Film: A studio boss to believe in

At 91, it's already too late for Lew Grade to retire. Geoffrey Macnab met up with the showman with the spiel that would put even Don King to shame
"I love the Monte Cristo cigar. I started in 1943," Lew Grade confides, remembering the most important day in his life. He was 36 years old, recently invalided out of the army, working as a theatrical agent, but still just a little "nervous of the stars". Somebody had given his wife a box of cigars. She passed them on to him, even though he didn't smoke. One morning, the firm's most important client walked in, determined to terminate his agreement. Before the man had a chance to open his mouth, Grade offered him a Monte Cristo and lit one for himself. "That was the day I was born," he rhapsodises. "It made me feel at ease." Sure enough, the client stayed, and Grade has been puffing away happily ever since.

"I start my first one at 6.30 every morning, except on weekends," the 91-year-old tycoon explains through a haze of smoke. "I smoke seven a day. Sometimes I cheat a little and have an extra one." As he talks up the merits of his new film, Something To Believe, Grade thumps the desk with one hand and waves the trademark cigar with the other. "Everybody must have something to believe in," he bellows. "I believe in 'Something To Believe In'. 'Something To Believe In' is the best film I have ever made."

The original script, he confesses, was awful. But he took the risk, poured in his own money, prevailed upon old friends such as Tom Conti, Robert Wagner and Jill St John to make cameo appearances and even managed to persuade Placido Domingo to sing the theme song which, quite naturally, has lyrics by Tim Rice.

Grade is as close as Britain has come to Hollywood's flamboyant studio bosses - ironically, though, he only really entered the movie business in the twilight of his career, after what he still sees as his crowning achievement, the TV mini-series, Jesus Of Nazareth.

Look through his filmography and few especially memorable films leap out. True, he had a hand in financing On Golden Pond (which was turned down by all the Hollywood studios but went on to rake in a fortune) and supported Sophie's Choice, but the film Grade is most readily associated with is Raise The Titanic - which prompted his famous quip that it might have been cheaper to "lower the Atlantic". No, he hasn't seen James Cameron's billion-dollar grosser, and no, Raise The Titanic was not the failure critics have claimed. "I still say it was a good film ... It made money in Japan.'

Along with his prodigious consumption of cigars, Grade is celebrated for his Charleston dancing. He was once a world champion hoofer. After hanging up his dancing shoes, Grade proved equally nimble as a businessman. He was one of the moving forces behind the rise of ITV, producing such shows as Robin Hood, Danger Man, The Saint, Thunderbirds and The Prisoner, and managing to sell many of them in the US as well.

However, British television, Grade believes, is not what it was. In particular, he bemoans the decline in light entertainment. "What I watch now is news and sport, but not light entertainment, because to me that is nothing like it was." Now and again, he tunes in to Bruce Forsyth or Des O'Connor, but he fears that there is precious little new talent, "and talent is everything".

Throughout his career, whether working with one brother Leslie as an agent, or in cahoots with another (Bernard Delfont) in an attempt to carve British films a niche in the American market, or simply horse trading with his nephew, Michael, Grade's business career and family life have often overlapped. Family values, one suspects, are what attracted him to Something To Believe In, which he describes an an old-fashioned story about faith, hope and love. It is a terminal illness melodrama, albeit one with a happy ending. "I wanted a film that was big, looked beautiful and meant something ... a film which did not have violence, bad language or nudity."

No profile of Lord Grade ever neglects to mention how hard he works. Yes, he is still in his Mayfair office by 7am every morning. He is Chairman For Life of ITC, the company he founded in the early 1950s. With films planned of several of his old series, such as Thunderbirds and The Prisoner, he's likely to remain in the news. At the age of 91, it's probably too late to retire anyway.

'Something To Believe In' is scheduled to open in May.

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