When the legends of television’s “golden age” assemble tonight to say a tearful goodbye to BBC Television Centre, it’s appropriate that the ringmaster for the event will be Michael Grade.
A showbusiness “impresario”, down to his trademark bright red socks, the former BBC chairman and programmes chief will elicit fond memories from the likes of Sir David Attenborough, Ronnie Corbett and Sir Michael Parkinson during a special celebration programme, filmed at the famous Studio One.
While Grade prepares for a “bloodbath of nostalgia”, before the Grade II listed building, affectionately known as the “doughnut”, closes its doors after 53 years to be turned into a £200m shops and offices complex, he is more concerned about the BBC’s future.
Under the fresh leadership of incoming director-general Tony Hall, he believes the corporation must rid itself of the stifling bureaucracy that contributed to the disastrous exit of his predecessor, George Entwistle.
“The place is so bureaucratic it’s terrifying,” says the executive who has headed the BBC, ITV and Channel 4. “It’s caught up in processes. Talk to producers outside, agents and so on and the BBC is in danger of becoming the last resort. You go to the BBC when you can’t sell a programme anywhere else because it’s such a nightmare.”
The cigar-chomping entertainment veteran, who was elevated in 2011 to the title Lord Grade of Yarmouth, offers an anecdote to illustrate.
“Sam Chisholm (former BSkyB boss) once rang me up at Channel 4 with some scheme he wanted to do. I said it’s not for me, have you tried the BBC? He uttered the immortal words ‘Michael, dealing with the BBC is like dealing with the laundry – nothing ever comes back’. But Tony will cut through all that.”
Grade, who quit as BBC chairman in 2006 to run ITV, discloses that Hall, who arrives at the corporation in a fortnight, would have been his first choice for the DG post ahead of Entwistle.
Following the Savile crisis, Grade says he would have gone on “bended knee” to persuade the Royal Opera House chief to “give up that lovely music” and take on the “aggravation” of rescuing the BBC.
“I think Tony will be a very wonderful influence on the BBC,” Grade enthuses of the former BBC head of news. “He knows how it works, he’s got a very cool head. He’s been there, he’s done it. He’s a brilliant manager. He’s the perfect solution.”
The events which caused Entwistle’s departure after just 54 days in the hot seat will however cast a shadow over tonight’s orgy of reminiscence.
TV Centre was the “London Palladium of entertainment, the mecca,” recalls Grade, settling into a chair at his Chelsea office, those red socks peeking out underneath his suit trousers.
“It was the focal point for everything the BBC did best,” he said, reeling off a list of the talent which made shows such as The Two Ronnies, Morecambe & Wise and Steptoe and Son broadcasting landmarks.
But we now know the building was also the “hunting ground” for Jimmy Savile to sexually abuse audience members after recordings of Top of the Pops and Jim’ll Fix It. “It’s absolutely horrible. Ghastly. It’s certainly a stain on the history of TV Centre. But it doesn’t undermine the importance of TV Centre,” says Grade.
A former BBC1 controller and director of programmes during Savile’s Eighties pomp, Grade said he was unaware of any rumours over the presenter’s behaviour.
“Nobody ever came to me. If being peculiar was a bar to being in showbusiness there wouldn’t be any showbusiness. All the artists are a little peculiar in their own way.
“Savile was eccentric and odd,” Grade agreed. “But then people thought Mick Jagger was odd and it was a time of excess and oddity.”
“I don’t ever remember anyone saying anything other than ‘I wonder what he gets up to. I wonder if he is gay or this or that’. But no-one actually said ‘I think you need to know…’ I would have acted straightaway.”
Goodbye Television Centre, a two-hour special which will be broadcast on BBC4 this Friday night, is unlikely to linger over Savile.
For Grade, the son of theatrical agent Leslie Grade and nephew of the legendary impresario Lew Grade, the programme is a chance to pay homage to a building he first visited in the mid Sixties as an aspiring talent agent, to watch a recording of the comedy actor Harry Worth.
“In the Sixties the BBC had a new channel, BBC2, and colour. There was an explosion,” he recalled. “BBC2 would do things like a series with (jazz pianist) Oscar Peterson. Amazing people would get series who wouldn’t get them today. The whole range of the BBC output was dramatically expanded and of course the BBC got a big hike in the licence fee to pay for colour, so they had lots of money to spend.” As an executive, Grade, famed for his trademark cigar and braces,“cooked up a lot of nonsense” from his 6th floor office where “my door was always open”.
He persuaded Diana, Princess of Wales, to visit TV Centre and take part in a live campaign special, Drugwatch. “She signed the ‘Just Say No’ wall which was a huge booking for us.”
“It’s such an iconic building in the golden age of television and the BBC,” Grade says. “It was circular which meant that you couldn’t get lost. If you kept walking you’d get to where you needed to go, which was a great help.”
So does he agree with Sir Terry Wogan that the decision to close it is “inexplicable”? “Then let him pay for the repairs,” Grade suggests. “The economics no longer support it, it is in disrepair. When I was chairman of the BBC we were forever sanctioning bills for sticking plaster to keep this thing going. It was state-of-the art but it’s well past its sell-by date.”
“A building is a building, in the end it’s about the impresarios who created the work. People like Sir Bill Cotton, who signed Morecambe & Wise and The Two Ronnies.” And Lord Grade himself, perhaps.
Affecting not to have noticed his 70th birthday this month, Grade maintains an active business career, chairing online retailer Ocado and the Pinewood Shepperton film studios.
The huge success of the Skyfall James Bond film has helped boost studio profits but Grade warns that unless planning permission is granted for £200m studio expansion on 100 acres of greenbelt land in Buckinghamshire, Britain could lose the 007 franchise to overseas rivals. Eric Pickles, Communities minister, rejected an initial Pinewood expansion proposal.
Grade said: “When my partner Ivan Dunleavy and I completed the buyout from Rank they didn’t have a single stage booked. Now we’re turning away business which is why we’ve got to be allowed to expand. The planning application is in with South Bucks. It’s a piece of land surrounded by a motorway. It’s not exactly a leafy beauty spot.”
Grade posits a nightmare scenario: “If Pinewood is full and then Bond rings up and says can we come, and we say ‘we’re full, we’re full’… Hopefully that won’t be the case and Bond will be ready to commit to dates as soon as possible. But we are turning away business at the moment and it’s heartbreaking.”
Ever the talent scout, Grade offers a controversial suggestion for the next Bond, whenever Daniel Craig hangs up his tuxedo. “I trust (producers) Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli to come up with the right solution. I always thought (Mad Men star) Jon Hamm might be good. An American playing Bond? Yes. He looks stunning when he gets his kit off. He looks like I did when I was young.”
He’s joking but if anyone can sell an American as the next 007 it could be one of British television’s great showmen.
Michael Grade: five to answer
Where was the last place you went for dinner? Home
What was the last book you read? A Hologram for the King, by Dave Eggers
What was the last concert/theatrical production you attended? The Audience, Peter Morgan’s new play starring Helen Mirren
What was the last sporting event you attended? Charlton Athletic vs Blackpool
What was the last film you saw? Argo
nerve centre: HQ history
* BBC Television Centre officially opened in 1960, some 11 years after the project was announced by then-controller Norman Collins.
* Shows recorded there include Blue Peter, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, The Generation Game, Top of the Pops, early series of Doctor Who and Strictly Come Dancing.
* It is the UK’s second-oldest operating television studio, after Granada Studios.
* There were 15 main studios and a further 10 used for news bulletins.
* Television Centre has been hit by a number of power cuts including, unfortunately, one that caused the launch night of BBC2 to be cancelled in 1964.