Michael Grade was born into showbiz. His grandparents Olga and Isaac Winogradsky were Russian immigrants who came to pre-First World War Britain with three sons and a daughter. And like many Jewish immigrants in the East End of London, they changed their name. Michael’s father was Leslie Grade, who became a famous theatrical agent representing the kind of stars who appeared at the London Palladium, his uncles were Bernard Delfont and Lew Grade, the founder of ATV, later Central Television, and the man who introduced The Muppets to the world. Talking to Saga Magazine in 2004, Grade said: “Being a Grade opened more doors than it closed. It could have been a problem if you came from a family where there was no goodwill, but the Grades enjoyed so much goodwill. They had integrity. They were gentlemen.” Sadly, after losing his father early in 1979, Grade’s uncle Delfont died in 1994 and then Lew Grade four years later. “There is a huge hole in my life now. It’s tough not having anybody there to ring and ask what to do. It’s difficult explaining who these people were,” he added.
The young Grade began his media career as a sports reporter for the Daily Mirror in 1960, with his own column featuring between 1964 and 1966. He has said that his father was responsible for him getting the job in the first place, by arranging for the 17-year-old to turn up in a Rolls-Royce. In 1966, his father suffered a heart attack. This was an event that saw Grade moving into the family business and becoming joint managing director of the all-powerful talent agency London Management, which had Morecambe and Wise, Bruce Forsyth and Alec Guinness on its books. Uncle Bernard is believed to have told the young Grade, “You have got to get serious, young man – your father’s not going to be the power he was and we need you to learn the business.” At the age of 30, Grade joined London Weekend Television in 1973. The preceding years had been a turbulent time for the broadcaster, when between 1969 and 1970, Australian media owner Rupert Murdoch owned a controlling interest in the LWT. Sound familiar? Murdoch had made some unpopular board decisions, and though he had grown LWT’s profits and audience share, the Independent Television Authority expressed concern that a foreign national, and owner of significant British newspaper interests should own a British television station, so Murdoch was given an ultimatum to sell up, or LWT would have its licence revoked. The ITA won, and so Murdoch left in 1971.
At LWT, Grade worked his way from deputy controller of programmes for entertainment to becoming director of programmes by 1976. There he worked alongside other TV big shots like Greg Dyke and John Birt. In his 2002 autobiography, The Harder Path, Birt, despite later falling out with Grade, describes him as “modest and honest about his handicaps, quick-thinking and street-smart.” Key commissions during Grade’s time at LWT include the controversial sitcom Mind Your Language, arts show The South Bank Show and crime show The Professionals.
In the early 80’s Grade left Britain for a short time in the US, where he was president of Embassy Television and an independent producer. He returned, and in 1984 became controller of BBC One, and then BBC Television director of programmes in 1986, and managing director designate in 1987. During his time as controller, Grade was caught up in a number of controversies around programme decisions to do with the axing of Dynasty and Doctor Who. Interestingly, at the time Colin Baker was sacked as the Doctor, Grade was dating Baker’s ex-wife Liza Goddard.
Grade was also involved in the launch of Eastenders, and was credited by Bob Geldof for having “the bottle” to hand over the network for 24 hours of Live Aid coverage in 1985. On the advice of his daughter, he was also behind the decision to repeat the lunchtime edition of Neighbours at teatime, which drew in an audience of over 15 million. It was Grade who insisted that sitcom Blackadder’s second series could only be made if it was completely studio based with an audience, as the first series’ many location sequences had made the show expensive. He gave Lenny Henry his first series, made stars of the ’Allo ’Allo! cast and launched the marine drama Howard’s Way. But over time he fell out with director-general Michael Checkland and his successor John Birt. Of Birt he said: “When he became director-general he was determined to do it his way and I was determined to carry on doing what I had been doing. But I didn’t want to get involved in an internecine struggle in the office. He was determined to win. He is a master politician. That is of no interest to me. I am interested in entertainment.”
Which is exactly why, in 1987, he left the BBC to join a five-year-old Channel 4 as chief executive. Grade gave the go-ahead for such televisual feasts as debate show After Dark, The Word, Eurotrash and Dyke TV. It was in this post that Grade was nick-named “pornographer-in-chief” by the Daily Mail columnist Paul Johnson. During this time Grade got into a dispute with comedian Chris Morris over Brass Eye, and was instrumental in securing deals for hit US shows to work the schedule around and ultimately grow the channel’s share of viewers. He also famously hired a falcon to deter pigeons from excreting on Channel 4’s newly finished offices in Victoria.
During his high profile television career Grade’s personal life has taken a battering. Like many men of his stature he had a ‘work-hard-play-hard’ attitude, and was attracted to well-heeled women. His first marriage to Penny Levinson, with whom he had two children, ended when after 12 years, Levinson accused him of an affair with a TV researcher. His second marriage to Lord Burnham’s daughter Sarah Lawson lasted eight years, and after they divorced she said: “It was the work which killed the marriage.” He is now on his third marriage, to former HarperCollins publishing house executive Francesca, who Grade met at a Royal Television Society Awards night. The pair were married in 1998 and have a six year old son, Samuel.
After receiving a CBE in the same year, Grade left television in 1999 to go on to hold a variety of posts outside the industry. He headed up the bar and fitness club operation First Leisure, was chairman of Pinewood and Shepperton Studios, joined the board of the doomed Millennium Dome, was the chairman of Octopus Publishing, the Camelot Group, financial publisher Hemscott and became a non-executive director of the Scottish Media Group.
In an interview with Saga Magazine in January 2004, he talks of how he would have loved the director-general’s job at the BBC, and how at the time he was relishing the reality of spending more with his family, rejecting any notions of making a return to the cut and thrust of television. “If I were asked to come back tomorrow, I’d have to say no. What do I want to go back that way for? What could I achieve? No, I am very happy. Television was very good to me but you get out before you get stale,” he said.
But after making the shortlist for the role in 2001, Grade was appointed BBC chairman in May 2004, following Gavyn Davies’ resignation over criticism of the BBC by the Hutton Inquiry, and it was announced he would resign from his roles on the boards of SMG, Camelot and the Television Corporation. During his time, he saw the successful revival of Doctor Who. He is reported to have written a letter to the team behind the programme congratulating them, ending the letter with, “PS Never dreamed I would ever write this. Must be going soft!”
Grade was described by BBC media correspondent Torin Douglas at the time as “an independent person, independent of government – he believes in journalism, he believes in creative programme making. He believes in audiences watching and listening to programmes, but that does not mean he is merely a popularist.” He is also known for his charisma and charm. During a press conference regarding his BBC appointment, a BBC staff member brought Grade a glass of water, and he said: “Good career move – get his name.” 2004 was also the year that Grade was made vice-president of Bafta, following his appointment as a Fellow of Bafta ten years before.
In September 2006, he added the chairmanship of delivery company Ocado to his post as a Charlton Athletic director, which along with the Pinewood and Hemscott roles, he was also allowed to retain under the BBC rules. But it was on November 28 last year that he surprised everyone by announcing that he would be resigning from the corporation and literally “switch to the other side” by becoming “executive chairman” of ITV. A role which effectively meant he replaced Charles Allen, who left as chief executive in the summer, ending months of feverish speculation around Allen’s likely successor.
His decision came days after BSkyB bought a 17.9% stake in ITV, so the news assured ITV staff of some real leadership to ward off any potential board influencing moves by Murdoch and his clan. Appearing on Channel 4 News shortly after his appointment, Grade said he hoped he would provide some “peace and stability for the creative folk at ITV” and that Sky’s share acquisition was merely “an investment for a good return.” At the time he indicated that despite not wanting to make any immediate changes, ITV’s news coverage was something he was keen to look at, with ITV news no longer being shown primetime at 1.30pm and 10.30pm. But since the announcement, speculation has been rife about senior level changes at ITV. Grade has said he backs the ITV creative team, including director of programmes Simon Shaps, and wishes to act as "boss and mentor". But the ITV board, with an average age of 60 years, is unlikely to be so lucky, as the new man in charge looks for executives with a greater understanding of today's media landscape.
The main challenge for Grade will be to return ITV to its days as the home of mass popular entertainment, once enjoyed during his Uncle Lew’s association with ITC shows on ITV, like The Prisoner, The Saint, Thunderbirds, Jesus of Nazareth and The Muppets, but mindful of the 21st century multi-media viewer. When asked in 2004 when he was going to retire, he replied: “When the phone stops ringing. When people stop asking for my advice.” With all the troubles ITV has had in the last 12 months, his phone at Network Centre will be ringing off the hook.
Grade has referred to his move to ITV as "his last chance for a proper job” and “like going home”, in reference to his uncle’s involvement in founding the channel and his own associations through his first job at LWT. Speaking to Sky News last year, he said: “I will do my best to deliver great programmes to viewers and restore advertising revenues and create value for shareholders." One is certain that he will not lose motivation with a salary in the region of £1.8 million, and Murdoch as one of those shareholders.
Coming up to their 64th birthday, most men would be thinking about slowing down, not taking on a task of turning around the UK’s terrestrial commercial network. It will be interesting to see whether his cigar smoke will linger at ITV for the expected two years, if he can’t turn things around. But even if it's just one year, judging by the level of applause from staff he was greeted to on a brief pre-Christmas visit to ITV, it will be a happier 12 months for ITV than have just passed.
Good luck with the new job, Michael.