Lew Grade


By Greg Halpin

One of the most famous, best loved and successful TV moguls was born Louis Winogradsky on 25th December 1906. He was the son of Jewish parents who fled Anti Jewish Sentiment in the Ukraine and arrived in London, England in 1912.

He would become a powerful, iconic and well respected Entrepreneur within the industry with his characteristic huge cigars and great sense of humour.

During his early years, Lew developed a passion for dancing which would last throughout his entire adult lifetime. He went onto become a professional dancer and this was when he changed his name to ‘Lew Grade’. Throughout his early adult life he had a range of career experiences including entertaining troops in 1939 and also running a clothing shop in the East end of London. He and his brother (Leslie) went into partnership  in 1933 when they both co founded a Talent agency, which became the biggest in the United Kingdom.

Purely by chance, a friend contacted Lew in 1954 about an advert that appeared in The Times newspaper. Lew saw an opportunity to become a powerful figure in the newly launched ITV commercial television franchise network. He, along with his brother Leslie and Val Parnell, became the main figures in the consortium which launched Associated Television (ATV). Initially, the franchise meant that ATV acted as a dual regional provider for  London (Mon-Fri) and the midlands at weekends.

From the outset, Lew Grade wasted no time in delivering his uncanny knack of giving the public just what they wanted, with shows like ‘Sunday night at the Palladium’, ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’, The Buccaneers’ ’William Tell’ & Emergency Ward 10. All of these were huge successes with the public and it was a taste of things to come. Although he was under Val Parnell in terms of the companies overall structure, it was Lew who was responsible for nurturing great ideas and giving the green light to many shows.

With the 1968 franchise rounds, Lew Grades ATV lost their contract for weekdays in London but gained a full 7 days a week contract for the Midlands region. Part of this agreement was the condition that ATV show more commitment to the area and as a result, a multi million pound Television complex was built in the city centre of Birmingham. Lew was present at the official opening ceremony with Princess Alexandra cutting the ribbon in 1970. At this time, ATV could boast the most technically advanced purpose built studios in Europe. They did however retain their powerhouse studios at Elstree.

Lew continued with his flamboyant approach to television making and during this period he commissioned a glittering array of programmes,  which even today the public still fondly remember. These included The Saint, The Muppet Show, Crossroads, The Prisoner, The Champions, Pipkins, The Persuaders!, Danger Man, Department S, General Hospital, New Faces, The Golden Shot and many, many more.

Many of the shows were ground breaking and innovative and many of his decisions were based on gut feeling and intuition. He was not afraid of risk taking with the ventures he financed, but in most cases his instinct for a good deal and a good programme paid off handsomely.

Under his distribution company ITC (A wholly subsidiary of ATV) he financed shows such as Space 1999, Thunderbirds, Stingray and Captain Scarlett,  UFO among others.

He was also responsible for producing several serials for television such as the much acclaimed bible epic ‘Jesus of Nazareth’. This proved to be a critical and financial international/worldwide success.

He had shrewd business acumen and completed several deals using his remarkable insight.  This was never more apparent than his introduction to Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets. Jim had tried for 3 years to get a deal for his ‘Muppet Show’ idea across American Networks without success. However, Lew saw a great opportunity and agreed to fund the series under the condition that the shows were made at ATV in England.

He also was renowned for selling many of the British productions overseas, mainly the United States. This was a very lucrative income for Associated Television. One of the ways he was able to do this was to have well known International stars appearing in his shows, therefore making it more attractive to buyers abroad.

He was knighted by the Queen and became ‘Sir Lew Grade’ in 1969 and became Lord Grade of Elstree in 1976. His company were presented with the prestigious accolade of the ‘Queens award for export’ in 1967 & 1969.

However, even Lew had his critics. Some had nicknamed him ‘Low Grade’ and he was accused of placing too much emphasis on programmes being made for the International market. Despite this, few could argue with his track record and history of repeated successes.

Due to rules that existed at that time, the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) forced Lew to retire as head of ATV  when he reached the age of 70.

He then decided to move into the Film industry towards the end of the 1970′s but with mixed results. He famously funded the ill fated ‘Raise the Titanic’ (1980) movie to the tune of many millions of pounds over budget.  When it bombed at the box office, he quipped to reporters that ‘It would have been cheaper to have lowered the Atlantic’!

Although this literally was a disaster movie for Lew, he did have some notable successes including The Muppet Movie’, ‘Return of the Pink Panther’ and the Oscar award winning ‘On Golden Pond’.

Sadly, the TV company that Lew help found lost its own identity in 1981 with the next stage of ITV franchise rounds when ATV became ‘Central Independent Television’. As part of the conditions, the new company had to sever its links with London (Elstree) completely and its association with Lews ITC.

Among his many attributes,  Lew was famous for his wit, charm (and beloved Charleston),  but perhaps most notably his one liners. Here are a few examples

* Marriage was the best business deal I ever made. After that, Jesus of Nazareth and The Muppets.”

* At age 11, when asked the answer to ‘What is two plus two’: He replied “Are you buying or selling ?”

* Only twelve disciples? Didn’t I tell you I want this thing to be big, big, big!” (To Franco Zefirelli, on the set of ‘Jesus of Nazareth’)

* “I have a very good sense of what audiences want and expect from movies and television. That’s because I’m one of them”.

Although he continued in  media/entertainment/music and other businesses in the late 80′s and 90′s, it was in a much diminished capacity than before. However, his personality, presence and charisma continued in abundance.

On 13th December 1998, Lew Grade sadly died due to complications following an operation for heart problems. The world had lost one of the greatest entertainment impresarios in the history of film and television. We had also lost one of the most colourful pioneering characters in the industry. He was married to Kathleen Moody for 56 years and they had one adopted son. His nephew (son of brother Leslie) is Michael Grade.

With television now almost in free fall in terms of original programming and quality, Lew Grade leaves behind a wonderful legacy of how it should be done. The man and his work, will always be fondly remembered.

Greg Halpin is part of the Production Team of “From ATVLAND In Colour” and “From Headlines to ‘Tight-Lines’ – The Story of ATV Today”.