It was said that by the 1960's Lew Grade and his brothers Leslie Grade and Bernard Delfont controlled 80 per cent of the British entertainment industry. As the founder of ATV it was Lew Grade who gave the green light for some of the most fondly remembered television shows of all time. Programmes such as The Saint, Danger Man, The Champions, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) and The Prisoner are still being rerun today and are big draws on streaming services and money spinners in the sell-through DVD market.
Even when he started to commission TV shows in the 1950's and without any experience in the television marketplace, Grade identified the key areas that would lead many to regard him one of the great showmen who not only knew what the public wanted, but always managed to deliver it: "To hold our viewers we will aim to spend more money on scripts and production values. Stars are important but not as important as a good scriptwriter. A good scriptwriter is a wonderful thing."
As for just how much should be spent on each production he stated: "When you decide to do a production of major significance it's the quality and idea of the product that counts - not what it's going to cost. That you face afterwards." However, in reality Grade knew the value of good budgeting. Speaking in the early sixties he revealed that a normal hour's of TV drama would cost around £15,000 to produce. This wasn't good enough for Lew Grade. "The ones I make work out more like £40,000 each. They are quality films and it costs me around £5 million to make four series of 26 programmes a year. For that I get two hours a week on our home station. Two-thirds of the money has to be recouped overseas or we just couldn't afford to give the British public shows of this quality. We all gain by the export market - the country, the Treasury and the viewer."
In spite of spending so much on each show Grade signed deals for overseas sales for most of them before they even went in front of the cameras. "No one but a fool makes television for the British market alone. Without the guarantee of an American outlet he will lose his shirt."
Like many famous entrepreneurs of his day there were a number of comments attributed to Lew Grade. They became known as Gradisms, and just like the many Goldwynisms before them they simply weren't true. However, Grade was the first to admit that they did his reputation no harm at all. "As long as they give people a laugh, I'm happy." There were, however, a number of instances when Lew may have wished that he'd thought before speaking. On visiting the set of Jesus of Nazareth, director Franco Zeffirelli was showing Grade the set for the last supper. "But Franco," Grade said, "I told you I wanted this to be a big production." The director looked bemused at Lew's remark.
"But Lew, it is a big production."
Lew looked around the set again. "So tell me, Franco." He said, indicating the table laid out in front of him, "Why only twelve places?"
Grade was also upset when the devoutly Catholic Zeffirelli criticised the choice of Robert Powell to play Jesus, on the basis that, at the time, he was 'living in sin' with the dancer - and now Mrs. Powell - Babs Lord. "What are you trying to do?" Lew blustered at the Italian genius, "...crucify the boy?"
Another true story concerned Lew's early days as a variety agent. He visited the Finsbury Park Empire (known years later as The Rainbow, a popular music venue), and enjoyed one of the acts who were placed near the bottom of the bill. After the show he went backstage and introduced himself to the performers. "It was a marvellous show. Tell me, how much are you getting?"
"Twenty-five pounds a week, Mr Grade." They said.
"That's ridiculous!" Lew exclaimed. "I can get you forty pounds! Who's your agent?"
"You are, Mr Grade."
There is another story of a time when Lew had the tables turned on him. Bernard Delfont had had a phone installed in his Rolls Royce and Lew had cast envious eyes at it. Not to be outdone by his brother, Lew had one installed in his car too, but didn't tell anyone. One day he was in Piccadilly driving behind Bernie's car when he said to his chauffeur, "Please get Mr Delfont for me."
This the chauffeur did and when Bernie's driver answered the call he said, "Mr Grade for you, Mr Delfont."
A moment later the answer came back, "Can you hold? Mr Delfont is on the other phone!"
Everyone who came into contact with Lew Grade had a story to tell. Director John Boorman recalled the time that Grade wanted him to direct a film about Doctor Livingstone in Africa. "He wrote a cheque for half a million pounds for me and when I refused he tried to stuff it into my pocket. I fended him off and we sparred for a moment. He deftly stuffed the cheque between my backside and the chair. I tried to ignore it. But I felt a distinct disadvantage with half a million pounds of Lew's money sticking up my bum!"
The age of the great showmen may now be passed but the legend and stories about Lew Grade lives on. The final quote comes from the man himself: "All my shows are great. Some of them are bad - but they are all great."
Published on December 13th, 2021. Written by Laurence Marcus & Ian Freeman for Television Heaven.