Michael Grade: Has his time finally come?

At the time it seemed like little more than cheap point-scoring but the comments made by Michael Grade when he last put himself forward for the chairmanship of the BBC now seem deeply insightful. As he threw his name into the ring to succeed outgoing chairman Christopher Bland three years ago, Mr Grade took a side-swipe at his chief rival Gavyn Davies: "His association with the current government is not a reflection on him, but I'd like to see politics taken out of the top BBC appointments. In a regulated national cultural institution like the BBC, it's wrong that people with known political affiliations should be in the top jobs, director-general excepted."

At the time it seemed like little more than cheap point-scoring but the comments made by Michael Grade when he last put himself forward for the chairmanship of the BBC now seem deeply insightful. As he threw his name into the ring to succeed outgoing chairman Christopher Bland three years ago, Mr Grade took a side-swipe at his chief rival Gavyn Davies: "His association with the current government is not a reflection on him, but I'd like to see politics taken out of the top BBC appointments. In a regulated national cultural institution like the BBC, it's wrong that people with known political affiliations should be in the top jobs, director-general excepted."

Davies got the job, of course. Only to be brought down by a misjudgement over the Dr Kelly affair as he desperately sought to demonstrate that despite his political allegiances he really was independent of government.

The departure opens the door for Grade once again. He emerged from his interview at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) last week declining to shed light on how it had gone. "I've no idea. I'm sure they'll let me know," he told reporters. His approach was very different from 2001 when Grade publicly threw down a challenge to the Government in an interview in which he said there were two certainties in his life. "One is that I would like to be chairman of the BBC. The second is that no one will ever ask me. I'm a bit of a strong taste, I think. Bit too independent." That tactic did not work. But failing to get the chairmanship in 2001 has not diminished his standing a jot.

Within months Grade had been appointed chairman of Camelot, operators of the National Lottery. Whenever a top job in broadcasting becomes vacant, Grade's name is inevitably mentioned. He was tipped to become chief executive of ITV but said he was not interested. As recently as January, he was being suggested as chairman of Scottish Media Group, where he is already a director. But that was the week of the Hutton report. The week when the British broadcasting landscape changed in a way that no one (not even Grade, in spite of his warnings of the dangers of political affiliation) could have predicted.

Now, within and without the BBC there is a feeling that Grade's time has come. One senior industry figure says: "The BBC needs a big character, a player who knows the industry, knows about public service broadcasting and who is not afraid of politicians. In any other country in the world except this one they would not believe their luck in being able to get someone like that for £81,000."

Grade's supporters point out that since he shocked the broadcasting world by leaving his position as chief executive of Channel 4, he has spent the past seven years running major companies.

Camelot and SMG aside, he is also the executive chairman of Pinewood-Shepperton film studios and is non-executive chair of Hemscott, the business information group. He is a director of the major independent production company Television Corporation and of his favourite football club, Charlton Athletic. Cabinet Office documents leaked just before Christmas revealed that he was being considered for a knighthood. All that after 23 years in broadcasting, working as a senior executive at London Weekend Television, becoming director of programmes at the BBC and going on to run Channel 4 for nine years.

The value of such experience to a board of governors whose shortcomings were so exposed by Hutton is obvious, say Grade's supporters. "It is no good having a bunch of people who are well suited to running a local hospital running the fifth largest media empire in the world with no experience at all," says one. "It's just absurd. They've got to move to another age."

Grade, 61, has not always been such a popular figure. His early career - as a sports journalist on the Daily Mirror turned theatrical agent - meant that he had to fight a hard battle for acceptance by the liberal elite in British television. As BBC director of programmes, he was attacked at the 1987 Edinburgh Festival by Channel 4 chief Jeremy Isaacs, who accused him of chasing ratings, to the detriment of the BBC. When Grade was shortly afterwards appointed as Isaacs' successor at Channel 4, Isaacs is said to have wept.

Grade believes that much of the hostility directed at him was born out of snobbery. "A lot of people believed the caricature of Grade the Barbarian who was going to come in and privatise the channel and turn it into ITV 2 and bring in Wogan and Des O'Connor," he later suggested. But the gasps of horror from the liberal intelligentsia that greeted his appointment at Channel 4 were soon replaced with a new animus from the commentators of the right.

His sanctioning of programmes such as The Word (featuring viewers eating worms or bathing in pigs' urine), Eurotrash (nudity and transvestism) and Dyke TV enraged the Daily Mail, whose columnist Paul Johnson famously dubbed Grade "Pornographer-in-Chief". Grade, said Johnson, was "a 52-year-old who grew not entirely to maturity in the 1960s".

Those that worked at Channel 4 remember things rather differently. Stephen Garrett, now running the independent company Kudos and the executive producer of the hit drama Spooks, remembers Grade as a "charismatic leader" and a "professional maverick". "During his time at Channel 4 he was someone who was incredibly supportive of risk taking, which is something that people are starting to mourn in anticipation as disappearing from the BBC," he says. "Allowing a creative team to have its head is one of the signs of a really healthy broadcasting organisation. He's someone to both inspire and encourage that."

Others describe Grade as "flamboyant" (he is known for his cigars, red socks and red power braces), "creative" (he backed the fledgling EastEnders at the BBC and co-financed Film Four projects such as Trainspotting and Four Weddings and a Funeral), and possessing "room-filling arrogance". He once railed at the British for "revelling in coming second" and being "grotesquely embarrassed" when things are going well.

His personality is partly the product of an upbringing that combined the glamour of being part of one of Britain's best-known theatrical families with the trauma of his parents' troubled relationship. He was only three when his mother left his father (the theatrical agent Leslie Grade) and left him to be brought up by his grandmother, Olga Winogradski, who is mentioned in his entry in Who's Who (unlike his mother, whom he has not seen since she left).

Grade's uncles were the impresarios Lew Grade (who ran ATV) and Bernard (later Lord) Delfont. He attended Stowe public school but left to finish his education at St Dunstan's College in south London. After a spell at the Mirror, which he joined at the age of 17, he worked for seven years as a theatrical agent in London, developing what he calls his "silver tongue". It was this asset that later helped him to clinch countless deals and to keep Chris Evans at Channel 4 during the heady times of Don't Forget Your Toothbrush and TFI Friday.

Learning the television trade at LWT in the 1970s he struck up a rapport with John Birt, who was later to become director-general of the BBC, and who as Lord Birt is now said to be agitating to overturn the cultural changes introduced to the corporation by his much-admired successor Greg Dyke. In Lord Birt's autobiography, The Harder Path, he recalls that the young Grade was "modest and honest about his handicaps, quick-thinking and street-smart".

But that friendship was not to last. When the pair became colleagues at the BBC in the late 1980s, internal politics caused Birt to fall out with Grade, who had been brought to the BBC by the corporation's managing director of television, Billy Cotton, a childhood friend and mentor.

Birt says in his autobiography that he had been "genuinely fond" of Grade. Then he adds: "I knew from close observation and from succeeding him at LWT, that he was weak creatively, managerially and strategically; but I had admired his quick-witted enterprise." A letter to Grade, offering to make up, was ineffective. Grade, by now at Channel 4, wrote back: "I'm sad it's come to this after all these years, but that was your choice. No point in meeting up really."

Grade left Channel 4 in good financial shape and drove up its audience share from 7 to 11 per cent, partly through pioneering the current vogue for buying quality American programmes. At the BBC his main successes included driving up the audiences for such programmes as Panorama and Omnibus by clever scheduling.

Since leaving television for the world of business, he has enjoyed mixed success. His tenure at Lord Delfont's First Leisure empire was not without its problems and he was accused by his aunt of "selling off the family silver" when the company disposed of Blackpool Tower and other assets. The Cabinet Office found that his difficulties at Camelot were "beyond his control". Now the Government must decide whether the time is right for him to return to broadcasting.

One former rival of Grade's admits he is the best candidate known to be on the shortlist. "The BBC needs a big personality to help with morale and he's certainly in the same category as Greg and would be welcomed at the Beeb," he says. "He came second last time and has the qualifications although I'm surprised he's willing to do the work for the money."

But the salary will not be a problem. When Grade last came to the BBC in 1984, after a spell working in America, he said: "I gave up my job in Hollywood on a basic salary of £500,000 to join the BBC on £38,000. That probably means I should be certified but money is the wrong reason to take a job." And neither should his political leanings prove an obstacle. As one senior industry figure and former colleague says: "I don't think any editor in the world could tell you how he votes."

A life in brief

Born: 8 March 1943, son of the theatrical agent Leslie Grade.

Family: Married Penelope Jane, 1967 (marriage dissolved, 1981), one son one daughter; Sarah Lawson, 1982 (marriage dissolved, 1991); Francesca Mary, 1998, one son.

Education: Stowe School; St Dunstan's College, London; Daily Mirror trainee journalist, 1960.

Career: Sports columnist 1964-66; theatrical agent, 1966-73; television programmer, London Weekend, 1973-81; director of programmes, BBC TV, 1986-87; chief executive, Channel 4, 1988-97; chief executive, First Leisure Corporation, 1997-2000; chairman, Octopus Publishing Company, 2000-01; chairman, Camelot, 2001-present.

He says... "I've had to work with governments of various persuasions and I've always kept my voting habits personal. I've never joined a political party. I've kept myself pure in that regard."

They say... "Thank God Michael Grade is not director-general of the BBC or we'd face a demand for doubled licence fees and have twice as much dirt, smut and other rubbish on its channels." - Norman Tebbit

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