Lunch with the FT: Michael Grade

Few people lunch as well as Michael Grade. Lunch is, after all, elemental to the showbusiness world Grade has inhabited for almost half a century. Without lunch, titanic mergers and acquisitions would never have happened, great moments of television would never have been made, stars would never have been born.

Few do lunch as masterfully as Grade. “Michael has closed more contracts over lunch than you’ve had hot dinners,” one media chief executive with a rather confusing command of culinary metaphors tells me the day before I dine with the man who, until his unhappy departure from ITV at the start of the year, dominated Britain’s television industry.

Wherever he went in that incestuous, internecine world, Grade fought wars. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, he held the most senior programming jobs. First at London Weekend Television, where he unsuccessfully attempted to snatch football rights from the BBC. Then at the Beeb itself, where victories included the launch in 1985 of soap opera EastEnders to challenge ITV’s Coronation Street. He also grabbed headlines for the way he looked – the braces and big cigars (which he gave up some years ago) were adopted while at LWT but the liking for red socks was formed during a two-year sojourn running a Hollywood production company in the 1980s. In 1988, he became chief executive of Channel 4, fiercely resisting privatisation and taking back from ITV the rights to sell its own advertising.

In 2004, he rejoined the BBC at the very top as chairman of the board of governors, brought in to restore confidence at the corporation after the Hutton inquiry into the Iraq war. But less than three years later, he was off again, defecting to be executive chairman of ITV, its main rival. In 2006 Grade was lauded as would-be saviour of a leaderless, demoralised ITV, the man who could put the pomp back into the commercial broadcaster. But, in April 2009, after two years of the TV industry’s worst advertising recession and with the company’s equity worth a mere £780m, frustrated shareholders effectively forced Grade to step down from his role and, six months later, to leave the company altogether.

The Grade who appears at Harry Morgan’s, a New York-style Jewish deli restaurant in north-west London, cuts a very different figure to the pugnacious one who publicly fought ITV’s corner. At 67, and wearing a navy tank top over an open-necked dark blue shirt, he sweeps in gubernatorially, greeting several of the lunchtime crowd by name, as if he’s been coming here all his life. Which he has. Harry Morgan’s is the only survivor of three Jewish-owned restaurants he remembers visiting regularly with his father Leslie, one of Britain’s greatest talent agents who with his impresario brothers Lew Grade and Bernard Delfont dominated British showbusiness between the 1940s and 1960s. (The others were Isow’s in Soho, where at that time anyone who was anyone in the business went to eat, and Bloom’s in Whitechapel, which was reputed to have the rudest waiters in Europe.)

Grade extends a hand in greeting and sits down at the narrow black tabletop. The walls behind him are festooned with portraits of Harry Morgan’s famous diners, though Grade’s is not among them. He appears happy to be here, rather than in the Ivy, Wilton’s or one of the other places that have grown rich on his industry’s need to lunch. “I think people in the media believe that if you don’t have lunch you die,” he says. “It’s some kind of article of faith.”

For his part he believes that lunch is a lever most effectively used on “talent”, as star performers are known. “You take artists out to lunch, you try to persuade them to do something, you’re trying to get them to change channels or whatever. The lunch is a good, easy way to break the ice; it gets a bit formal in the office, a heavy sell. It’s a softer sell at lunch.”

Some things it is impossible to sell, however, even over a lavish meal. Grade recalls that he fired a TV director over breakfast during his brief reign in Hollywood. “I didn’t want to sit through the meal and then say, ‘By the way, you’re fired,’ so I told him at the beginning,” says Grade, “and with that he threw his napkin down, got up and left. But, as he turned to get out of his chair, he bumped into the waiter who was bringing two trays of food, which then got sprayed out all over the table, eggs and bacon, waffles, syrup, juice, grapefruit, berries ...

“Never fire someone over a meal,” is his cautionary tip from the top.

Though amused by the story, I realise it might also be a shot across the bows. I am aware that Grade is reluctant to talk about what happened at ITV – and I’m sure he is equally aware that I want to ask him about this period. But, mindful of the breakfast anecdote, I decide it would be wiser not to ask him such questions at this moment. As I ponder tactics, Grade takes command of the menu, twiddling it between his fingers and ordering for me. “You should have the fried fish. You like fish? It’s very good,” he says, also choosing a starter of chicken soup for me. He opts for the chopped liver with egg and onion followed by a full plate of salt beef and a potato latka.

We explore non-controversial topics for a while: how he still visits Harry Morgan’s once a week “for a fix of Jewish food”; his childhood memories of coming here with his father Leslie; the rest of his illustrious showbiz family, his entrepreneur uncles, men who dominated entertainment in Britain for decades after the war. Grade admits that the contacts he made and the skills he learnt from these men and their staff allowed him to rise effortlessly – until the public post as chairman of the BBC came along he had never so much as applied for a job. When he left his small south London public school, St Dunstan’s in Catford, at the age of 17, his father arranged with his friend Hugh Cudlipp, then editorial director of the Daily Mirror, for him to start as a sports reporter on the paper. One famous Grade story is that he was dropped off at its Fleet Street offices in a Bentley with the number plate LG1. “Let’s get it right,” says Grade, “a long wheelbase Bentley with a divider.”

As the huge portions of food arrive, I look at Grade’s starter with envy and he segues from tales of his grandmother Olga’s ability to make a chicken last for five days to the future of British public-service broadcasting. I ask him which of the broadcasters he has worked for he regards as his natural home: Channel 4, where his commissioning of programmes such as The Word earned him the title “Britain’s pornographer-in-chief”? The BBC, where as controller of BBC1 he took a risk by backing Bob Geldof’s 1985 famine-fighting marathon rock concert Live Aid – “I was in a skittish mood, so I said yes”? Or ITV, where he saw advertising revenues fall by 15 per cent but revived its audience share with programmes such as The X Factor?

Declining to choose between them, he offers another set of initials: “In the end, my home is PSB: British free-to-air, public service broadcasting. All that’s different is the funding systems, so I would regard my home as PSB.” Asked how he defines PSB, he says, “High investment, high risk, British talent,” and cites as an example Britain’s Got Talent, which has won the country’s highest entertainment ratings – up to 18.3m viewers – since the arrival in the 1990s of multichannel TV.

In the past two years, the funding of PSB has become increasingly political. All the main parties, for example, now seem determined to clip the wings of the BBC, while the advertising-funded C4 and ITV still face huge financial pressures. Who will be the big losers from the election?

“What I fear for is British productions. The BBC is the bedrock of British productions. C4 contributes, ITV is a major spender. What we’ve got to hang on to as a country is indigenous British productions, however we finance them,” says the man who remains chairman of, and an investor in, Pinewood Shepperton, Britain’s biggest film studios.

“What we have to protect is the investment in British productions,” he stresses and, for emphasis, he prods the air with a fork laden with salt beef. My eyes follow – I have looked longingly at Grade’s plate since the main courses arrive. The fish is good but the beef looks better.

Somewhat ashamed of this sign of my inferior lunching skills, I returned to the topic of the BBC and politics. The corporation is, comparatively, awash with money but, as commercial broadcasters struggle, the BBC is under attack for distorting the market by putting a big foot into every square foot of the media landscape.

“It’s very easy to argue against the BBC,” says Grade. “The BBC’s essentially an idea; you either believe in it or you don’t. And the British public does believe in it. And it’s very easy to criticise the BBC, and there’s no question that the BBC makes it very easy for people to criticise it sometimes. But in the end, the fundamental question for the British public – and they’re the ones that decide ultimately whether the BBC continues – is would we be a better country without the BBC? And you would have to say no.”

It is an area of debate with which Grade is familiar. In 2004 he was appointed by the BBC to design a new structure of governance. Grade created a set-up in which the BBC Trust, separate but sovereign over the corporation, would represent the interests of the licence fee payers, the 26m householders who pay £142.50 a year to fund television, radio and online services. It would regulate and supervise the BBC’s management but also stand up for the broadcaster when that would best serve the public who pay the bills.

As the PSB funding debate has heated up in recent months, Sir Michael Lyons, the trust’s first chairman, has been at daggers drawn with the government over the licence fee’s future. In the face of politicians seeking ways to cut public spending while stimulating the growth of the digital economy, Lyons has supported Mark Thompson, the BBC’s director-general. Critics have, however, argued that this was not the role the trust was designed to carry out. Does that imply the structure Grade built was flawed?

As he sips lemon tea, a digestif drunk in honour of his grandmother, he answers in a slow and considered way, voicing for the first time public criticism of his successor. “I think Michael Lyons and the trust were too aligned with the management too early on,” he says.

“They’re there to represent the licence fee payers and it may well be that their position is right but they should not have come out straight away aligned.” He leans forward. “It absolutely undermined the whole separation of power between the trust and the director-general.”

Having defended his BBC legacy, I wonder if he might now be tempted to do the same with ITV? After decades of success, running BBC1, London Weekend, Channel 4 and then the BBC again, how does he handle what seems a rather scrappy end to his career? Is he resentful that Archie Norman, his successor as ITV chairman, saw, within weeks of taking over from Grade in January, the end of television’s ad slump and has presented a rescue strategy – better programmes, better internet content, campaigns against regulators – that appears very similar to Grade’s 2007 blueprint? Does he grind his teeth at night over the unfairness of it all?

“Listen,” he says, “as an ITV shareholder I am delighted to see Archie doing so well. It is coming round very quickly. I think he’s spot on in everything he’s done.” He says the fact that Norman has benefited from the cost-cutting measures Grade and his team implemented doesn’t gall him at all. “I go to bed every night knowing that we managed a near-death experience in ITV, without a rights issue, while improving our onscreen performance. I think it was a very good balancing act and I go to bed every night comfortable with what we did.”

And that’s all he will say for now. It’s clear talking to Grade that the television big time is, after 44 years, now a chapter of his life that has pretty much come to an end. Instead, he retains chairmanship of Pinewood and of Ocado, an internet grocery delivery company, and harbours a desire to be involved in theatre, which he describes as “my fundamental love”, either as a producer or an investor.

Grade has an 11-year-old son, Samuel, by his third wife Francesca and he plans to sail the Atlantic this year. He says he no longer feels the need to watch television every night and while some programmes still command his attention – he singles out Mad Men – the business side of television does not.

“You know,” he says finally, “when I left ITV, I took a vow that I would never, ever, look at the overnight ratings again. That really is cutting the umbilical.”

Ben Fenton is the FT’s chief media correspondent

Harry Morgan

2931 St John’s Wood High Street, London NW8

Chopped liver and onion £5.85

Chicken noodle soup £4.95

Salt beef & tongue £14.50

Mixed pickles £2.95

Potato latka £2.75

Fried haddock £13.95

Still water £1.75

Tomato juice £1.95

Sparkling water £1.75

English breakfast tea £1.95

Cup lemon tea £1.95

Total (including service) £61.09

John Lloyd on the changing face of ITV drama

In a list of the 100 greatest British TV programmes – compiled in 2000 by the British Film Institute after soundings among industry professionals – two dramas from ITV appear in the top 10. At number four is The Naked Civil Servant (1975), a 90-minute one-off film starring John Hurt as Quentin Crisp, pioneer of overt gay individualism. At 10 is Brideshead Revisited (1981), an 11-hour adaptation of the Evelyn Waugh novel.

Both productions date from a time of lush pastures for the independent TV companies, when directorial hands could be dipped into a flow of relatively easy money from advertisers who had nowhere else to go on the air. Ratings and artistic kudos could co-habit, even co-exist in one body: The Naked Civil Servant won a Bafta best actor award for Hurt, and the Prix Italia; Brideshead won seven Baftas, including best series. So extravagant was the show in ambition and funding that John Mortimer was asked to write an episode which was never used.

Another notable ITV drama, The Jewel in the Crown (1984), a 14-part adaptation of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, was also popular and critically acclaimed.

It’s easy to sigh over departed days, since these were productions of quality and depth, while today’s shrunken and cautious ITV can rarely attempt equivalents. Look in this week’s schedules for dramatic originality and you will find a re-imagined version of The Prisoner, originally broadcast in 1967, also by ITV. Though it is a co-production between ITV and AMC of the US, it is largely British in inspiration and in development: the writer is Bill Gallagher (Lark Rise to Candleford), who is also executive producer. The new series has been tepidly received in the US, and in the UK was seen by just over 3m viewers last week, up against BBC1’s Casualty, which pulled in more than 5m.

ITV has had some recent successes, such as last year’s Whitechapel, a reworking of the Jack the Ripper story, with a nicely abrasive clash of cultures between an arrogant upwardly mobile inspector and a gnarled detective sergeant marinated on his patch. In my TV column, I described it as “a craftsman’s piece of work”. I also praised Collision, in which an emotionally drained chief inspector tries to piece together the causes of a bad traffic accident, saying it was “plotted with both intensity and clarity”. I added that “if [ITV] can produce this quality, it should continue to do so”. But it hasn’t – because it can’t. The streams don’t flow with gold any longer, and artistic ambition is usually punished in the ratings.

John Lloyd is the FT’s TV columnist

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