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1440 Society meeting at 170 Queen’s Gate

1440 Society meeting at 170 Queen’s Gate, Imperial College, London President’s Residence, on Thursday 17th March 2016 at 7 pm

Lord Grade, Michael Grade, Chairman of Pinewood Studios

Found his way into film from the East End of London – his grandfather was a Ukrainian immigrant. His uncle Lou was a world champion Charleston dancer. As there was no money in dancing he decided to become a variety agent along with his brothers, Michael Grade’s father and other brother Bernie in order to make money. After seeing a TV advertisement, Lou said “let’s go into television” and that became the family business.

Michael started his career after school as a sports journalist. Infamously he watched Muhammed Ali being knocked out. Although the Daily Mirror hangout was the White Hart pub, one day he went down to the Daily Express hangout, another pub with all the other sports journalists of the day. Someone gave a tip on a winning horse at 8-1, all the journalists from all the different papers at the pub to hear the tip won big but none of the newspapers printed the story! The standards of journalism in Tabloids has fallen into the gutter as a result of Rupert Murdoch’s move to the UK. I think it may be Facebook!

His father and uncles built the Empire family firm into a successful business so when his father got ill, Michael decided to join as a talent agent. He moved out of corporate EMI life and focussed on talent agency. After that he moved in to light entertainment at London Weekend Television, with big shows of the day such as Upstairs Downstairs. IT was a huge monopoly in those days but his bonus was just a packet of M&S biscuits. He moved to the US where he was offered much more money -  his Hollywood Christmas bonus was a cheque for two times his annual salary!!

His boss Gerry said, “All shows were pancakes – throw ‘em against the wall and perhaps one will stick!” After 3 years of experience in the USA, the BBC got in touch. Michael took the biggest pay cut in history and came back to run BBC1. Only Fools and Horses had just started – he inherited it. He then spent 10 years at Channel 4. Here the subject matter of the programming was made very difficult due to the politics of the period.

Mary Whitehouse and Dennis Potter’s notorious scene – The Bonking Scene in The Singing Detective - where a boy witnesses his mother having sex from a treehouse in the garden, the first sex scene shown on British television! This led to “Referring Up” – BBC jargon for a problem that had to be escalated to the management. Michael approved it for TV after close inspection to be shown after the 9 pm watershed to great criticism from certain factions, leading to great public debate. Winston Churchill Jnr implicated in the campaign to bring TV under the Obscene Publications Act.

Lord Grade brought Neighbours to British TV from Australia as an antidote to EastEnders. Eventually TV crossed the line into pure exploitation – Big Brother. Lord Grade was responsible for cancelling Dr Who as he felt it couldn’t reasonably compete with films such as Star Wars, so took it off the air to save viewers from embarrassment. He received so much hate mail from all over the world as a result! It was recommissioned.

Blackadder was also cancelled. Lord Grade thought they were a ghastly group but after they agreed to perform in front of a live studio audience the rest became history – including the Blackadder show made for the Millennium Dome White Elephant in London that millions of schoolchildren would have visited.

After hearing about the Greg Dyke kerfuffle at the BBC Lord Grade was inspired to apply to the chairman’s job at the BBC, in order to clear up the place. One management question from this period: How low is moral?
An example of this:
Michael: Where are you going Bryan?
Bryan: To Lyme Grove to lower moral!
Hutton report tore the corporation apart from its excesses. Tony Blair was so worried he’d killed the BBC that he brought in political heavyweight Lord Grade to save it.

Lord Grade purchased Pinewood studios 15 years ago in 2001. He raised the money and used financial firm 3i to support the deal, at the point he was about to sign the deal the final disclosure revealed that the studio only had one film booked and it had been cancelled. Subsequently bought Shepperton Studios in an expansion of interests. Now we are thinking Tom Hiddleston will be the next James Bond – as the current Night Manager!

BBC would become a non-profit organisation after privatisation move. Has potential to grow revenue. One observation Michael made is that the management seems to have almost nothing to do with television producers – they only meet up to secure funding together. How do ratings factor in a show’s appraisal and what made your shows a success? Other than ratings, Lord Grade looks at Goodwill – how much do people surveyed like it out of 100. Lord Grade as talent agent had backed Clive Dunn in Dad’s Army role – we now see the repeats on the BBC.


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