julie Andrews – loved him, because the retired hoofer remained a performer at heart. When pitching to American networks, he'd pace the room and act out the synopses. No wonder, then, that comedians littered their acts with affectionate gags about the man who kept them in work.
It has been left to veteran investigative reporter Lewis Chester to make good the shortfall left by Still Dancing, which he has done admirably. With his professional background, if there were any goods to be got on Grade, Chester would have them – but there's nothing. The closest Grade came to scandal was his elevation (along with his brother Bernard Delfont) to the peerage in Harold Wilson's infamous Lavender List, and, even then, he was blameless. What remains is the story of a show-business multimillionaire who cared more about people and shows than money. Grade gave Jim Henson a chance when nobody wanted the Muppets. He commissioned The Prisoner despite claiming not to understand a word of Patrick McGoohan's pitch. He knew, liked and trusted McGoohan. That was enough.
Undoubtedly rich, Grade viewed his friendships and goodwill as part of his true wealth. He bailed out impecunious employees without a murmur and paid the school fees of his son's classmates whose parents had hit hard times. Grade did a lot of work for charity and really didn't like to talk about it.
But for all of his decency and honesty, he wasn't perfect. Although he later atoned by discovering a love of good documentaries and employing John Pilger, his early TV years were marked by relentless frivolity. He was also unwilling to let anyone else run ACC. Chester records the heirs apparent who found that there was no line of succession. Eventually, ignoring numerous warnings, Grade got out of his depth in film-making and lost control of ACC to asset-stripper Robert Holmes à Court, who dispersed the lot. Maybe this was inevitable. Business history is full of companies driven by a single visionary that die under anyone else's control. It is telling that the buyers of Grade's former companies usually rehired him, realising that nobody could sell Lew's old shows like old Lew.
I thought I'd heard all of the stories, but Chester has found some new ones, which I won't spoil. Working out which are apocryphal is a problem for anyone writing about Grade. Chester finds sources where he can and exercises his judgment on others. Perhaps it doesn't matter. Grade adopted much of the apocrypha to tell against himself.
If Grade had appeared in fiction, he'd be dismissed as a cliché. Fortunately, he existed, and this entertaining book is a worthy monument.
Louis Barfe's 'Turned Out Nice Again: The Story of British Light Entertainment' is published in paperback by AtlanticReuse content