The Andrew Davidson Interview, Magazine journalist of the year: Michael Grade - The former Channel 4 boss is a changed man. After years of therapy he has mellowed, become less agitated. He has started a new family and, by day, spreads himself across a wid

The Andrew Davidson Interview, Magazine journalist of the year: Michael Grade - The former Channel 4 boss is a changed man. After years of therapy he has mellowed, become less agitated. He has started a new family and, by day, spreads himself across a wid

by ANDREW DAVIDSON
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Yeah, just ringing with my Pinewood hat on, just checking if there is anything I can do, basically ... Yes ... yes ... Michael Grade, former boss of Channel 4, scion of one of Britain's best-known showbiz families, is on the phone at his desk in Pinewood Studios, selling ... 'Well, I tell you, if we get this, I will so look after you so well you won't know where to put your hat ...'

He is struggling to close a deal, a deal probably long since gone, to bring a production to Pinewood's soon-to-be-opened, state-of-the-art television studios. He takes another puff on his half-smoked cigar, loudly, a verbal signifier if ever there was one. He's playing all his cards, calling in old favours, even calling up old ghosts.

Puff, puff. 'Yes ... yes ... extra space, of course ... right ... right ... If you want us to sharpen our pencil I can get ... ah, other issues ... yes ... hurr hurr hurr.'

Grade, 57, lets out a throaty laugh. Old ties in these kinds of deals can be important, one of the reasons Grade took on the job of chairman at Pinewood Studios. Drumming up a bit of business, doing a bit of selling.

He likes that, he's done it all his life, sorting out programming at London Weekend Television, running BBC1, all the time with a salesman's eye, like his uncle Lew and his uncle Bernie.

But his hand is rubbing his forehead now in increasingly agitated fashion.

He knows he's losing the fish. He throws in an offer of extra rehearsal time, casting around for more bait. He's clearly getting no bite. Luring producers out of London studios into rural Bucks is not an easy proposition.

'Well, I was just being briefed this morning, and I said I'd just give you a call to see if there's anything ... yes ... yes ...' He tries a new tack.

The night before, a terrorist had rocketed the MI6 building. 'Of course, don't underestimate the security clampdown in London and the problems that's going to cause now ...'

Grade cringes at his own chutzpah and gives me an involuntary silent giggle, winking. This is Grade the showman, former agent, one-time journalist, the super-salesman who knows every trick and every phone number, even throwing in his daughter, who used to work for the guy on the other end.

Yeah, yeah, she's doing fine, gone to Insead, a killer, she frightens me.

He listens. Eventually, he concedes: 'Well, OK, I appreciate your candour.' After more joshing, making clear there's no rift, he puts the phone down with a little sigh.

No deal?

No, he says, shaking his head with a weary smile. He leans back, blue shirt open at the neck, crumpled chinos rising above subdued, maroon socks.

He looks chubbier, greyer, and less agitated than the mind's eye remembers: Grade, the executive who was always in the press, often on television, never short of a comment or an opinion. Now he's taken on a new challenge, to develop pounds 16 million-turnover Pinewood, bought out of Rank earlier this year, into the sort of television and movie production hub that will rival the best in Europe.

It's three years since he left Channel 4, the station he headed for nearly a decade to general acclaim. He staved off privatisation, drove up ratings and, despite a fervent campaign by the Daily Mail to brand him Britain's 'pornographer-in-chief', established C4 as just about the only public-service station in the world that could survive on its own ad revenue.

He also cemented his reputation as one of Britain's best managers of creative talent. And then?

My hunch is that things haven't been as easy for Grade since that day he walked out of Channel 4's steel and glass HQ in London's Pimlico. He took over at the helm of First Leisure plc, the entertainments group founded by his uncle, Lord Delfont. Split it up, sold it off, walked - a performance that did not go down well in the City. He joined the board of NMEC, the company in charge of the Dome, to 'help manage the creative process'.

Enough said. He took a non-executive role at Camelot in March. Cue summer-long row over the lottery franchise.

Unlucky streak? Maybe. But in the same period he got married (for the third time), started a new family, wrote a remarkably candid autobiography and declared himself happier than ever. He is now open for offers as he develops a new portfolio career: two days a week at Pinewood, non-exec posts at Hemscott, Octopus and Camelot, trustee of the World Wildlife Fund, director of Charlton Athletic, development council of the National Theatre, council of the Albert Hall. Need a ticket? Michael's your man.

Is he winding down? No, he says simply, with a pensive puff on the cigar.

In front of him, on a wide desk, he has a phone console, a notepad, copies of the Financial Times and Screen International magazine. Around him, in his first-floor office near Pinewood's main gate, he has the usual Grade paraphernalia: the framed newspaper cartoons, the Prix Italia awards.

It is the room of a man who knows the power of reputation.

'I hope to keep adding to the portfolio if people want more of me,' he says eventually. It's just a different way of working. 'I don't want a full-time job any more.' Those who know him well say that is probably true, although there may not be a job big enough to interest him - a version of 'I'm still big, it's the pictures that got small' perhaps. And yet you can bet there would be a big salary out there for him, if he wanted it.

'Never do anything just for the money,' he retorts gnomically, 'money is not important.' It is the sort of comment that will draw a wry smile from those in television who remember stories of Grade's golden handcuffs, negotiated while heading Channel 4, to encourage him not to leap ship into an ITV franchise bidder in 1991.

But it is a shame that such an accomplished manager is spreading himself so thin. He would rather, he says, let chief executives come to him for his experience, use him as a sounding board, than run anything himself.

I think I believe him, but you are never sure with Grade because, as he admits, he is pretty good at selling everything, including himself.

And that, he says, he got from his family. Nature or nurture? Don't know, he says. 'What drives me is coming from the family I come from, with a good work ethic and a desire to live up to the reputation and achievements of the previous generation.' That being Bernie, Lew and Grade's dad Leslie, three sons of immigrant Russian Jewish stock, who built up Britain's best-known talent agency and moved into leisure, theatres, TV and film production.

'Yeah,' he says, 'whatever I do, I want to be a credit to the family name. It's always been my strongest motivating factor.' Grade, despite being in his late fifties, despite being one of Britain's best-known media bosses, despite being in a new century, is still curiously in thrall to his lineage. That personal background, much of it surprisingly painful - he has refused to speak to his mother since she left his father when he was a baby, he dropped his sister after a family row when he was a teenager, he trails a succession of failed personal relationships behind him - makes you realise that, beneath the gregarious, affable exterior, an odd brew of emotions is fermenting.

It is one of the complexities of his personality that he tried to work out through therapy, as his book reveals. He saw a therapist twice a week for six years while heading Channel 4, a fact he kept secret from the media mob, a la Tony Soprano. All of that might, I suspect, have had a knock-on effect in his business life. He is now a better balanced, more at-ease individual, but is he less driven?

But first I want to ask him about the Dome.

Puff puff. A tightening of the lips.

Does he think NMEC directors will get it in the neck for the financial bungling that's been uncovered?

'Aargh,' he says, 'there's a wonderful pack mentality now - someone's got to swing for this. The fact is, it didn't work, but it was an ambitious project. At the end of the day the public didn't come to it in sufficient numbers, but it was nobody's fault.'

Really? Grade describes his role - unpaid, he points out - as 'not even ringmaster, just brought in to add coherence to the creative process', working with individual design teams 'to get ideas polished'. He helped sort out the central show, after Cameron Mackintosh's plan to build a large, black theatre slap in the middle of the Dome was vetoed.

It must be strange, after devoting so much time unpaid, thinking you have really pulled stuff out of the hat, to find yourself getting pilloried for the organisation, the paperwork, the finances?

Grade shrugs. 'All of that is after the fact,' he says. 'Even if we had an absolutely 1,000% accurate asset register, and a 1,000% accurate financial report, the position would not be any different. The financial position is entirely due to the fact that the Dome did not get enough visitors.

'And let's be clear about this. Every time we built visitor numbers up, another ton of manure hit us in the press. Now, in the theatre, there are many examples of productions being slated in reviews then going on to be big successes, Les Miserables is one. But we have had bad reviews from the opening night onwards.'

The irony, he adds, is that the previews were actually quite good, and the stories in the first week were actually about the queues, not lack of them. But bad mistakes were made, like keeping the editors of national newspapers standing around for hours on New Year's Eve, making them feel very unimportant. Bruised egos? 'You said that, not me,' says Grade.

'But actually,' he continues, 'I think something bigger is going on than what you read in the papers. I think it is possible that the days of expos and exhibitions are really over, because the private sector does it so well now. In 1951 there wasn't a Disneyland or an Epcott or a Legoland.

Pre-Disney, an exhibition was a huge event, now it's not. The public want specifics, not generalities. They want a thrill park or a Lego park or a safari park, they want to know exactly what they are going to. I think that's why they haven't embraced it in the way we thought.'

Has it taught him anything?

'Never to go near a public enterprise of this kind again,' he shrugs.

'You're just not allowed to do the job, really.'

Yet what did he do once the Dome was up and running? Leap onto the board of Camelot, the company behind the national lottery, which was about to be pitched into an acrimonious franchise battle with Richard Branson.

That seems almost masochistic.

Grade's old friend Sir George Russell, chairman of Camelot, says he offered him the chance to join after the franchise was sorted, 'but that's Michael, he likes a challenge'. Grade and Russell go back a long way. Russell, former chairman of the Independent Television Commission, was on the appointments sub-committee of the Channel 4 board when Grade was given the top job.

He also chairs 3i, which provided the finance for the Pinewood buy-out.

He says that Pinewood provides the perfect environment for Grade's skills: picking the right shows to bring in, working with the right talent, using his broad range of contacts in the broadcasting industry to bring business in - growth in television work is crucial to the studio's new gameplan.

If Grade can give the outfit enough critical mass - and his attempt to merge Pinewood with Shepperton, still under negotiation as this went to press, is an indication of his ambitions - it could be much more successful than people realise. An eventual float? Perhaps, though as Pinewood's chief executive Ivan Dunleavy points out, 3i is a long-term investor.

There will be no rush to market.

Yet it is uncertain whether the City will welcome back another Grade vehicle. Fairly or unfairly, Grade did not receive plaudits for his time at the helm of First Leisure ('embattled' was the most common adjective used as the company's share price plummeted), probably because, again, expectations of what he might achieve were so high. One friend says that many in the City presumed Grade would turn the company into a go-go media stock, a shell for something bigger, but he had so much to sort out on the ground it was impossible.

His public relations was not helped by a swingeing attack from his aunt, Lady Delfont, who accused him in a Sunday newspaper of betraying everything her husband had worked so hard to build up.

The problem, says Grade, is that when he went into First Leisure, the business had stalled and there was little chance for growth. It had nightclubs, bowling alleys, marinas, a share in West End theatre, health and fitness clubs. It was in danger of becoming another Rank, he says wryly. There was no room for any more innovation in bowling, the extension of the licensing laws threatened nightclubs' margins.

'We had good cash businesses but only one real growth business - health clubs - so we formulated a plan to sell off low-growth businesses, give cash back to shareholders, leave them with the high-growth business, and they are now sitting on a very good health-and-fitness share.' The disposals went to shareholders for approval, his aunt was in a minority of one.

Even so, some noted that after half a lifetime in broadcasting, Grade never looked at ease running a quoted company. He admits he felt uncomfortable with the management style he found at First Leisure (instigated after his uncle's death), describing it dismissively as JFDI - 'Just f****** do it'.

And he moans in his autobiography, It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time (Pan), about the sensitivities of dealing with the financial press.

He was so used to gossiping freely with media reporters, whose speculative stories, frankly, affected few outside a cosy metropolitan circle, that he appears genuinely surprised that, in another sector, rumours could wipe millions off share prices.

Naive? It's hard not to conclude that the way Grade works as a manager, picking his people and delegating freely, concentrating on strategy, propaganda and information gathering, is better suited to some businesses than others.

Does he think that's true? 'Don't know,' he says, with another puff, 'I've always been in this sort of business.'

The really infuriating thing about working with Grade, say colleagues, is that what everyone likes about him - the approachability, the quips - can also seem like evasiveness. But there are few better handlers of talent, both performing and managerial. 'Michael has real stage presence,' says Sir Michael Bishop, his former chairman at C4, 'he can talk to people with a down-to-earthness, there are always two or three quips before he delivers the message. People have a lot of confidence in him.' Witnessing Grade massaging the egos of the stars he discovered and nurtured at C4 - presenters such as Chris Evans, producers such as Planet 24's Charlie Parsons, and Lord Ali - was an education, he adds.

Others point out that, with Grade, delegation is key. He agrees: 'Unless you give people their head, how are you going to know if they are any good? The more I can delegate, the better it is.'

Is it also true that he cannot work in an environment where there is confrontation? Hence his unhappiness at First Leisure, and also his rapid exit from the BBC, once he found himself in head-on collision with John Birt?

'I think it is very hard to work in an environment where there is hostility.

Some managers do thrive on it, not me.'

Is that a weakness?

'No, you get the best out of people where there is harmony.'

And has he rebuilt his relationship with John Birt, about whom he is sharply critical in his autobiography? 'We're perfectly polite to each other.'

The smile flickers on Grade's lips as he says it, probably because he knows that, despite his distaste for hostility, he is pretty much favourite to win any battle of repartee with Birt. Bishop says it was a shame Grade never got the BBC director general's job, as he would have done 'ten years ago what Greg Dyke is doing now'.

So does Grade still want the job? He says not. What would be the point?

In his book, he applauds Dyke's appointment and describes the current DG, whom he clearly sees as one of his LWT proteges, as having 'a touch of the Grades' about him. So does Grade think the six years in therapy, sorting out his personal problems, have made him less ambitious?

He frowns. No, he says. 'It changed me in my private life. It didn't change me as a manager.'

How can you separate the two?

'Because intimate relationships require different levels of maturity.

I have always been very good at understanding the dynamic in relationships at work, but hopeless at home.'

Is that because he is better at dealing with men? 'No.'

Did therapy encourage him to rebuild the breaches with his mother and sister? 'No,' he says.

Is his mother still alive? He stifles a yawn. 'I believe so.'

Don't friends think it is odd that he can cut others out of his life like that? He is so gregarious and eager to please, it seems jarringly out of character. It is also something that his critics (including the Daily Mail, which ruthlessly tracked down his mother nine years ago to ask how she felt) frequently use against him. Wouldn't it be easier to resolve it?

'There's nothing to resolve. People are always curious but they can only apply their experience to mine, and it is not relevant to mine. It is not a matter of judgment, it's just the way the cards are dealt, that's all. I don't feel a void in my life.'

In fact, he's hardly been happier. He has his new family, wife and toddler, plenty of time to indulge his passions. 'Football, family, family, football,' he grins. Sailing too, when he can. He's also pleased with his book's reception and wants to write more. 'I really love the act of writing,' he says.

So no more full-time jobs? He shakes his head. 'I love this peripatetic life,' he says.

Well, I take all that with a pinch of salt. As Bishop points out, the Grade genes promote longevity. Uncle Lew was never more successful than in the last third of his very long life. Uncle Bernie didn't set up First Leisure till he was in his seventies. And Michael Grade is nothing if not hostage to his genes. My bet is he's working on a different time-plan to the rest of us. Watch this space.

GRADE IN A MINUTE

1943 Born 8 March in London. Educated Stowe and St Dunstan's College, London

1960 Trainee journalist, Daily Mirror, later appointed sports columnist

1966 Theatrical agent, Grade Organisation

1969 Joint MD, London Management and Representation

1973 Deputy controller of programmes, London Weekend Television, later rising to programme director and board member, LWT

1982 President of Embassy TV, Los Angeles

1983 Chairman and COO, The Grade Company

1984-86 Director of programmes, BBC1, then director of programmes, BBC TV

1988 Chief executive of Channel 4

1997-98 Executive chairman, First Leisure, then chief executive; awarded CBE

2000 Chairman, Pinewood Studios.

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