Michael Grade: No more heroes

Lew Grade's cult shows from the Sixties are winning a new generation of fans. So, asks Robert Sellers, can the ITV boss Michael Grade match his uncle's golden touch?

I used to be one of those nerds who'd circle in pen the programmes I wanted to watch; now I don't even bother looking at the listings. Why? Because I know there's sod-all on. Of course, the Sixties and Seventies had their fair share of crud, but it's no coincidence that the bulk of TV shows being released on DVD herald from this golden age of British television.

My challenge to Michael Grade in his new role at ITV is to make shows that once again touch such a popular chord. Pretty much every cult show back then came from the same stable, ITC - The Saint, The Prisoner, Thunderbirds, The Persuaders, Danger Man, Stingray... the list is endless. There are fan clubs for each individual show, and conventions allow fans to meet their heroes, now mostly old and grey and rather bemused by all this idolisation. "They really are anoraks," says Francis Matthews, the voice of Captain Scarlet. "They dress up and stare at you when you're signing the autograph as if you're some kind of extraordinary god!"

All this can't just be nostalgia, people of a certain age wallowing in the memories of their youth, because all the time these shows are winning new generations of fans. When ITV4 started screening much of ITC's output at prime time earlier this year they were surprised when the shows pulled in the highest ratings on the channel. And Sky One wouldn't be wasting millions on a major reworking of The Prisoner, either.

ITC's origins go back to the birth of independent television itself in 1955 when cigar-chomping entrepreneur Lew Grade brought Robin Hood to the small screen (played by Richard Greene), in a series that ran 143 episodes and led to other historical derring-do in the shape of William Tell and Sir Lancelot. Desperately creaky today, these shows did give early exposure to future film stars such as Peter O'Toole, Christopher Lee, Robert Shaw and Michael Caine.

With the arrival of the spy series Danger Man, Robin Hood and his stocking-clad imitators looked redundant. Danger Man changed everything, becoming the blueprint for practically every future ITC show. In the person of Patrick McGoohan, TV also had its first big star, but an eccentric one who insisted that his spy never carry a gun or indulge in promiscuous sex. "Patrick was Roman Catholic and held strong beliefs," says Clive Donner, who directed early episodes. "He was also a strange man. I heard he bought a house near the studios and had some young daughters so surrounded the place with barbed wire. I think it was just to protect the children, but there was a certain sense of paranoia." McGoohan told another director that the basement of his house was a virtual shelter where he and his family could live if there was an atomic explosion.

Very different in personality was Roger Moore, who exploded on to TV screens as the Saint not long after. Ironically, both men would be approached to play James Bond before Sean Connery due to their successful ITC series. Moore was just the right sort of actor to play Simon Templar - good-looking, with a strong personality and a light comedy touch. "I like to play things for humour," he says. "Particularly as I was playing a hero because I consider myself to be devoutly unheroic to the extent of being a sheer coward. I think any heroism I have is the fact that I did things physically that I was absolutely petrified of doing."

Danger Man and The Saint, which ran for seven years, established ITC as the main purveyor of cult Sixties TV, and was quickly followed by the likes of Man in a Suitcase, The Champions, and Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased). Grade also wisely financed the puppet shows of Gerry Anderson, creating a whole cult sub-genre that remains as popular today as ever.

There was also, of course, The Prisoner, the granddaddy of all cult TV shows. McGoohan revelled in the fact that many of the allegorical aspects of his pet project flummoxed audiences, who kept watching out of a sheer morbid fascination to find out just what the hell was going on. One day on set, Grade asked McGoohan: "What's this show about?" McGoohan replied: "I don't know." Lew barked back. "Well I don't know either so I'd better find out what it is as I'm backing it."

The influence of another show, Jason King, proved just as far-reaching, becoming the template for Mike Myers' hugely popular character Austin Powers, with his chest wig, goofy teeth and horror show wardrobe. Incredibly, King's alter ego, actor Peter Wyngarde, was for a brief time the most famous man on television. "I couldn't go to any country in the world without being mobbed, physically attacked," he says.

One trip to Australia saw Wyngarde land at Sydney airport whereupon he was surrounded by women who wrestled him to the ground, tore at his clothes and grabbed tufts of pubic hair. "It was as if I was a feast. To be eaten raw. It was terrifying."

Show a picture of Wyngarde's Viva Zapata features or Moore with a halo above his head and most people will give a smile of recognition. ITC was making a brand of television shows that had never existed before and has never been equalled since. All the people working for them were proper film-makers. Roman Polanski's cinematographer did The Saint, Lindsay Anderson got an early directing job through ITC, and several leading Hollywood screenwriters, exiled from America because of the McCarthy communist witch hunts, were hired, notably Ring Lardner Jr who would go on to pen M*A*S*H. Everything was attacked in a film fashion, not a television fashion. Plus, they were shot on 35mm film, so each episode was a kind of mini-movie. "ITC was a very special place to work in," says director John Hough. "And the people cared. Instead of asking you to do it quicker and with less quality, they'd push you to excel yourself. It was creative and interesting, but very disciplined. It was like Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel on a nine-to-five contract."

In the Seventies, ITC diversified into science fiction with Space 1999 and Sapphire and Steel, as well as bringing together Tony Curtis and Roger Moore for The Persuaders. Grade also employed the variety format to devastating success when he bankrolled a young American puppeteer called Jim Henson, when no one else was interested, who came up with The Muppet Show. "I think Jim always felt that it would be successful," says Henson's widow, Jane. "He just didn't know how successful. I think it took all of us by surprise how the Muppets took off round the world. We used to joke that it played in more countries than existed."

Grade's most treasured accomplishment was the mini-series Jesus of Nazareth. Commissioned to film the story of Christ by the Pope himself, Grade hired Clockwork Orange author Anthony Burgess and director Franco Zeffirelli to realise his dream. When the film was completed, the Pope made a speech on the balcony overlooking St Peter's Square telling everybody to go home and watch it on TV that evening. You can't get better PR than that.

Jesus was played by Robert Powell, then living with his girlfriend, former Pan's People dancer Babs. It was a godsend for the tabloids and within days there was the inevitable headline: "Jesus living in sin with Pan's People dancer". When the paper came out, Grade buzzed the head of his press office, yelling: "What are they trying to do, crucify him?"

That story is typical Grade, and he is the real reason why ITC's shows were successful and why they have endured for so long. "Lew was quite simply a gem," Roger Moore remembers. "When he was at the height of his powers his energy was enormous. He would get off a plane without any jet lag and just go straight to work. His health regime consisted of never having butter and smoking cigars all day long."

In today's media climate, research groups and panels of executives spend months waffling about whether to do a show or not; if Grade liked your pitch you had a deal there and then. And he had little time for lawyers and unwieldy contracts, either; his handshake was usually enough of a guarantee. Incredibly, no contract was signed between Grade and McGoohan over The Prisoner and neither did Moore sign one to do The Persuaders; it was all based on trust. I doubt that would happen today.

"Lew was very straight and always kept his word," says his nephew Michael Grade. "He relied entirely on his instincts. And his judgement was very good. He wouldn't have lasted two minutes if he had no judgement, or if he was selling crap all the time. He picked good people and let them get on with it. The difference now is that everything is done by committee, they squeeze the life out of creativity."

Robert Sellers' book 'Cult TV: The Golden Age of ITC' is published by Plexus books

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