Still making the Grade

OK, so he's never going to be the BBC's director-general. But he's done every other job in television and nowadays has Pinewood Studios and an infant son to keep him busy. Besides, six years in therapy have taught him you don't have to be perfect
Click to follow
The Independent Online

I must say, I am quite excited about meeting Michael Grade. Yes, as it happens, I have always had a bit of a thing for him. But this is not, I should add, just because he is famous, successful, powerful and Jewish. He's also rich and has A BOAT! Tragically, however, I am not at my most ravishingly attractive today. Tragically, I've come out in a cold sore the size of New Zealand. You could start a penal colony on it. "Mr Grade," I tell him straight off. "I'm afraid I really will not be able to neck with you or anything today. I'm sorry, I hate to disappoint you, but there you have it."

Oddly, Mr Grade does not look especially dismayed. Six years of psychotherapy (as it later turns out) and he still can't show his true emotions! Instead, he laughs and says: "There is a wonderful line Jackie Mason used to have. He used to say: 'I'm not beautiful on the outside. You can see that. But I have inner beauty. In my photos I look terrible, but in my X-rays, I'm gorgeous!'" I say: "I know what he means. You should see my kidneys. They're adorable. Still, no kissing!" He laughs again. He's a big man who likes big cigars and has a satisfyingly big laugh. Actually, now I think about it, he's not that big. It's just that he seems to take up a lot of space.

Anyway, we meet at Pinewood Studios, in Buckinghamshire, where, after doing most of the top jobs in telly - head of light entertainment at LWT, president of Embassy TV in Hollywood, director of programmes at the BBC, chief executive of Channel 4 - he has landed as the studio's new owner and chairman. The studio is, of course, already world-famous - all the Carry On films were shot here, as are the Bond films - and now Michael has big plans for it.

"We need to get some TV in here. We have such great facilities, we should actually be the number one film and television studio. I introduced TV on to the Universal lot in Hollywood when I was there, and it was most successful." I ask him if he misses actually being in telly. He insists not: "I miss the cutting rooms and the scripts and the casting and the ideas, but for the last four, five years at Channel 4 I never got anywhere near production. The game became a political game, and I spent 70 per cent of my time [doing] political lobbying. It had to be done, but it wasn't what I'd gone into television for." What do you watch on the box these days? "ER is a very good programme. I hate the show for ending. You know, you look at your watch, and think 'oh shit, that's the second break'. It's such gripping television, and so intelligent."

"Do you ever hang in for Sex in the City afterwards?" I ask. "Yes, but only because my wife [his third wife, Francesca] thinks it's wonderful."

"I can't stand those bloody women," I say. "I want to punch them all and then tell them to go read a book or something."

"The show is not about people, but attitudes. For me, the people aren't real. Would I have bought it? I don't think I would have. But then I turned down The X-Files, so what do I know?"

"I've thought of a good programme, actually."


"Yes, it's a one-off drama in which Alan Titchmarsh does a make-over of David Jason's garden but falls on his dibber and has to be taken to hospital where Robson Greene performs an emergency operation before going out to high tea - eggy and soldiers - with John Thaw, and then home to bed with Zoë Ball. Or Carol Smillie. Or both, preferably. Whadya think, Mike? It can't fail, can it?"

"It's very good. Very, very good," he says.

"You see. I'm not just a pretty pair of kidneys!"

We shift from his outer office, where his nice secretary, Ann, types away next to a professional sized can of Neutrodol (The cigars? "Yes," she sighs) into his office proper. It's fairly nondescript, apart from the desk. This seems to take up a lot of space because it does. It's huge. It's the size of a tennis court, almost. "Michael!" I exclaim. "You know what they say about men and big desks?"

"I can guess," he says, quickly. "They say," I continue, "that you'd better get a big stapler, or it's going to look pretty stupid." He says the desk is about to go, actually. He inherited it, and it's just not his style. But what is his style, exactly?

He has his critics, I know, like the Daily Mail columnist Paul Johnson who famously dubbed him "Britain's pornographer in chief" for screening programmes such as The Girlie Show and The Word and Dyke TV, and all the other youth-oriented, late-night shows Mr Johnson seemed compelled to stay up for. Hurtful? "No. Criticism only hurts if it comes from people you respect, or have admiration for. But criticism from the likes of Paul Johnson...

His fans are more numerous, certainly. He is known to be a brilliant scheduler with, The X-Files aside, a good instinct for commissioning decent shows, popular shows and even ground-breaking shows, like Dennis Potter's Singing Detective and Alan Bleasdale's The Monocled Mutineer. Plus, he is generally viewed as much warmer and wittier and more charming than your average, high-achieving, dry, John Birt-like corporate man. Certainly, women have always gone in for him rather. Three times married, yes, but also much affaired. Was that what therapy was about? An inability to sustain relationships?

Yes, it was. What did he learn? "The main thing I learned was that relationships are hard work."

"And you didn't work at relationships?



"Have you got six years? That's a whole other story. But, essentially, that's what I learned. That, and it's OK not to be perfect."

"Why did you think you had to be perfect?"

"No idea... well, you sense that if you are not perfect, you make yourself very vulnerable."

"And you can't sustain a relationship unless you can show vulnerability?"

"I think that's right, yes."

Of course, all this has much to do with his extraordinary childhood. He was raised by his grandmother, Olga Winogradsky, a Russian-Jewish émigré and formidable mother of showbiz barons Lord Grade and Lord Delfont and Michael's father, Leslie, the great theatrical agent. They did all right, Olga's boys, didn't they? "I've often wondered about that. How come they were all so successful? Well, I think they were very hungry, and it's a fantastic motivator, hunger."

Lord Grade - that is, Michael's Uncle Lew - took Michael to his first movie. "It was Yma Sumac in the Secret of the Incas. Actually, the actress was really Amy Camus, but she'd turned her name around. Ha! She had a seven or eight octave voice which meant that the film kept stopping, so that she could wail from the top of pyramids or whatever. I can't remember much more about the film, but Yma Sumac is engraved on my heart. And all the way home, Uncle Lew - God rest his soul - did his impression of her... "

Michael adored Olga. She could be tyrannical, yes, but she was also very affectionate and had a beautiful singing voice. "When she was happy, she would warble away in the kitchen. Her voice really was the strongest thing about her. Her favourite expressions were 'oy' and 'mustn't grumble'. How are you today Olga? 'Mustn't grumble'."

This, neatly, gives me a good opportunity to tell him my favourite Jewish joke.

"How many Jews, Mr Grade, does it take to change a light bulb?"

"I don't know," he replies gamely. "How many Jews does it take to change a light bulb?""None. 'It's alright. I'll just sit in the dark.'"

He tells me his favourite: "Dolly and Sadie are talking when Dolly says: 'Sadie, are you wearing a wig?' 'Yes,' says Sadie. 'Well,' says Dolly, 'you'd never know'." We chuckle quite a lot.

Still, can a grandmother's love ever replace a mother's? Perhaps not. Leslie had married Michael's mother - a Welsh woman, Winifred Smith - in 1940, when she was already pregnant with Michael's older sister, Lynda. Olga was not, initially, told about the marriage. (Pregnant! And a gentile!) Luckily, Olga had been evacuated from London because of the blitz, so Leslie was able to lead a double life for the first year of the marriage, oscillating between a flat in Hackney with his wife and baby, and visits to his mother where he behaved as if he was still single. There was, apparently, "hell to pay" when Olga found out, and she then absolutely refused to accept Winifred. Then, when Michael was 15-months-old, his mother fell in love with a Canadian airman and left. Michael has not seen her since, even though he knows she is still alive, and living in the Home Counties. Now, of course I don't know why she has never bothered to contact him, but why has he never bothered to contact her?

He is certainly a man of some curiosity. Indeed, he once even described himself as: "not remotely intellectual. I'm more a kind of intellectual spiv. I have great curiosity and Hoover things up." So I put it to him: if you are a curious person, then the one thing you might be really curious about is your mother. No? He sighs. I am being very tiresome now, I know. He says: "I think there is a gender thing going on here. I think all the women that I've ever met blink with disbelief because I haven't followed it up.

"But I think on the emotional side of one's life, men are more prone to bury things and not confront them. I think a woman's curiosity is much greater on the emotional side. A woman needs to understand that stuff. I've talked about it with Francesca and she's very respectful and understands that side of things, but is still mystified, yes." What if someone were to call, saying your mother was very ill and wished to see you? Would you go? "If that were to happen, I'd listen to my instincts at the time." Did your mother have more children? Do you have any half-brothers or half-sisters? "I have no idea."

I'm not sure he has ever properly resolved this mother business. Or forgiven his mother, even. Does he abandon relationships for fear that, if he doesn't they will abandon him? Wasn't he worried when he married for the third time? No, he says, absolutely not: "I never thought I would get married again, but I met Francesca (who used to work in the film rights department of a publishing house), and that was that. Plus, we'd had a very long courtship and I'd matured a bit. Not a lot. But enough."

They have a son, Samuel, who is now 17 months old. And Michael is smitten. "He can say 'mummy' and 'daddy' and 'picnic'." He has two grown-up children from his first marriage but, although he is close to them now, he wasn't around for them much when they were little. "Did I miss out? Yes."

He says he is happy, running Pinewood. Plus, he has recently been appointed the new chair of Index on Censorship, the magazine of free expression. He has no plans to return to telly. What? Not even if you were offered director-general of the BBC? "God, no," he gasps.

"There was a time, when I was young and foolish, that I might have harboured such an ambition. But once you get into the BBC, you get swept up into the 'what's my next job?' culture. Most people at the BBC are more worried about their next job than they are about doing their present job. Plus, it's a gruelling, gruelling, job that takes over your life. I can't imagine them asking me and I can't imagine doing it. I'm beyond that, really."

We say our goodbyes. We do not kiss. I say I'm truly, truly sorry about the kissing business. Still, he does not act as if he is especially dismayed. He sure knows how to mask disappointment. You know, if I were him, I'd ask that psychotherapist for my money back.