The end of the end-of-the-pier show: a salutary farewell to Michael Grade. Enter, stage right, the first media-schooled TV mogul
Monday 14 July 1997
His roots in an old Jewish family of theatrical agents kept poking through the Salute to Michael Grade staged by the Royal Television Society last Thursday night. "I've always thought Michael would make a great game-show host," said Bruce Forsyth, in a tribute to the cigar-chomping impresario.
The audience of fellow telly folk gathered at the Dorchester Hotel in London's West End had to endure (sorry, enjoy) nine of these oral testimonials before the microphone was handed to Grade, who delivered up a series of amusing anecodotes like a stand-up at the Hackney Empire. Some of his reminiscences were moving (though most of us, it must be said, would have happily settled for the edited highlights).
Mercifully, he threw a few scraps to the newshounds in attendance by once again savaging the BBC's director-general, John Birt. The Daily Mail, which famously branded him "Britain's pornographer-general", did not escape his wrath, either. Grade recounted how, when one of his great mentors, Cyril Bennett, fell to his death from a high-rise apartment, the voice of Middle England published a picture the next day graphically depicting the fatal drop. "Whenever the Daily Mail has criticised me on the grounds of taste, I remember that photograph," he stated solemnly.
One of the most genuine tributes was paid by another fat-cigar chomper: his uncle, Lew Grade, who plainly regards him as more of a son than a nephew. "Recently, when we celebrated our 55th wedding anniversary, my wife revealed that Michael was the only other man she had ever slept with," he jested. "I hasten to add, he was only three and I was on the other side."
The reason he was cuddling up to his aunt and uncle is because Michael Grade's youth had an undeniably tragic dimension. Shortly before his third birthday his mother ran off with a Canadian air force captain, abandoning him and the rest of the family.
Newspaper profile-writers have repeatedly floated the theory that this is the main reason why he himself went on to have two failed marriages. Personally, I've always been slightly suspicious of journalists (usually female, it may be said) who revel in applying a Woolworth's psychology kit to prominent public figures.
Grade made only one, joking reference to his private life last Thursday night: "55 years of marriage - I don't think I'm going to match that!"
Earlier, the presenter Esther Rantzen paid a plainly heartfelt tribute when she recounted how, in his stint as BBC1 controller, Grade had made a significant contribution to the success of Live Aid by agreeing to give Bob Geldof five minutes of air time just before Top of the Pops. The producers of that programme had refused to stray from their firm policy of playing records only after they had broken into the charts.
Grade also proved to Rantzen that he had a heart of gold when he later disrupted the Thursday evening prime time schedule to allow her to launch Childline.
Compassion is, of course, not uncommon in the variety business, as evidenced by the spendid charity work done by the Variety Club of Great Britain. But Grade also displayed empathy with his colleagues at both the Beeb and Channel 4, convincing them that, as Rantzen expressed it, "he cared about people who cared about programmes". Which, again, was a sensitivity he developed in his time as a variety agent. Grade acknowledged this in a lighthearted gag: "My approach has always been the same: spot talent, nurture it ... and exploit it."
Grade is turning his back on television to take charge of First Leisure, whose entertainment empire includes Blackpool Tower and a string of bingo halls. He turned slightly serious at the end of his Dorchester address, saying he was worried for the next generation. "Who's going to teach them the way I was taught? I was lucky to be born into a family that knew the business, and have my uncle Lew's love and encouragement."
His successor as chief executive of Channel 4, Michael Jackson, had a quite different upbringing. He is the son of a Cheshire baker, and certainly wasn't hanging around the Palladium in his early teens. Contrary to some reports, he wasn't dreaming up fantasy TV schedules, either. But he is a true child of the television age. Jackson gained a first-class honours degree in media studies at the Central London School of Communications before embarking upon an ice-cool strategy to break into television. He wrote a dissertation about the need for Channel 4 before the channel was created.
In contrast to Michael Grade, who has never produced programmes, Jackson has a passion for programme-making. His record at BBC2 in particular (where he was responsible for a stream of innovations, from This Life, the cult drama series about twenty-something trainee lawyers who share a flat in London, to Fantasy Football League) suggests that he will do something for Channel 4 that neither Michael Grade nor his predecessor, Jeremy Isaacs, managed to achieve, which is to radicalise both the form and the content of programmes.
Jackson doesn't have a foot in the variety theatre, or in the opera house. He has both firmly in the world of broadcasting, which he regards as a highly creative and challenging art form in its own right.
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