As a young boy growing up in Bournemouth, Michael Grade often stood on the cliff tops looking longingly at the Isle of Wight. On a clear day he could see The Needles and Scratchell’s Bay, and desperately wanted to come over and explore.
Photo credit: Mike Lawn, ITV
He watched paddle boats set off from Bournemouth Pier to the Island, but never had the chance to get on board. He recalled: “I was absolutely gutted. There was a small jetty between Bournemouth and Boscombe, and they had smaller boats that would take you out a short way, before returning. We did that quite often as a family, but I never got to go on the paddle steamer to the Island.”
It was not until he was 30, and becoming an accomplished sailor, that his dream was finally fulfilled, and subsequently the man who was to shape the future of three of Britain’s major television companies not only came to live here, but also became Lord Grade of Yarmouth.
“We have had a house on the Island seven years, and it is a total joy. We spend as much time here as we can,” he said. “It all began when I started to sail, with Cowes being a big feature. After wasting many years trying to play golf, I turned to sailing, and it became a passion. I’ve often competed at Cowes Week, and taken part in the Round the Island Race, which is great fun.”
Sailing proved a welcome respite from the demands of taking on the massive challenge of reviving the fortunes, at different times, of BBC1, BBC 2 and ITV. He said: “I left school at 17, and was always mad about sport. My father was the theatrical agent Leslie Grade, and he wanted me to go into the business, but it didn’t seem a good proposition to work with my dad. He suggested I tried sports journalism, and I got a job at the Daily Mirror, starting on £10 a week, and eventually had my own column.”
That career ended when he went into the family business after his father fell ill in 1966, and he became a talent agent. He continued: “I was given Billy Marsh as a mentor, probably one of the best ever agents in the UK. His clients included Bruce Forsyth, Morecambe and Wise, Harry Worth and Norman Wisdom. He was a genius at spotting talent, and he taught me the business. I did six years as an agent and became very interested in putting television ideas together. As a result I was offered a job out of the blue to become Controller of Entertainment at London Weekend Television. I gave up a third-share in the agency business and worked for London Weekend TV for eight years, eventually becoming Director of Programmes, before moving to Hollywood for three years.”
On his return to the UK, he claimed he took the ‘biggest pay cut in history’ to move to the BBC – about half a million dollars a year! He said: “I loved working at the BBC and managed to turn around BBC1, which was in a real mess when I arrived. We relaunched the channel, and there was so much talent at the BBC that it all came together. We did Live Aid, Singing Detective, Bread, Wogan and Eastenders. We gave ITV a run for their money!”
He recalls a phone call he ‘reluctantly answered’ in 1985, while at the BBC. He smiled: “Bob Geldof was on the phone. I wondered why he was calling me, but I took the call because I thought ‘I can have a bit of fun here’. He was trying to get the song ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ on Top of The Pops. I told him we couldn’t put it on because it wasn’t in the charts, but he sold it to me in two minutes and said he’d get David Bowie to introduce it.
“I thought, ‘I’m the controller of the BBC, I can do anything’. I delayed Top of the Pops by three minutes and put it in as a standalone programme on its own. We bent the rules a bit, and it was aired. Then Bob asked me to be a trustee — which I still am — and we had the big Live Aid event at Wembley Stadium. I didn’t go, I watched it at home, but it was wonderful to be part of television history.”
While at the Beeb, Michael also cancelled Doctor Who, deciding the programme’s budget would be better spent on other drama productions. He re-enforced his decision by putting it into TV programme Room 101. But he now accepts: “Doctor Who has been improved beyond all recognition. I’m still not a fan, but the transformation of Doctor Who is just one example of the way digital has changed the world we live in.”
One of his biggest gambles was to cancel ‘Black Adder’ after the first series, saying: “It was all filmed on location. When I was told there were going to be six more episodes, I only agreed to screen it if it was brought into the studio, with a live audience. It proved the right thing to do.”
Michael left the BBC after three years to become Chief Executive of Channel Four. “I did that for nine years, the longest I have ever done anything. When I arrived, Channel Four was the dependant relative of ITV, and I wanted us to be independent, pay our way with advertising, and that was what happened. The stand-out moment was turning it into a commercial success without diluting the Channel Four brand.”
He went out of TV for a few years, but then the BBC got itself into a bit of a mess over the Hutton Inquiry, so he successfully applied for the vacant chairmanship. He said: “That was a great privilege, and I got the place back on track. But then in 2006 I got the call to go and help ITV. I ended up as executive chairman of ITV just as the recession started. But we still managed to increase our advertising share, and viewers for the first time in 10 years
. I was very proud of that. Looking back, I think I would describe myself as a media paramedic! The trick is always to work with nice people. If you do that you won’t go very far wrong.”
Now he has turned full circle, putting on shows with his business partner in the West End and Broadway, including Sweeney Todd, Sunset Boulevard with Glenn Close, Carousel with Alfie Boe and Kathryn Jenkins, and 42nd Street, currently running at the Theatre Royal Hotel, Drury Lane.
Michael was created a life peer in 2011, and explained: “There had been a previous Lord Grade, my uncle Lew, who was Lord Grade of Elstree. So the Garter King of Arms advised me to pick a place name. As my wife and I decided our future was in Yarmouth, it was an easy decision to make. I am very proud to be associated with Yarmouth, so it seemed the perfect choice.”