Michael Grade’s CV reads like a recent history of the British
entertainment industry. There’s the Daily Mirror, where his career began
at the tender age of 17, while the 1970s were spent at LWT. Then there’s
the more famous role as controller of BBC1 and his controversial tenure
as Channel 4’s chief executive. Now he spends three days a week as
chairman of Pinewood Studios.
You could say he was born into the business. His family ties with the
entertainment industry are well documented: Lord Grade and Lord Delfont
are his uncles, and his father, Leslie, was a theatrical agent.
’I had an insight into the entertainment world from a very young age,’
he says. ’I wasn’t getting myself into something I knew nothing about,
which was a huge advantage. I knew the vocabulary. I didn’t shake like a
jelly if I met a star. I was doing it since I was a year old.’
Grade’s personality seems so utterly in keeping with the entertainment
world it’s hard to imagine how he would have fared in anything else.
But he has gained none of the negative traits one so often associates
with powerful people. When I meet him at Pinewood Studios, he is
charming and welcoming. Indeed, he almost lives up to his caricature:
his office is big, his socks are red and throughout the interview, he
puffs his way through about half a large cigar. The only thing missing,
much to the chagrin of our photographer, are the trademark braces.
But while Grade seems easy to interview, it is hard to get a sense of
the man behind the mask. At 57, he has maintained a youthful enthusiasm
for the industry he has worked in for 40 odd years and is a raconteur of
the first order, talking freely while peppering his conversation with a
mix of anecdote and self-publicity.
Much of his enthusiasm comes from his voracious consumption of the media
in a personal, as well as professional, capacity. Grade lives and
’You don’t get jaded. If you see something good - some of the
productions at the National Theatre, say - you’d be a heathen if you
I’m always going to be a consumer of entertainment. If you don’t enjoy
consuming it, you can’t work in it. If you don’t like drinking Coke,
don’t work for Coca-Cola. I enjoy working with creative people. One of
the reasons I moved from Channel 4 was that I was so far away from the
creative process it became dull. I became dull.’
Creativity is Grade’s favourite word. For a man who has spent the vast
majority of his life around creative people, he doesn’t seem bitter at
his own limitations in that department. ’I don’t think I’m creative. I
think I can recognise creativity. Somebody once said ’what you do,
Michael, is you pick good people and you leave them alone’, and I’d be
very happy with that description.’ This is the role he is most
comfortable being cast in: the talent-spotter, the eagle eye that plucks
genius out of obscurity and allows it to blossom.
But with creativity often comes controversy, and Grade’s no stranger to
that either. One of his most testing times when the Daily Mail launched
a campaign against Channel 4’s content and dubbed him ’Britain’s
Pornographer in Chief’. But he stuck to the job, and defended the
The Mail has now resurrected its campaign, only this time the target is
Channel 5’s chief executive, David Elstein.
As I’m interviewing Grade as a Brand Master, I ask him if there is a
Michael Grade brand? ’I like to think there is. I think my style at the
BBC, at Channel 4, in Hollywood, and at First Leisure has been very
While all these are entertainment companies, organisationally they are
very different, so imposing a brand upon them has required a separate
approach each time. ’You have to take the best of what’s there. When I
went to Channel 4 I took a long time to assess the people there. Once
I’d decided who could move the business forward, I decided on the
structure that would best fit those people.
’My management style is about creating an environment where you get the
best out of people. Delegate everything you can - decisions,
responsibility - and get the best out of people. If you make all the
decisions yourself and try to second guess everybody, how do you know if
anybody working for you is any good?’
With all his experience working in the old media, Grade is in as good a
position as anyone to predict how the entertainment industry will
Suffice to say, he is not convinced that the arrival of new technology
instantly means the end of old.
’I think there are two areas that won’t change,’ he says. ’One is the
cinema experience. Despite the fact that you get video on demand and
DVD, seeing a movie on a bloody great screen with 1000 people is ten
times better than anything you can do on your own at home.
’Then there’s the theatre - it’s been around since the Greek empire -
you can’t recreate that, you can’t have a virtual reality Hamlet. Yes,
tastes change from Oklahoma to (David) Hare to Miss Saigon, to
whatever’s next. But it’s still conventional theatre with a few thousand
people suspending credibility.
’As far as TV is concerned, the conventional terrestrial channels will
continue to be the most powerful media for the foreseeable future, ten
to 20 years, no question. But their ability to sustain that position
will be in direct proportion to their willingness to take risks.
Competition has come very late to British broadcasting - not that long
ago there were only the four channels. But we’ve suddenly got this mass
of competition that’s predominantly technology-driven. The tendency of
the established broadcasters in that competitive situation, with the
shareholder pressures and so on, is to become risk averse - that is what
will kill them.’
So what would Grade do to ensure their success? ’Stop telling the
creative community what they want and ask them what it is they want to
make. Shakespeare didn’t walk up and down the queue at the Globe and ask
’what do you fancy?
I’ve got a Danish Prince, I’ve got Henry V Part I, or I can give you
Part II.’ He just wrote what he felt like. All the great work comes from
people’s obsession and imagination, not from focus groups. Nobody said
to Paul Smith (managing director of Celador, which created Who Wants to
be a Millionaire), ’what we’re looking for is a show where you win a
million pounds, go away and find it’. He had the idea. The producer had
the intelligence and passion to make the show. It took him two or three
years to get it on the air. It wasn’t what they were looking for, but
now everyone wants another Who Wants to be a Millionaire.’
When I suggest the fear is that with ever more channels the quality of
the programming will suffer, he is dismissive. ’Is there enough
creativity to go round? No, but there never has been. There never has
been in the theatre, in any media at any time. Why should that be
different on new technologies?’
But Grade is not one of the old boys who always think their time was the
best - he is excited by the opportunities offered by digital and thinks
consumers will be too. Indeed, one of his ever-expanding portfolio of
jobs is as non-executive director of digitaloctopus, an interactive
’Consumers want what interactive has to offer. Everyone keeps talking
about digital replacing the old style TV, but it won’t. It’s an
We’re still at the lower slopes of this excitement and at the moment,
people are dazzled by the technological advances and possibilities. But
you have to use the technology to enhance people’s enjoyment of things
they are familiar with.
’That’s what we’re doing at digitaloctopus - we’re working with familiar
brands such as Hugh Johnson’s World of Wine and Philip’s maps. People
know these things, they buy them in hard copy form, so there are brand
values there. Now they’re going to expect us to move with the times. The
trick is not simply repeating it online - you have to find ways in which
people can use the brands in new, more exciting ways. Brands are going
to be more and more important, not less. People value them and have a
relationship with them.’
For a non-marketer, Grade is pretty brand-savvy. He claims that in his
Channel 4 days, he and his team were very conscious of its brand and
brand values. This went as far as turning down Men Behaving Badly when
ITV cancelled it.
’I’d seen the show and admired it enormously and would have loved to
have had a go with it, but I wouldn’t take a show off ITV and put it on
Channel 4. It would have confused people. If the show had come to me in
a virgin state, I like to think I would have spotted it and grabbed
But we were very protective of the brand,’ he says.
For all Grade’s charm and charisma, he is not a man you’d want to get on
the wrong side of. He won’t let me interrupt his answers, making sure he
gets his say. And when we touch on a subject that rankles him, he leaves
you in little doubt as to how all that energy and enthusiasm would feel
unleashed against you. In this case, it is the Dome, or rather the
attitude of the national press to the Dome. As a director of the New
Millennium Experience Company he has a vested interest in its
’The attraction itself achieves reasonably high audience satisfaction
rating. In all the exit polls done, no one has come up with less than
75% to 80% total satisfaction with the attraction. But that is at
complete odds with what’s being written.
’I don’t think any attraction of any kind could not be damaged by the
negative press we’ve sustained for five months. Normally you open a
show, do the previews, get the reviews the next day, maybe a follow-up,
and then the public makes up its mind and go or don’t based on word of
’But the public has been told consistently by every newspaper in the
country for the past five months that the Dome is a flop. What are you
to think? I’m amazed anyone is going at all in the face of such
sustained hostility. What’s driving that hostility is the interesting
I think it’s political. I think it’s a way the newspapers feel they can
get at this government. It has absolutely nothing to do with the
attraction, because 52% of visitors say they will come back. There’s
some discrepancy here.
’We just got caught up in some political machinations that I don’t begin
to understand. I don’t think any attraction in the world could not have
been damaged by such hostile public scrutiny. It’s out of all
But get him on the subjects closer to his heart: creativity, his plans
for Pinewood Studios, Charlton Athletic, his baby, and the twinkle in
the eye soon returns.
Michael Grade epitomises the industry he works in. He’s interesting,
exciting, more showbiz than intellectual. But he claims his line of work
isn’t glamorous - ’the glamour for me is not the artists or the
performers, it’s the buzz of helping create something that excites
people’ - and the only two people he’ll admit to being slightly in awe
of when he met them are Elvis Presley, who he met in Las Vegas in the
late-60s when he was working with Tom Jones, and Moshe Dayan, the
Israeli military commander.
As he heads out of the door for his photo, refusing to light another
cigar for the shoot - ’there’s thousands of pictures of me looking like
that’ - he notices the photographer’s unusual camera.He’s immediately in
there, asking questions and wanting a closer look.
This is Michael Grade: always looking for something new, something to be
curious about and to be interested in. That, as he would say, is what
makes life entertaining.
Born: March 8, 1943
Education: Stowe and St Dunstan’s College
Career: Starting out as a sports journalist on the Daily Mirror in 1960,
he moved on to be joint managing director of talent agency London
Management from 1966 to 1973. He then took over as head of entertainment
and director of programmes, LWT, before moving to Embassy Television in
the US, where he was president from 1982 to 1984. He then moved to the
BBC, where he started as controller of BBC1 before taking on the roles
of director of programmes, television and ultimately managing director
designate, BBC, by 1988. From there, he went to Channel 4 as chief
executive, where he stayed until 1997, when he was made executive
chairman of First Leisure. In 1998, he became chief executive.
Current jobs: include chairman of Pinewood Studios, chairman of Octopus
Publishing, sits on Camelot Group board, chairman of Royal National
Theatre Development Council and director of the New Millennium
Hobbies: Sailing, opera and theatre.