Lord Michael Grade – In Conversation

Through the annals of British Light Entertainment, it’s very seldom to encounter a figure who was born into showbusiness in the literal meaning of the phrase. His father Leslie and uncle Lew had established Britain’s first multi purpose entertainment talent agency in 1942 following Lew Grade’s partnership with the theatrical agent Joe Collins. By the early 1960’s, The Grade Organisation was one of the most active and influential talent agencies in the world, boasting some of the biggest names in British and international entertainment. Being bred on Variety and vaudeville, it would have been easy for the young Michael Grade to merely fall into the world of performance representation and join the family business without overcoming any professional hurdles at all. Yet the up and coming Grade had alternative plans and wanted to prove himself before a lifetime of stages, showbiz and stars came calling.

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Joining the Daily Mirror as a junior sports reporter in 1960, Michael was in the perfect position to witness the exciting developments in popular culture when sport became a prominent aspect of modern life. Figures such as Alf Ramsay, Fred Trueman and Mohammed Ali were regularly the subject of the day’s biggest sports news stories and suddenly Michael found himself in dialogue with many defining names from this era. In the days before rolling news, the written press were the first people to break a story and working in Fleet Street at such a pivotal time for Britain was a real thrill for the young journalist. During his tenure at The Mirror, Michael witnessed his fair share of sporting landmarks which culminated in England’s triumphant World Cup campaign during the summer of 1966 when a sense of elation and victory hit the nation. The perfect way to bow out of his journalistic career.


Michael’s tenure at the Daily Mirror was sadly cut short in the summer of 1966 when his father Leslie Grade suffered a debilitating stroke which meant that it was now time for him to join the family business. The Grade Organisation was split into two separate divisions: the Light Entertainment department was led by variety agent Billy Marsh who had been instrumental in nurturing the careers of Morecambe and Wise, Norman Wisdom and Bruce Forsyth. Ironically despite his variety and entertainment roots and being blessed with the name Grade, it was Billy Marsh who taught Michael everything about entertainment. Having this unrivalled grounding put Michael on the path to success and before too long he was arranging significant deals for some of Britain’s biggest stars.


In 1968 while Billy Marsh was taking a much needed holiday, Michael was taking care of the running of the Light Entertainment department when he received a phone call from his lifelong friend Bill Cotton who was enquiring about the availability of Morecambe and Wise. Having grown up with Bill through the close connections between both their families, Michael regarded Bill as like an older brother and so could easily negotiate financial deals. Cotton was very keen on bringing Morecambe and Wise back to the BBC and Michael saw scope for them to flourish so accepted his offer which meant Eric and Ernie were BBC bound. Although in retrospect, Michael is pessimistic about the significance of this lunch in the development of Light Entertainment, it was the start of what would become the climax of Morecambe and Wise’s television career which culminated in the 1977 Christmas special where an audience of 29 million people tuned in to watch them bring sunshine to the masses.


His knowledge of the television landscape was slowly being recognised by the entertainment fraternity following submitting several ideas to the London Weekend Television Light Entertainment department. By 1973 controller of programmes Cyril Bennett saved Grade’s taxi ride and made him LWT’s Head of Light Entertainment. Working for this relatively new network which was in crisis following the controversial colour strike which had ultimately lead to the dismissal of managing director Michael Peacock. Having been brought up watching theatrical variety bills, Grade applied the same formula to the Saturday night TV schedule to create a vibrant and exciting lineup which hopefully would rival Bill Cotton’s formidable offering on the BBC. Unfortunately, despite his best efforts this was a battle which even Michael couldn’t win but still enjoyed the thrill of trying.


Michael was to remain at LWT for over a decade and steadied the ship through the turbulent years while it shook off the negativity surrounding the colour strike. Climbing the ranks to Director of Programmes in 1977, probably the most prominent decision of his LWT career came in 1978 when he enticed his old friend and TV king Bruce Forsyth to step down from the hugely successful Generation Game to front a two hour extravaganza entitled Bruce’s Big Night. Unfortunately the British press had already sealed the fate of this new format as it went up against the new look Generation Game fronted by the northern entertainer Larry Grayson. Michael maintains that there were aspects of Bruce’s Big Night which were actualy successful and spawned the heavyweight Play Your Cards Right. Yet the lack of format led to its premature cancellation which was a severe blow to Bruce and everyone associated with the show. Despite this disappointment, Michael and Bruce remained great friends right up until Bruce’s untimely death in 2017 and were each thankful for the positive influence that the other had made on their careers.


Leaving LWT in 1981, Michael looked further afield for his next venture. Embassy Pictures in America was on the lookout for a new figurehead to bring the company into the 1980’s. It was here that he got a snapshot of what the future held for British TV with the influx of multichannel competition and twenty-four hour content which seemed totally alien to the TV executive who had been bred on variety. Just three years later, he was lured back to England to take up the role as controller of BBC1 under the stewardship of his childhood friend Bill Cotton who was now Managing Director of the corporation. Again, for this Michael related his role to creating a variety bill and seeked to capture all the elements required for an evening of all round entertainment. In the era of Noel, Sorry, Bread, the creation of Eastenders and the final years of The Two Ronnies, the 1980’s saw rich content for television and it wasn’t difficult for Michael to devise a formidable line-up of wall to wall entertainment.


It was all change again in 1988 when Michael agreed to replace the outgoing Jeremy Isaacs as the chairman of Channel Four. With the mission of attempting to engage with the 18-24 demographic, Grade boldly commissioned youth orientated programming such as The Word and The Big Breakfast which heralded a new generation in popular culture. Forever on the cutting edge of entertainment, Michael could see this change on the horizon. Young people demanded something that represented them and their lifestyles and as an up and coming broadcaster, it fell to Channel Four to deliver. Grade remained with the network for over a decade and transformed it from an infant broadcaster to a worldwide entertainment provider.


His television credentials and management experience were now widely celebrated amongst the international broadcasting community and in 2004 Michael returned to the BBC amongst the controversial Hutton Inquiry which had severely dented public trust in the was his job to steady the ship and appoint a new director general following the resignation of Greg Dyke. Once he had appointed Mark Thompson who was able to lead the BBC out of the darkness of speculation, controversy and media contempt, Grade’s role was made easier. This was where he was to remain until 2006 when he rejoined ITV as Executive Chairman. Three years later he announced that he was stepping down from television management and honed his efforts for his political career as Lord Grade of Yarmouth.


Following the relinquishment of his managerial career, Michael stepped the other side of the camera in 2011 for BBC Four’s The Story of Variety where he celebrated the forgotten heroes of vaudeville. This was a story he knew well and his theatrical roots made him the perfect candidate to bring the series to life. Celebrating everyone from Little Titch to Michael McIntyre, the two part documentary was a definitive snapshot of Variety through the ages and shone a light on lesser known contributors to the entertainment tale. The success of this spawned a whole series of BBC Four programmes fronted by Michael and made him the obvious candidate to front a two hour live extravaganza marking the closure of BBC Television Centre in March 2013. Despite being reticent to become sentimental about commercial infrastructure, Michael’s entertainment heritage made him the perfect candidate to preside over an evening of nostalgia, star guests and TV moments.


Being a life peer, Lord Grade is inundated with meetings, engagements and political activities which occupy his time. Having such a varied and long career, it’s difficult to include everything in one tidy podcast yet Michael remains a generous and patient subject who still exhibits bucketfuls of passion for what he does. Aside from his political and entrepreneurial career which we failed to even reach, Lord Grade remains one of the most prolific and influential television executives of all time with a whole fraternity of stars, formats and concepts which were allowed to dazzle under his forward thinking vision. It was an absolute honour for me to interview the great Lord Michael Grade and just like his forefathers, he has surely reserved his seat in the pantheon of entertainment.