Obituary: Lord Grade

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The Independent Culture
FOR OVER 70 years Lew Grade was a leading figure in British show business. While still in his teens he had become a dancer specialising in the Charleston. Even when he was in his sixties he would enliven gatherings of television controllers by jumping on a table and giving a demonstration of his skills. In the 1930s he became an agent, and for two decades until the late 1970s was one of the handful of leading figures in British television, as managing director of Associated Television and inspirer of innumerable hit progammes and series. In his seventies he embarked on a final - and more chequered - career as a film producer.

But he was best known, not for his undoubted achievements, but for the spirit behind his every moment as a living parody of the Jewish showman, larger than life, smoking the most outrageously large Havana cigars on the market, always ready with a pronouncement to cheer the public's day. The cigar was not a mere affectation. As he said in his 1987 autobiography, Still Dancing, they were his "security blanket. In another respect they're my trademark. They give me something to clutch on to, and they give me confidence."

In a sense he was Britain's answer to Sam Goldwyn, famous for lines which he almost certainly did not utter. Typical was the cry, "All my shows are great. Some of them are bad, but they're all great." But Grade was a much more genuine - and genial - figure than the egomaniacal loner Goldwyn. Indeed Grade's whole life was a series of "relationships", usually with difficult people, in which he was proud that his word was accepted, his handshake more secure than a contract. He was also a consummate negotiator believing in "one to one, or two to two - but never more".

Lew Grade was born Louis (or Lewis) Winogradsky in the small town of Tokmak in Ukraine, near the Black Sea, on Christmas Day 1906, the eldest of the three remarkable sons of Isaac and Olga Winogradsky - his siblings were Leslie the agent (and father of Michael Grade) and Bernard, who changed his name to Delfont. Lew was always closer to Leslie, to whom he felt protective, than to Bernie, with whom he admitted to having something of a sibling rivalry - he learnt of Bernie's change of name only from the papers.

When Louis was five the Winogradskys, like so many other Jewish families, emigrated to Britain (Russian was his first language until he was eight). In Tokmak they had been middle-class business people with a detached house, but in London they had to settle for a two-roomed flat in the East End.

Like so many other Jewish immigrants Isaac Winogradsky worked in the garment trade, but he was a better singer than a businessman and relied on his sons' earnings before dying at the age of 56 in 1935. As in so many other Jewish familes it was his mother Olga, a formidable matriarch, who influenced the brothers. Lew had a photographic memory and was a brilliant mathematician, and was offered one of the rare places available at a grammar school, but left school at 14 and started by helping his father in the rag trade. Early on he had started to dance and just before his 20th birthday he entered the World Charleston Championships at the Royal Albert Hall. He won and immediately got a contract to dance in cabaret for pounds 50 a week, a fortune in those days.

For several years he continued his career as a dancer, not only in London but also in Paris and pre-Hitler Berlin. He had a special gimmick of dancing the Charleston while perched on a small and obviously precarious table. Grade had to stop dancing because his particular style of dancing the Charleston led to falls which injured his knee.

In the early 1930s he joined his friend Joe Collins in an agency called Collins & Grade and claims to have heard the first cries of Collins's eldest daughter, Joan. From the start he showed a flair for discovering talent of every description - one of his first clients was Larry Adler the harmonica player, and he arranged the English tours of Django Reinhardt and the Quintet of the Hot Club of France.

He joined up after Dunkirk and was in the Army for just over two years, most of the time organising shows for the troops but in 1942 he was invalided out with water on the knees - soon after he had married a beautiful dancer, Kathleen Moody (his mother, miserable that her son had not married a Jewish girl, refused to come to the wedding). He soon split with Collins and moved in with his younger brother Leslie in a theatrical agency, most famously responsible for booking the acts at the London Palladium. Grade spent several early post-war years in the United States building up a successful American end of his agency business at a time when the business traffic was all the other way, so it was natural for him to specialise in bringing American comedians and singers, like Bob Hope, Jack Benny and Danny Kaye - some of whom he and Leslie also represented - a policy which led to considerable resentment amongst British artists and comedians.

Grade's biggest break came almost by accident. At the start of commercial television he was rather casually involved in the formation of Associated Television, an uneasy alliance which included the Pye group, Lord Renwick, a leading stockbroker, and Norman Collins, the novelist and former BBC executive who was the true father of ATV. By 1956, only a few months after transmissions had started, and whole the financial future of the business still looked gloomy, Grade had emerged as one of the leaders of commercial television as deputy managing director of ATV, which had the contract for the Midlands on weekdays and London at the weekends (in 1968 the franchise changed, giving ATV a full week in the Midlands but cutting them out of London). Grade - who became managing director of ATV in 1962 and chairman 11 years later - soon took complete control of ATV, which became a byword for easy-viewing variety shows, notably Sunday Night at the London Palladium, which attracted huge audiences for over a decade.

Grade's taste was always for wholesome material, including series like The Saint and Emergency Ward 10 as well as quiz shows, naturally attracting the soubriquet "Low Grade Lew". But this was unfair, and not only because, as he always said proudly, "My tastes are the tastes of the average person throughout the world."

His boldest stroke came when, as ATV's deputy managing director, he gambled the bulk of the firm's capital on producing a series on Robin Hood without any guarantee that it would be shown outside Britain. It was a triumphant success, and set the pattern for two decades in which he produced a number of such series, some like Robin Hood vaguely historical, including Ivanhoe and Lancelot, some thrillers like The Saint, as well as The Avengers, a genuinely original series which has remained a cult favourite for more than three decades. He also backed such innovatory ideas as the puppeteers who produced Thunderbirds.

Despite his reputation for backing only the most sure-fire hits, Grade never lacked courage and flair - backing, most imaginatively, The Muppets. For even the most highbrow producers loved him because, if he liked an idea, he was prepared to give the creator carte blanche and did not interfere with them - in its heyday ATV produced a third of all the documentaries made for the commercial television network (though this gave rise to another apocryphal Gradeism when he said of one highbrow venture, "It must be culture because it certainly wasn't entertainment"). Nevertheless his list of series included some remarkably innovative achievements, such as The Power Game, the first to convey the world of big business at all convincingly (its predecessor, The Plane Makers, had been too closely confined to the factory floor to Grade's taste).

One of Grade's boldest deals came in 1965 when after a lot of wheeling and dealing he acquired Stoll Moss, the biggest theatre chain in Britain - a move which entailed another piece of wheeling and dealing because Stoll Moss owned a substantial stake in ATV and the television company could not own its own shares.

Grade was never more Jewish than in his attitude to religious films, producing a series on Moses and a film of the life of Jesus (allegedly inspired by being received by the Pope) - his wife of nearly 60 years was a Roman Catholic. Grade's observance of his own Jewish faith was pretty nominal, as was his attendance at the House of Lords. But he was immensely proud of Jesus of Nazareth (though one Gradeism has him asking the director, Franco Zeffirelli, if he couldn't manage with six disciples instead of twelve). The project - a two-part biography - was a colossal gamble, especially as Jesus was played by the virtually unknown Robert Powell. Even though the film's first sponsor, General Motors, withdrew after attacks by American fundamentalists, it was an enormous success wherever it was shown (in Italy it attracted an estimated 84 per cent of the viewing public). It had cost $45m but made a profit of $30m. In 1979 Grade was rewarded by John Paul II, who awarded him the Order of of Knight Commander of Saint Silvester with star, the highest Vatican honour that can be awarded to a non-Catholic. Three years earlier he and his brother Bernie had both been given life peerages in Harold Wilson's notorious resignation honours list.

On his 70th birthday in 1977 Grade had to retire from the chairmanship of ATV and immediately embarked on another, and less happy, career. Like many other British tycoons before him, Grade came undone when he tried to make a frontal assault on Hollywood by turning his holding company, Associated Communications, into a major film producer and distributor.

Although he had some early successes, like The Muppet Movie (1979), he came a cropper with the notorious disaster Raise the Titanic (1980) - cue for another Gradeism, "It would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic Ocean." Robert Holmes a Court, the Australian financier, took advantage of ACC's parlous position by buying the company relatively cheaply and as soon as he took control started sacking long-serving employees (including Grade's favourite tea lady). In a spiteful gesture after easing Grade out of ACC he removed Grade's credits from two highly successful films he had financed before losing control, On Golden Pond (1981), for which Henry Fonda was awarded an Oscar, and Sophie's Choice (1982), which earned a similar accolade for Meryl Streep. Not surprisingly Holmes a Court was one of the few people of whom he ever spoke ill, as the only man who really betrayed him. "He died quite a young man, for all his millions. You see wealth is about relationships, not money."

Grade was soon back in business in partnership with some American friends, for he never really retired, arriving regularly at his office at 7am while in his nineties to work a 12-hour day. Interviewed in late 1996 he claimed, "I used to say I'd retire in the year 2001. But I already know it won't happen." Characteristically Something to Believe In, one of the last films he produced, was, he said, "a story that will leave you with a lump in the throat and a tear in your eye". But when asked what it was all about Grade replied simply, "I've got the script somewhere."

Nicholas Faith

Louis Winogradsky (Lew Grade), dancer, theatrical agent, television executive, theatre owner, businessman and film producer: born Tokmak, Ukraine 25 December 1906; chairman and managing director, ITC Entertainment 1958-82, chairman for life 1995-98; chairman, Stoll Moss Theatres 1969- 82; Kt 1969; chairman and chief executive, Associated Communications Corporation 1973-82; created 1976 Baron Grade; president, ATV Network 1977-82; chairman, Embassy Communications International 1982-85; chairman, The Grade Co 1985-98; married 1942 Kathleen Moody (one adopted son); died London 13 December 1998.