Originally a dancer, and later a talent agent, Grade's interest in television production began in 1954 when, in partnership, he successfully bid for franchises in the newly created ITV network, which led to the creation of Associated Television (ATV). Having worked for a time in the United States, he was aware of the potential for the sale of television programming to American networks, and a subsidiary, the Incorporated Television Company (ITC; commonly known as ITC Entertainment) was formed with this specific objective in mind. Grade had some success in this field, and a number of these television series, such as Gerry Anderson's various Supermarionation series like Thunderbirds, Patrick McGoohan's The Prisoner, and Jim Henson's The Muppet Show still have an international following.
Later, Grade invested in film production. However, several expensive box office failures caused him to lose control of ITC, and ultimately resulted in the disestablishment of ATV after it lost its ITV franchise.
Grade was born in Tokmak, Taurida Governorate, Russian Empire to Isaak and Olga Winogradsky. In 1912, the Jewish family emigrated to escape Cossack violence and anti-Semitism, from Odessa via Berlin to Brick Lane in Bethnal Green in the East End of London. Isaak worked as a trouser-presser while his three sons (Grade and his younger brothers, Bernard (later Bernard Delfont) and Leslie) attended the Rochelle Street Elementary School near , where Yiddish was spoken by 90% of the pupils. For two years the Winogradskys lived in rented rooms at the north end of Brick Lane, before moving to the nearby Boundary Estate.
Early professional life
At the age of 15, Grade became an agent for a clothing company, and shortly afterwards started his own business.
In 1926, he was declared Charleston Champion of the World at a dancing competition at the Royal Albert Hall. Fred Astaire was one of the judges. Grade subsequently became a professional dancer going by the name Louis Grad; this form came from a Paris reporter's typing error that Grade liked and decided to keep. The octogenarian Lord Grade once danced the Charleston at a party Arthur Ochs Sulzberger gave in New York.
Around 1934, he became a talent agent and went into partnership with Joe Collins (father of novelist Jackie and actress Joan Collins). Among Grade's clients were harmonica player Larry Adler and the jazz group Quintet of the Hot Club of France.
Following the start of the Second World War in 1939, Grade became involved in arranging entertainment for soldiers in Harrogate, and later joined the British Army. He was discharged after two years when an old problem with swelling of the knees, which had earlier ended his dancing career, re-occurred. In 1945, the arrangement with Collins having been terminated, Grade formed a partnership with his brother Leslie (Lew and Leslie Grade Ltd., or the Grade Organisation) and travelled in the United States, where the brothers developed their entertainment interests. His connections included, among others, Bob Hope and Judy Garland, who performed in Britain for the first time.
In 1954, Grade was contacted by the manager of singer Jo Stafford, Mike Nidorf, who notified him of an advertisement in The Times inviting franchise bids for the new, commercial ITV network. Assembling a consortium that included impresarios Val Parnell and Prince Littler, the Incorporated Television Programme Company (ITP), which soon changed its name to Incorporated Television Company (ITC; also known as ITC Entertainment), was formed. ITC's bid to the Independent Television Authority (ITA) was rejected on the grounds of its conflict of interest from its prominence and involvement in artist management. The Associated Broadcasting Development Company (ABD) had gained ITA approval for both the London weekend and Midlands weekday contracts, but was undercapitalised; Grade's consortium joined with the ABD to form what became Associated Television (ATV). Reflecting his background in variety, Grade's favourite show and a success for the new company was Sunday Night at the London Palladium (1955–67, 1973–74), one of the most popular programmes on British television in its day. Grade did not avoid the other end of the cultural spectrum, and from 1958 Sir Kenneth Clark began to talk about the history of art on television.
Meanwhile, Grade committed the funds for what would become the first trans-Atlantic success of the ITP subsidiary: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955–60), commissioned by UK-based American producer Hannah Weinstein. ITC became a wholly owned ATV subsidiary in 1957, That same year ATV established a music publishing division with ATV Music and gained a half interest in Pye Records in 1959, later Pye became a wholly owned subsidiary.
Grade was deputy managing director of ATV under Val Parnell until 1962, when he became managing director having contrived to have the board oust Parnell. Grade soon decided that the Midlands deserved its own regular soap opera as a rival to Coronation Street. Crossroads, much derided but ultimately a serious challenge to Granada's series in the ratings, began its initial quarter century run in November 1964.
ITC's success continued and had many internationally successful TV series, leading Howard Thomas, managing director of the Associated British Corporation (ABC), to complain that Grade distributed programming for "Birmingham, Alabama, rather than Birmingham, England". These series included The Saint (1962–69), which was sold to over 80 countries, and two featuring Patrick McGoohan: Danger Man (1960–68) and The Prisoner (1967–68). These series, exclusively thrillers, were normally used as summer replacements for American-made programmes until the mid-1960s. While many of Grade's series used American actors in lead roles (The Baron and Man in a Suitcase, for example) it was those series which used an exclusively British cast, such as The Saint (and The Avengers, made by another ITV contractor), which were more successful in the United States.
In 1962, AP Films became a subsidiary of ITC. Co-founded by Gerry Anderson, it produced children's marionette puppet ("Supermarionation") series during the 1960s, including Thunderbirds (1965–66) and (as Century 21) Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967–68). After a screening of the pilot for Thunderbirds ("Trapped in the Sky", 1964), Grade insisted that the episodes be lengthened to fill a one-hour slot.
In 1966, Grade's companies were re-organised again to form the Associated Communications Corporation (ACC). That year, The Sunday Times investigated the interconnected nature of the companies controlled by Grade and his two brothers, Bernard Delfont and Leslie Grade. Their firms, effectively amounting to a "cartel", were agents for most of the major talents in acting as well as entertainment and controlled theatres in both London and the rest of the UK and ATV was a major provider of televised entertainment.
Later television productions
The following year, ATV lost its London franchise to what would become London Weekend Television (LWT); at the same time, however, ATV's Midlands franchise was expanded to run throughout the week from July 1968. Through ATV Music Grade acquired Northern Songs, gaining control of the Lennon–McCartney song catalogue.
Foreign sales remained strong for a time (valued at $30 million in 1970) and the ACC received the Queen's Awards for Export in both 1967 and 1969. Some of the 1970s distributions performed poorly: these included UFO, The Persuaders! (1971–72) and The Julie Andrews Hour (1972–1973), which aired for only one season on the ABC Television Network in the United States despite positive reviews and seven Emmy Awards, including the title Best Variety Series. Although Gerry Anderson maintained a connection with Grade until the older man lost control of his companies in 1982, Space: 1999 (1975–77) was the last series Anderson made for ITC.
In the mid-1970s Grade approached American puppeteer Jim Henson, who was in need of assistance for his latest TV project. Henson wanted to create a new variety show starring his Muppet characters, but had been dismissed by American networks on account of his contributions to children's programmes such as Sesame Street (from 1969). CBS came close to agreeing to broadcast The Muppet Show, but only if it was during a syndicated block of its programming. After watching one of Henson's pilots and recalling a special made in one of his studios Grade allowed Henson to realise his project in Britain (the series was recorded at ATV's Elstree Studios) and distributed internationally by ITC. Grade's action was instrumental in bringing The Muppet Show to the screen in 1976 and ensuring its success.
Grade's other accomplishments in TV included the mini-series Jesus of Nazareth (1977), which was successfully sold to the American market and secured a record-breaking $12 million in revenue. Several years in preparation, the deal with the Italian broadcaster RAI and director Franco Zeffirelli was announced in August 1974. Grade also promoted "quality" productions on ATV as a challenge to the BBC — for example, dedicating a whole evening to a live broadcast of Tosca, starring Maria Callas, from La Scala opera house in Milan, Italy.
Grade approached Blake Edwards to revive the Pink Panther franchise as a TV series, an option Edwards was not keen on, but he did work on developing scripts. Eventually, he persuaded Grade to finance the property as a feature film project with himself and Peter Sellers waiving their fees in return for a profit sharing arrangement. Both men's careers had not been prospering for a few years. Only Grade's second big budget feature, ITC produced the eventual film The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), while United Artists (UA), who had earlier rejected the project themselves, gained the American distribution rights and a 5% share of the profits. Distribution in other countries was undertaken by ITC. The Return of the Pink Panther was released to a positive critical and commercial reception.
It also prompted Grade to move into the film industry, where he had success with Farewell My Lovely (1975). Other films of the period made with Grade's involvement include the co-releases The Boys From Brazil (1978) with 20th Century Fox and Movie Movie (also 1978) with Warner Brothers. He was a producer on the Ingmar Bergman films Autumn Sonata (1978) and From the Life of the Marionettes (1980). One domestic British film made by the ITC subsidiary Black Lion Films, The Long Good Friday (1980) was purchased and released by HandMade Films after Grade and his company had effectively disowned it, for in Grade's reputed opinion, seeming to be sympathetic to the IRA. Only HandMade's second release, their first success, Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979), was originally to have been made by EMI Films, but after company head Bernard Delfont, Grade's brother, read the script the financing was abruptly withdrawn.
Grade's backing of an expensive "all-star" flop was to prove decisive. Of Raise the Titanic (1980), an adaptation of the novel by Clive Cussler, Grade himself observed that "It would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic". The film was panned by critics and, after costing $36 million, returned only $8 million in rentals.
This and other expensive box office failures – including Saturn 3 (1980) and The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981) – marked the end of Grade's involvement in major film production. Despite this, several of the most critically acclaimed films produced by Grade were released after the failure of Raise the Titanic: these included On Golden Pond (1981) and Sophie's Choice (1982), both winners of Academy Awards, as well as The Dark Crystal (1982), which was Jim Henson's final project created in association with ITC.
In 1980, Grade's standing in the mass media industry was damaged by three events: Henson's decision to end The Muppet Show after five years, the poor reception to Raise the Titanic, and a decision that, effective from 1 January 1982, ATV Midlands would be permitted to keep its licence only on the condition that it terminate its association with Grade and ITC (ultimately leading to its re-branding as Central Television). Grade resigned his position in the company while it underwent a series of partnerships and mergers. In 1982, he lost control of ACC to Robert Holmes à Court, who dismissed him and all his staff.
He was later brought in by American producer Norman Lear to head the film unit of Embassy Pictures but was never again as successful or as influential, although he was responsible for the distribution of films such as Blade Runner (1982) and This Is Spinal Tap (1984). He subsequently became a producer of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Starlight Express. In the late 1980s he was the head of a new venture, the Grade Company which made adaptations for television of works by the prolific novelist Barbara Cartland; he owned the rights to 450 of her romances. By the mid-1990s, Grade had returned to ITC to head the company one final time until his death in 1998.
Knighted in 1969, Grade was created a life peer — Baron Grade, of Elstree in the County of Hertfordshire on 22 June 1976. He chose Elstree as his territorial designation because ATV's studios were based there.
Grade died of heart failure, 12 days short of his 92nd birthday, on 13 December 1998 in London. To celebrate Grade's life and mark the centenary of his birth, BBC Radio 2 transmitted two special one-hour tribute programmes on 24 and 25 December 2006. Hosted by Sir Roger Moore, these featured interviews with Lady Grade, Grade's nephew Michael Grade CBE (now Lord Grade of Yarmouth) and niece Anita Land (both children of Leslie Grade), his nephew Ian Freeman (son of his sister, Rita) and a number of other guests.
- Chester, Lewis (2010). All My Shows are Great: The Life of Lew Grade. Aurum Press, Limited. ISBN 9781845135089. Retrieved 2013-12-31.
- Davis, Clifford (1981). How I made Lew Grade a millionaire-- and other fables : almost an autobiography (paperback ed.). London: Mirror Books. ISBN 0859392473. LCCN 82112749.
- Grade, Lew (1987). Still Dancing: My Story. London: Collins. ISBN 0002177803. LCCN 88124903. Retrieved 2013-12-31.