Obituary: Lord Bernstein
Saturday 06 February 1993
OF THE FOUR television contractors awarded franchises in the original television licence round of 1954, Granada is the only one that remains intact and unchanged to this day. Its survival over four decades is the best monument to the energy and drive of its founding father, Sidney Bernstein. Although never the most colourful of the initial ITV moguls - that title belongs, rightly, to Lord Grade - Bernstein was undoubtedly the dominant influence on the growth and development of commercial television in Britain.
Paradoxically, he had opposed its introduction. A great believer in public service broadcasting - one of Granada's first programmes, transmitted on its opening night, consisted of a tribute to the BBC - Bernstein took little or no part in the lobbying that preceded the passing of the Television Act of 1954. Only when the breaking of the BBC's monopoly seemed inevitable did he take action - and that, characteristically, was to warn the Labour Party of his intentions before inserting an advertisement in the Times announcing that his company 'had applied to the Postmaster-General for a licence to operate a commercial television station'.
In truth, it was the logical development of what had been the most consistent thread in Bernstein's varied business career. His father had been what would nowadays be known as a property developer; and, in an effort to make the various housing estates he built seem attractive, he usually acquired either a music hall or a picture palace in the vicinity. Leaving school at 15, Sidney soon became responsible for the entertainment side of the business. For him, however, it was by no means merely a matter of bricks and mortar. By 1925, when he was only 26, he had already played a key part in founding the Film Society centred on the New Gallery Kinema in Regent Street - a show-place for avant-garde foreign films unrestricted by censorship.
The prosperity of the family business rested, however, on more basic elements than that. Just before his father's death in 1922, Sidney had paid an early visit to the United States and had been much taken with the grandeur and magnificence of New York's movie houses. But, in Britain anyway, the appeal of the music hall still persisted - and Sidney's launching-pad into the world of popular entertainment was the Empire Theatre, Edmonton. As the new head of the family, he bought this derelict property from a former partner of his father's in 1922. For the next five years he ran it with great panache as a variety house before turning it into a cinema in 1927.
Other cinemas soon followed - mainly in north and east London. These, however, were simply conversions: it was not until 1929, with the coming of the 'talkies', that Bernstein actually built his first cinema, somewhat improbably at Dover, in Kent. (It was also the first to carry the proud brand-name of 'Granada'.) The designer was Theodore Komisarjevsky, a product of the Russian theatre with ornate and exotic tastes: soon his striking Moorish edifices started to rise all over England, reaching their apotheosis in the mad extravaganza of the Granada, Tooting, with its 150ft-long hall of mirrors, its minstrel's gallery and its almost cathedral-like impression of Gothic splendour.
Bernstein's own secret passion was always, however, for the 'live' theatre. In 1927, in association with Komisarjevsky, he had run the Court Theatre in Sloane Square for a single season and, although the venture was not a commercial success, it certainly gratified a side of Bernstein's nature by bringing him in contact with a host of eclectic artistic talent. By 1930 he had boldly built a new London playhouse, the Phoenix in Charing Cross Road. It opened in September 1930 with a new play, Noel Coward's Private Lives. The success of the initial production was not, though, to be repeated and, stage-struck though he may have been, it says something for Bernstein's consistent business acumen that, within two years, he should have sold the theatre and reverted to extending his chain of cinemas.
By the outbreak of war in 1939, there were some 30 of them - and, though they never rivalled the Rank or Odeon circuits, they were nearly always to be found occupying prime sites in the towns in which they materialised (where the buildings were not prestigious enough, they were not allowed to use the name 'Granada', but had to call themselves 'Century' cinemas instead). Bernstein, whose own hero was the American circus promoter PT Barnum, was a born impresario: the training he instilled into Granada managers and staff became a by-word in the trade.
He still, though, yearned to be more creative - and, strangely, the war brought him his chance. Too old to fight - he had just missed the First World War in which his elder brother had been killed - he at first faced the prospect of being left on the side-lines once again. The accession to power of Churchill in May 1940 brought him, however, an invitation to become Films Adviser to the Ministry of Information, with the honorary military rank of lieutenant-colonel. The offer from Duff Cooper, the new minister, was a brave one, for MI5 had reported that Bernstein was 'a security risk'. Duff Cooper resolved to disregard the security service's advice - and was amply justified in doing so. Although Bernstein certainly had a number of Communist friends - he had played a leading part in staging the London Reichstag 'counter-trial' of September 1933 - there is no evidence that he himself was ever a member of the Communist Party (though at one stage he certainly had close affiliations with it). In politics his only overt intervention had been to serve as a Labour member of Willesden Borough Council while he was in his twenties. In any event, his appointment to the Ministry of Information proved a triumphant success - with Bernstein acting as official godfather to a number of patriotic films, including Noel Coward's In Which We Serve (1942), based on Mountbatten's experiences as a destroyer commander.
The end of the war found Sidney Bernstein once again at a loose end. The war years had brought a boom to the cinema industry and his company, with the solid contributions of his younger brother, Cecil, was now virtually running itself. There followed a strange interlude in which he went to Hollywood and, in conjunction with his old friend Alfred Hitchcock, concerned himself with film production, forming a company called Transatlantic Films. It was not Bernstein's finest hour: the company produced only three films - Rope (1948), Under Capricorn (1949) and I Confess (1953) - and none of them made anyone's fortune at the box-office.
This five-year stay in the United States also cost Bernstein his first marriage. He had married in 1936 a Daily Express columnist called Zoe Farmer but, with very different interests, they had gradually grown apart. The final severance meant that Bernstein had to move out of his grand flat in Arlington House, Piccadilly, though he retained his country farm, Coppings, in Kent, which he had bought on his marriage in 1936. Unlike his more conventional brother, Cecil, Sidney had always believed in living in some style - even when forced to leave Arlington House, he immediately moved to Mount Street, Mayfair, and before that his London addresses had included Albemarle Street and Albany (his last London house, shared with his second wife, Sandra, overlooked Green Park).
It remains an open question whether - but for the coming of commercial television - Bernstein would not have drifted into being simply a rich man, if one of fastidious taste and a discriminating choice of friends. But the opening up of ITV offered him a fresh world to conquer. In his mid-fifties he was at the height of his powers and the new medium afforded him just the kind of challenge for which all his earlier life now seemed to be a mere apprenticeship. At long last, he could put the 'roll-up, roll-up' audience philosophy of Barnum into creative action, while at the same time demonstrating that ITV could more than match the BBC in quality standards.
But, in fact, it was not all plain sailing. In the early months of ITV, Granada very nearly went bust. Having refused all offers of corporate partnership, Bernstein was reduced to reaching a secret deal with the then London franchise-holder, Associated Rediffusion. By its terms, for four years the stronger London company underwrote all Granada's network production costs and took in exchange a substantial proportion of the northern contractor's net advertising revenue. It was a highly unorthodox arrangement, and it is by no means certain that it would have met with the formal approval of the then Independent Television Authority (fortunately, in those highly difficult times, the authority chose to avert its gaze). At least, however, at a cumulative cost ultimately reckoned to be some pounds 8m, Bernstein had secured the viability and independence of his company. In his later years, he always claimed to have no regrets - and certainly Granada might well have foundered but for its chairman's ingenuity in devising this unique rescue operation.
When the years of prosperity finally arrived - Granada made its last payment to Associated Rediffusion in 1960 - they were inevitably accompanied by change and expansion. The company's cinemas were turned into bingo halls, Granada launched with great success into the high- street world of television rentals, it pioneered motorway service stations (opening one of the earliest on the M1) and for nearly 20 years established a bridgehead in London publishing (owning at one stage the houses of McGibbon & Kee, Rupert Hart-Davis, half of Jonathan Cape as well as the paperback imprints of Panther and Paladin).
But none of these new ventures - not even publishing - ever replaced his television company in the chairman's own affections. He lavished on its output - particularly its drama productions - the same meticulous vigilance that all those years ago he had given to the managers and usherettes in his cinemas. Although a shrewd spotter of talent, he was by no means a delegator: woe betide, for example, the humblest presenter in a local programme who disregarded the chairman's prohibition against the display of a handkerchief in a breast pocket.
Once the time came for Bernstein to retire - he left the chair of the television company when he was well into his seventies and the Granada main board only after his 80th birthday - he did so remarkably gracefully. His last years - spent largely with his wife and children (he first became a father at the age of 56) - were surprisingly mellow ones. Until illness overtook him, he was frequently to be found in the Garrick Club bar and, rather less regularly, at the House of Lords, to which he had been raised by Harold Wilson in 1969.
A showman almost to the end, he was always immaculately dressed (usually in a blue silk suit) and never lost the art of displaying, even to near strangers, his strange instinct for intimacy. He could probably have made his mark in any walk of life, certainly in politics and possibly also in newspapers. It was the British public's good fortune - if also, perhaps, the British Left's loss - that he should have chosen instead largely to subordinate his political convictions to the pursuit and control of the 20th century's two successive most potent instruments of mass communication; first the cinema and then television.
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