Obituary: Lord Grade

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor