The Gospel According to Lord Lew

Ian Jones with 10 steps to becoming a media mogul

First published May 2006

One day in 1954 a certain Louis Winogradksy, originally from Todmak, a village near Odessa in the Crimea, was sitting in his office when he received a telephone call. “Lew, have you read The Times this morning?” It was one of the man’s many business clients, eager to draw his attention to the big story of the day. “I never read The Times,” came the response, “I don’t have time to read more than one newspaper a day, and that’s the Daily Express. Why do you ask?” “There are advertisements in The Times for applications for the franchises for commercial television in Britain.”

Lew Grade, for it was he, thought for a few seconds, then began calling up his friends. One by one he informed them “Hello, you’re in the television business!” By the end of the day a £3m pitch was in place and, after a couple of minor hiccups to do with the trivial matter of Grade owning the entire British entertainment industry, a TV empire was born.

Just what was it that made Lew Grade such a solid gold sorcerer of the small screen – aside from the fact he did own quite a bit of solid gold to start with? How did he come to wield such legendary clout in the television business, having begun his career fixing bookings for the likes of John Ringling North of the Ringling Barnum and Bailey Circus? During his time in charge of both ITC (Lew’s ultra-glossy production factory) and ATV (Lew’s sporadically glossy ITV channel), dozens and dozens of hit shows swashbuckled, twirled and oinked their way around the world. And all from a man who readily professed that “neither I, nor indeed any of the other members of ATV, knew anything about commercial broadcasting.” What is there to glean from a perusal of Lew’s tricks of the trade that could, potentially, help much-missed impresarios return to the otherwise featureless boardrooms of British TV companies? In short, what were Lord Lew’s 10 commandments of telly?

1. Know how to get toes tapping
In the words of Charles Denton, ex-programme controller, “As soon as you joined ATV you knew it was a song and dance company.” For Lew, though, it was always the second of these two for which he held the highest regard. Basically, the more hoofing he could jemmy into a show, the better. Hence every ATV variety spectacular, most notably Sunday Night at the London Palladium, always boasted row upon row of high-kicking lovelies, or batteries of dashing dinner-jacketed lotharios – or preferably both – sashaying around the biggest studio sets you’d ever seen to the swinging sound of Jack Parnell and his Orchestra. It was the essence of music hall reworked for the box, it was the kind of entertainment Lew liked best, and it always scored the highest number of viewers for the channel.

Yet Lew also had the inside edge on what made for the sharpest shimmy. Way back in 1926, our man had contested, and won, no less a title than World Charleston Champion. He knew from first hand experience the dizzying power of the dance floor. And he knew precisely what would get crowds whooping and fainting in awe. “Walking into a pub,” he once recalled, “I noticed a large mirror. For no reason at all I thought I’d try a new step which suddenly came into my mind, and which I later called the “crossover”. It was entirely my own invention. Later on stage I did my usual stuff, then suddenly went into the crossover step. Well, the place suddenly erupted.”

2. Get up early
Unlike the rest of showbusiness, which as far as Lew was concerned was full of slugabeds and lollygaggers, throughout his life our man made a point of being at his desk with the utmost velocity. But this didn’t just mean getting up early. It meant getting up very very early. “I’d always be in my office by 7am,” he growled, “and even though the mail didn’t get in until an hour later, I used the time to relax, to think about the day’s work, and generally to get my day into some kind of perspective. It’s a practice I’ve adopted for over 50 years.” It also meant Lew could keep a watchful eye on everything that was going on in the building, and perhaps more importantly everything that was being carried out – literally, in the case of The Golden Shot kidney dialysis machines.

3. It’s all about who you know
One morning a letter arrived on Lew’s desk from the Winter Gardens Theatre, Morecambe. “We need an act for next Monday,” it read, “to open the second half of the programme. Please call my home any time or the theatre at night. Regards, Harry Smirk.” “I read this circular,” Lew explained, “and racked my brains to see if I could come up with anything. Suddenly I recalled an act called Beams’ Breezy Babes.” Job done. But for Lew it was never just a question of relying on artistes already on the books. He was forever watching for the next big thing: “One day George Le Roy mentioned another act he thought I should see called Robert Lamouret and Dudule. Lamouret was a ventriloquist and Dudule, his dummy, was a duck. I was overwhelmed by them both.”

4. Give yourself a trademark
In an industry where the epithet “larger-than-life” was handed out with free abandon, Lew quickly realised the utmost importance in being not just larger but the largest. For this, hiring talking ducks and doing the Charleston was simply not enough. He needed a further gimmick, something with which he could be forever associated in newspaper cartoons and about which he could be made the subject of warmly-delivered yet ruefully-crafted stand-up routines. His wife came to the rescue, rustling up a box of cigars one morning when Lew was looking particularly stressed. Just as the man was taking his first couple of puffs, who should ring up on the telephone but the country’s leading showbiz impresario, Val Parnell. “‘Yes Val,’ I said, cigar in hand, no longer intimidated by this formidable man, ‘what can I do for you?’ That was the day the real Lew Grade was born!”

From then on he was never seen in public without them, despite the best efforts of Dave Allen (“When you’re in Lew’s company, never wear a brown suit, because he does tend to pick you up and light you”) and his doctor, who once told him to cut down for fear of lung cancer. Lew duly followed his advice, and reduced his daily quota … from 12 to seven.

5. Master the black art of scheduling
Lew had the best of all possible training here, having spent decades crafting the perfect billings for theatrical variety nights and learning the importance of sequencing talent and attracting big names. As such when it came to cooking up a running order for ATV, he knew instinctively what would work and what wouldn’t. “Three meetings, three mornings, and the schedules were done for six months,” he rasped when recalling the way he and other ITV bosses sorted out their scheduling. Gut instinct, the “smell” of a hit, ludicrous bags of self-confidence: all of these hallmarks of the TV executive were originated by Lew, and all were subsequently passed down to the likes of his nephew Michael and the equally impulsive Greg Dyke – in particular Lew’s strict menu for the perfect Sunday night’s telly: “Start off with a half-hour comedy show; then an hour of variety; then an hour drama; and then finish with a film.”

6. Spread a few myths
Cultivating the occasional half-truth or hearsay about your good self cannot help but boost your status as a media mogul, simultaneously intimidating those who should fear you while flattering those who claim you as a friend. During his life, stories abounded about Lew’s legendary parsimony, precious few of them not put about by Lord Grade for this very purpose. One time a beggar supposedly approached Lew on the street, asking for 50p for a bed. “First send round the bed so I can look at it,” snorted Lew in response. On another occasion a small girl ostensibly asked Lew what two and two made. “It depends if you’re buying or selling,” came the retort.

Other Lew-isms include the timeless, “It must be culture, because it certainly wasn’t entertainment” and, “All of my shows are great. Some of them are bad. But all of them are great.” One bona fide exchange, however, occurred during a visit to the Houses of Parliament when Lew bumped into Ted Willis, creator of Dixon of Dock Green. Willis, aware that Lew was then planning Jesus of Nazareth, challenged his companion to list the 12 disciples. “I certainly can,” snapped Lew. “Well, name them,” goaded Ted. “Peter, Paul, Mark, Thomas …;” Lew began, then trailed off. Willis cackled. “Go on. Name the others!” To which Lew replied, “I haven’t finished reading the script yet.”

7. Never let a few facts stand in the way of a good boast
Space: 1999 was the first science-fiction series to include live actors rather than puppets,” Lew once declared, wrongly. “We were, therefore, the forerunners of all the science-fiction series and feature films that were subsequently made,” he added, with equal inaccuracy. But Lew didn’t care. The fact that Space: 1999 began in 1975, a good many years after such little-known live action sci-fi series as Doctor Who and Star Trek, wasn’t as important as the fact that ATV (ie. Lew Grade) had done it before any of his ITV rivals. Likewise the claim about being the forerunner of everything that followed, which is, when you think about it, akin to saying 1975 was the forerunner of every year that followed simply because it came first. But again, Lew didn’t care. “I believe I’m correct,” he bragged on another occasion, “in claiming that ATV were the pioneers of the mini-series, a form of TV entertainment which, today, is a staple of every major TV network’s programme schedules.” This was tantamount to saying that ATV had invented the news, simply because it was now turning up on every other channel. Yet that wasn’t the point. What mattered was that it sounded important, made the company sound important, and above all made Lew sound important. As for his mid-’60s creaky black-and-white boardroom drama The Power Game – obvious, really: “The forerunner of Dallas“.

8. When it comes to hobnobbing, plenty of hobbing but no nobbing
A mogul needs to know how to deal with the great and the good, both on screen and off, but also know when to cut the chit-chat and get down to serious point-scoring. Lew was a master at schmoozing with prospective clients and then closing a deal swiftly and always on his own terms. Cigar to the fore, his great egg-shaped head waggling menacingly, Lew would stride into the offices of any TV executive in the world – “I believe I’m correct in saying that I was one of the few people who never had to make an appointment with anybody” – and know precisely when to drop the small talk and make good with the small print. “What about a series starring Roger Moore about a couple of troubleshooters called The Persuaders?” he proclaimed during one such stop-and-chat in an American boardroom. “No,” came the response, “Roger Moore’s been around much too long in The Saint. He’s been overexposed.” “OK,” Lew retorted immediately, “What would you say if I could get Tony Curtis for the other role?” “You’ll have a firm order for 24 episodes.”

Another time Lew was sitting in his own office when, as so often happened, the phone rang. It was Sam Goldwyn. “I want to sell you 20 pictures,” the legendary film producer roared. He reeled off a long list of titles before quoting a price of £1m for the lot. “How long will I have the rights for?” enquired Lew. “Seven years,” said Sam. “You have a deal,” barked Lew. “Thus,” Grade recalled (in another example of point 7 – see above), “we became the first commercial company to introduce theatrical movies on television in this country.”

When chasing Shirley MacLaine for a series, Lew decided on the personal approach and turned up at her house having prepared a practical joke. “I took one arm out of my jacket sleeve, put it behind my back, and then rang her doorbell. When she came to the door I said, ‘Look. I’ve just been with your manager. He’s worked out a deal and it’s cost me my arm.’ She roared with laughter and said, ‘OK, Lew, I’ll do the series.’” But there were times when Lew was quick to dispense with all fripperies, particularly when it came to that most vitally serious of propositions, The Muppet Show. “Boys and girls,” he addressed the production team one morning,”I want you to know that we’ve got an order for another 24 episodes of The Muppets. However because we’ll always be on a very tight schedule, you must promise me that whatever happens you will never strike on The Muppets.” Everyone apparently shouted back “We promise!” Imagine Lew’s horror, then, and on a Bank Holiday Monday to boot, to receive a phone call that a strike was looming. He stormed over to ATV’s Elstree studios, shouting: “Do you remember? I promised you another series and you promised me that you would never strike on The Muppets. I’ve kept my promise, now I expect you to keep yours.” Chastened and bowed, the entire production team instantly went back to work. Apparently. Well, even if it’s not true it makes for another good story …

9. If in doubt, fly the flag
If you’re ever in a situation where your media mogul credentials are being questioned, it always pays to invoke the spirit of the nation and, by implication, challenge your interrogator’s patriotism. Shortly after Lew was ennobled, the Lord Chancellor buttonholed him at a party and professed, “We don’t see much of you in the House of Lords, do we, Lew?” “You’re the Lord Chancellor,” Lew tartly replied. “You’re also an eminent QC. You make the decision. Either I go to the House of Lords regularly, or I continue with what I’m doing now in my own little way: building a relationship between Great Britain and the rest of the world through the medium of films and television.”

Or put more succinctly, as relayed to a recalcitrant Roger Moore when he was in two minds over whether to do The Persuaders: “The country needs money! Think of the Queen!”

10. Make sure you’ve got him on your side
Finally, if all else fails, call on a higher authority. After producing Moses – The Lawgiver in the mid-’70s, Lew was summoned for an audience with the Pope. The show had, after all, made something of an impact in Italy: “Cinemas were half-empty because everybody seemed to stay at home to watch,” Lew later conveniently revealed. At the end of their encounter the Pontiff muttered, “I hope one day you will do the story of Jesus”. Lew stoutly replied that he would, went off and put together a roll-call of predictable glitter (Laurence Olivier and Ian McShane – together at last!) and ended up with Jesus of Nazareth, one of the biggest sales he’d ever make. On his way to flog the series to America, Lew had a vision on the plane involving the number 25. It couldn’t mean £25, he reasoned, nor £25,000. It must be $25m. Hence this was what he asked the US networks for, and was what, after some vintage huckstering, he got. The Pope later told people listening to his regular address in St Peter’s Square that they should go home and watch Jesus of Nazareth on the telly instead. And you can’t, as Lew would never tire of reminding anyone and everyone, get a bigger plug than that.