The annals of British television history boast a handful of giants whose impact upon the medium has conferred upon them the status of legends. However, towering above them all is a single larger than life figure whose near omnipresent shadow casts itself across decades of the very finest, most consistently popular entertainment produced for the medium. The name of that figure is Lew Grade, and in many respects, Grade literally came to symbolise the living embodiment of television.
Lovat Winogradsky was born on 25th December 1906 in Tokmak, a small village near the city of Odessa, close to the Black Sea in the Crimea. His parents, Golda and Issac, had met whilst they were touring the Ukraine as semi-professional singers. In 1912 Issac decided that it was safer for the Winogradsky's to immigrate to England rather than stay in their native Russia, where many Jewish families were being persecuted at that time. Issac went ahead to make preparations for the rest of the family, and Golda, Lovat and his younger brother, Boris, followed on three months later. On arrival at Tilbury Docks in the UK, the officials, who would often change the names of immigrants to that of names they found easier to pronounce, decided that Lovat would become Louis and Boris would hence forth be known as Barnet. Oddly enough, the more difficult sounding Winogradsky (the literal translation of which is 'the town where wine is made') remained unchanged.
The Winogradsky's first home was in Brick Lane in the East End of London, an area where many other immigrant families settled on arrival. Although he had left Russia with a reasonable amount of money, Issac had lost most of it gambling and was forced to take a number of menial jobs such as a general dogsbody in a local cinema, and a presser for a clothing manufacturer, in order to support his family. However, he and Golda found that there was still a demand for their particular brand of entertainment and would often perform on stage at the Mile End Pavillion, where they would sing songs from the 'old home' for the largely immigrant audience. In 1914, at around the time that World War 1 broke out, the family moved a mile or so up the road to the Bethnal Green / Shoreditch area and into a tenement block on what was then known as The Boundary Estate. However, in 1917 the family (which now included baby brother Leslie) were evacuated following a German air-raid, and moved to Reigate. Louis was a promising student and by the time he was twelve he found himself in the highest class in the school thanks to him possessing a natural gift of a photographic memory -as well as a superb understanding of arithmetic.
"One of the things I was able to do was to read a poem or a large chunk of a book and memorize every word of it. I'd usually take the book to bed with me, read the section I wanted to memorize, then put the book under my pillow. The next morning I'd wake up word perfect."
His teacher, Mr. Barnett, recommended Louis be entered for a scholarship to Parmeters College in London. He sat the entrance exam with sixty other boys and scored full marks, getting all twenty of his arithmetic questions right in about an hour. The pass mark was fifteen. However, the London County Council, the authority that approved scholarships, refused his acceptance on the grounds that Louis' father had never naturalized -and that none of the family were British.
Undeterred by this setback young Louis returned to his formal education and continued to be a model student. At the age of fourteen he was once again put forward by his headmaster, this time for a Trade Scholarship, an exam that was normally only open for people of fifteen years of age or older. The entrance exam required pupils to answer fifteen questions out of twenty including one compulsory one. Louis was the only one out of four hundred entrants to answer the compulsory question correctly and was rewarded by the LCC when they decided to waive their rule over British citizenship, and offered him a scholarship. However, it was around this time that a family friend, Alfred Goldstein, suggested that young Louis would do better to gain practical work experience and found him a job in Little Argyle Street in the West End of London.
Louis was fifteen when he joined Tew and Raymond, a women's clothing manufacturer. It was here that he showed a great flair for business and quickly worked his way up learning the trade with such confidence, that by the time he was sixteen he had begun to think about opening his own business. Renting small premises in Aldgate for two pounds a week, Louis' new company went into full production and within six months he had built up a thriving business. Often, the young business owner would be at his factory until gone midnight, closing deals, organising work routines, making sure all his accounts were in order and that his staff, which by now numbered nearly a dozen workers, were all paid. When you take into account that he was back in his office by six a.m. the following morning, it's a wonder that he had time for anything else. But he did.
In the early 1920's a new dance craze, the 'Charleston', which had taken America by storm, had made its way across the Atlantic to Britain's shores. The furiously paced dance had originated in South Carolina at the turn of the century and could be danced with a partner, in a group, or solo. As the craze swept across England, dance halls began to hold Charleston competitions, offering silver cups and cash prizes for whomever they considered the best dancer. Young Louis, who had been taught the acrobatic Cossack style of dancing by his father, found that the steps of the Charleston came quite naturally to him, and he entered a competition at the Ilford Hippodrome. In spite of facing stiff competition from a duo that had just returned from Paris where they had won the European Charleston Championship, Louis was awarded the first prize of £25.00, and with it the title of Charleston Champion of London.
From this point on dancing became almost the focal point of the youngsters life, picking up prize after prize until eventually, in 1926, at the Royal Albert Hall, Louis Grad (as he now called himself), was crowned Charleston Champion of the World. Professional engagements followed and Louis built up quite a reputation for himself, so that by 1928 he felt confident enough to tour Europe with his act. For the next two years Louis toured the Continent. It was in Paris that he read a newspaper report announcing his arrival, but the reporter had spelled his name wrong and it was printed as Lew Grade. He liked it and adopted it instantly.
In 1930 Lew returned to England and began touring the music hall circuit. For the next four years he rarely found himself without work, but by 1934 he was ready to change direction once again. The arduous dance routines that he performed anything up to four times a day were beginning to take their toll on him. He now suffered from water on the knee and would sometimes come off the stage at the end of his act in excruciating pain. Lew had become friendly with a booking agent called Joe Collins (the father of actress Joan and authoress Jackie), and had recommended several acts to Joe that he had seen whilst travelling through Europe. Every act that Lew recommended, Joe hired. Now Lew decided it was time to start booking acts himself.
With his contacts within the business, his knowledge of Europe's leading speciality acts and his innate talent for business, Lew Grade began to build up quite a reputation for himself. It wasn't all plain sailing and there were times when he almost went broke, but eventually word got around that he was putting on good shows all around the country. By 1936 Lew had the nucleus of an agency, although he still wasn't able to book directly with any of the major circuits such as Stoll Theatres, Moss Empires and General Theatres Corporation. But Joe Collins, who had been impressed by the speed in which Lew was learning the business, offered him a partnership.
The Collins and Grade Agency provided Lew with access to all the managements who up till then wouldn't have even given him the time of day. His reputation as a spotter and provider of quality acts grew and grew, and he was fast making a name for himself. On a business trip to Paris, Lew saw what he described as a "fantastic group" called 'The Quintet de Hot Club de France', whose stars were Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. He returned to England and immediately booked the duo as major 'headliners'. Reinhardt and Grappelli proved so successful that Joe and Lew decided it was time to stage their own programmes. Then in September 1939, Europe went to war and the future of the theatre circuit was thrown into doubt. Collins and Grade, who had built up a reputation providing quality acts from the Continent, perhaps had more to fear than most, but they adapted to the situation and managed to keep their heads above water. As the War dragged on Lew was employed by the War office to provide entertainment for the troupes.
Every six weeks four thousand soldiers were being posted overseas, but before they were sent they had to endure a six-week training period at Harrogate. All these recruits did was train and sleep in preparation for duty. A duty that they didn't even know if they would return from. Morale was low and they needed some form of entertainment. Lew provided it, and the shows he put on were an enormous success. In 1942 Lew was asked by Mrs. Churchill to put on a show called 'Aid to Russia' at the London Collesium, and that same year he married a young singer by the name of Kathleen Moody. Following their honeymoon Lew returned to business as usual with the Collins and Grade Agency, but relations between the two partners was becoming more and more strained and Lew accepted his younger brother Leslie's offer to run his own agency, when Leslie was called up for active service in 1943.
Leslie Grade had followed his two older brothers into the entertainment business (Boris had adopted the name of Bernard Delfont and was building quite a reputation for himself), and had quite an impressive list of clients on his books. When Lew took over he found that he was slightly intimidated by some of the star names, not least of all Val Parnell, the Managing Director of what was now called the Stoll Moss Theatres Group and one of the most powerful men in the business. Lew's wife, Kathie came up with a solution. She bought Lew a £6.00 box of cigars and told him to offer them to his clients in order to put them at ease when they came into his office. That way, in a more relaxed atmosphere Lew himself wouldn't feel so nervous. One day Lew opened the box and found himself wondering what it would be like to smoke one.
"So I opened the box, pulled out a cigar, cut off the tip (as I'd often seen people do) and lit up. It just so happened that, precisely at the moment I was taking my first couple of puffs, and enjoying it enormously, the telephone rang. It was Val Parnell.
'Yes, Val,' I said, cigar in hand, and no longer intimidated by this formidable man, 'what can I do for you?' That was the day the real Lew Grade was born!"
In 1945, when Leslie was discharged from the army through ill-health (he had contracted Typhoid whilst stationed in North Africa), the two brothers formed the Lew and Leslie Grade Agency, acquiring several other smaller agents and agencies of reputation. The business expanded further still when Lew established some very important and influential contacts in the USA to where he became a frequent visitor, and as a result of this he was able to bring some of the biggest names in show business across the Atlantic for the first time. Acts that Lew booked included Abbott and Costello, Lena Horne, Jack Benny, Dorothy Lamour and Judy Garland.
By 1951 Lew and Leslie Grade Ltd. had offices in London, New York and California. Lew Grade was by now a major player in the world of entertainment, he was held in high regard as a man who would honour his word, look after his clients and get the best deals. But all this was nothing compared to the influence he would have over the entire entertainment industry over the next two and a half decades. In Britain, commercial television was about to begin broadcasting.
When the government granted licence for commercial television in 1954 there was a great deal of interest from a number of different companies. However, the initial capital requirement for each major territory was £3million. This being totally out of Lew Grade's league, he chose to ignore it. Then one day, as he was sitting in his office, the phone rang and Mike Nidorf, who was Jo Stafford's manager (Stafford was a major star in her day and was the first ever artiste to receive a diamond-studded record for achieving sales of 25,000,000), informed Lew that if he could put together a reasonably distinguished board to make the application, plus £1million, somebody else would be willing to put up the other £2m.
Lew immediately went to work on the phone, recruiting the services and backing of Syd and Phil Hymans, who owned four of the biggest cinemas in London, Val Parnell, Stuart Cruikshank of Howard Wyndham Theatres, Binkie Beaumont, head of H. M. Tennants, the most important producers of plays in London, Dick Harmell who was John Schlesinger's right hand man in South Africa (Schlesinger owned a cinema chain as well as an insurance company), and finally, with a bit of gentle persuasion, Prince Littler, the owner of Stoll Moss and General Theatres Corporation. The company was to be called ITC -the Independent Television Corporation. It was such an impressive line-up that they must have been confident of winning the franchise. It was because it was such an impressive line up that they didn't.
The Independent Broadcasting Authority, whose job it was to grant the licence, felt that the board, with Prince Littler as Chairman and Lew as Managing Director, were in danger of having a monopoly on entertainment in Great Britain, and suggested instead, that the newly formed ITC would do better to supply programmes to the companies that were eventually given the franchises. At around this point, an American producer called Hannah Weinstein, who had been living in England, approached Lew. Hannah proposed a TV series based on the legendary character of Robin Hood, to which Lew gave the go ahead. Then Lew received a phone call from Sir Robert Fraser whose company had won the franchise deal but now realised they didn't have enough money to go on air with. Lew agreed to a fifty-fifty partnership with ITC remaining in existence as an independent production company. Over the years ITC produced some of the most commercially successful television programmes of all time, including 'The Saint, Danger Man, The Champions, The Prisoner,' Gerry Anderson's various puppet series, and 'The Muppet Show'. (For a more detailed look at the early days of Independent Television see the The ITV Story.
Throughout the 1960's ITC made shows dominated the weekly TV schedules and its logo became the symbol for both quality and exciting television. Lew was appointed Chairman of the company and there wasn't a television maker or sponsor in the world who didn't know his name or wouldn't re-arrange their busy timetables to accommodate him. In 1967 Lew Grade received the Queen's Award to Industry - the first such award to Britain's entertainment business, then in 1969 he was knighted for his services to the entertainment industry. Companies under Sir Lew Grade's guidance put on big London stage productions like 'Fiddler On The Roof' and also acquired Northern Songs, which owned the rights to all the Beatles music. In 1974 Burt Lancaster appeared in ITC's production of 'Moses The Lawgiver', a Grade inspired project which led to Lew and his wife being given an audience with Pope Paul V1.
"He held my hand for twenty minutes of our audience, said how thrilled he was with our interpretation of "Moses", and blessed the production. Kathie then said, "May we tell the artistes and press about this?" And he said, "You may tell everybody." After that, I was so moved I wasn't able to take in a word he said."
Lew had a similar experience with his next biblical production. On the Sunday after the first episode appeared on Italian TV, Pope John Paul ll was making his usual appearance on the balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square, addressing the assembled crowds. He told them that they should all go home and watch "Jesus of Nazareth" on television that evening.
Lew now decided to move into the world of Movies. In order to secure the services of Julie Andrews for a television series, Lew had signed a contract to make two feature films with her husband, Blake Edwards. The first film was 'The Tamarind Seed', starring Julie and Omar Sharif. The film did moderately well although Lew had protected his investment by pre-selling the movie to ABC TV in the USA. But when Edwards came up with the next film proposal 'Rachel and the Stranger', Lew went decidedly cold on the idea. Blake Edwards refused Lew's offer to buy the contract back off of him, so Lew suggested a belated sequel to an earlier success of Edwards'. 'The Return of the Pink Panther' starring Peter Sellers and Herbert Lom was a runaway hit and United Artists, who had given Lew permission to make the film when they thought it would be a total flop, demanded their rights to a half interest in any other 'Pink Panther' projects. However, not every project was a success for Lew. In 1980 AFD released 'Raise the Titanic', a movie that had gone seriously over budget. Not only that but box office returns were disappointing. Lew summed it up when he said, "It would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic!"
More movie success followed with 'On Golden Pond,' 'Sophie's Choice' and 'Champions', and in 1985 he once again formed his own company -The Grade Company. Lew continued to work with the same enthusiasm as he had done when he opened his first factory in the East End of London in 1922. He always said he'd retire in the year 2000, but as that time got nearer he joked: "I always said I would retire in the year 2000. Maybe that is too soon, so I will just consider retiring in the year 2000." However, in November of 1998 Lew went into the London Clinic for surgery, and subsequently developed heart failure. He died on 13th December, two weeks before his 92nd birthday. Kathie, his son Paul and other close family members were at his bedside.
In 1977 Sir Lew Grade had become Lord Grade when he was awarded a life peerage. The date was June 23rd, also Kathie's birthday and their anniversary. "The best deal I ever made was marrying my wife Kathie. The next best deals were 'Jesus of Nazareth' and the 'Muppet Show' - 120 episodes and three movies." In 1987 he published his autobiography, 'Still Dancing.' Asked once what his epitaph would be, he replied: "It will be `I didn't want to go. And I'm not going'."
Ian Freeman, Lew's nephew, remembers his uncle with great fondness. "He had no enemies and he was a wonderfully witty man. He was a larger-than-life character and there will never be another like him." With all the wheeling and dealing did Lew have time for a family life? "No, he was never a great family man. He loved his wife and son dearly, but he was at work all the time, totally dedicated to whatever he did. Even when he was at home he'd have three televisions on at once and satellite links to the US." However, it should be noted that his creative input into the shows he made was very minimal. "Lew had no interest in the creative side of things and left it to those who were expert in such matters. He was more interested in the business end, going out with business makers, buying and selling and the rough and tumble of deal making. He'd do a deal with the American Networks before it had even been written. He was a quick thinker and if asked what he had planned next he was more than likely to think of something on the spot. He'd say something like, 'I've got this wonderful series about two detectives who go around Europe, lots of action and pretty girls.' and they'd say, 'Great, we'll have twelve of those.' then he'd have to go away and phone up someone like Monty Berman and say 'Monty, I need a show with two detectives who go around Europe, lots of action and pretty girls. Get into the studio and shoot it, I need it by Tuesday a week!'"
An unquestionable titan of the entertainment industry, in many respects, Lew Grade was the television equivalent of those glorious larger than life, all-powerful movie moguls of the golden age of Hollywood, which he most closely identified himself with. However, unlike his often mean spirited and tunnel-visioned motion picture counterparts, Lew's ruthlessness in business was tempered by a willingness to take creative risks and a genuine understanding and respect for the needs and intelligence of his products audience. Many of the deals that Lew made were by verbal contract, and he was a man of his word. For this he was universally respected. As Ian Freeman says, "He was an East End boy who never forgot his roots."
The impressive legacy he bequeathed to future generations of both programme makers and viewers alike, is a fitting tribute to a man whose dynamic creative flair and risk-taking commercial business sense helped mould the expectation of a certain level of televisual quality in all of us. Lew Grade, the man may no longer be with us, but as long as the medium of television is, Lew Grade, the legend, will continue to endure.
Published on February 20th, 2019. Written by Laurence Marcus & SRH (2000) SOURCES OF REFERENCE: STILL DANCING My Story by Lew Grade. EAST END WEST END by Bernard Delfont. MY FABULOUS BROTHERS by Rita Grade Freeman. Ian Freeman in person. for Television Heaven.