Lew Grade Part 3: the war and after 

1 November 2004 tbs.pm/2273

With war declared, Lew quickly made arrangements for all of those European acts that wanted to return home to leave the country.

One such act was the Quintet de Hot Club de France, which had been highly successful before the outbreak of war. So successful, in fact, that Lew had agreed to stand surety for a new car that Django Reinhardt had bought. With war declared most of the act quickly left the country in the car, leaving Lew to pay for it.

The last months of 1939 saw the ‘phoney war’. Entertainment continued, as the government recognised the effect that morale had on the population (in the same way, sport continued, albeit on a regionalised basis), but the nature of the acts that the Collins and Grade Agency booked changed.

Most of their novelty acts had come from Europe, and many of those were unavailable now that war had broken out. Nevertheless, the agency continued to prosper, and despite the wartime conditions, was forced to move to larger premises.

Towards the end of 1938, Lew had became friendly with a comedy act called The Diamond Brothers, and suggested they put on a revue together. The Diamond Brothers needed a leading lady, and quickly found one. Or so they thought.

Lew asked to see her and a 17-year-old girl called Kathleen Moody was sent up to his office. Upon meeting her, Lew thought she was about fourteen and told her that he thought she was too young for the act, although the truth was that he thought the act too crude for her to cope with.

Sometime later, Lew saw Kathie in Leicester Square, and – despite his initial embarrassment over how he’d rejected her – they got on well enough for him to invite her to watch him play table tennis. Within a year of the outbreak of war, they were engaged. They married on Kathie’s 21st birthday, 23 June 1942 – a date that Lew would later regard as his ‘lucky date’.

It was Kathie who was responsible for Lew’s introduction to television. During the war she had appeared as a singer on BBC radio and was chosen to take part in the first variety programme when television resumed in June 1946.

Kathie’s sister had been suffering from a severe chest infection and there was no way she would be able to watch the show in the studio. Realising that seeing Kathie would give her a tremendous boost, Lew procured an old Baird set so that everyone could watch the show. Little did he know that less than a decade later he’d be providing an entire, rival, service.

Apart from his love of a deal, Lew was famous for his love of cigars. Dave Allen once told an audience never to wear a brown suit in front of him, “because he’s liable to pick you up and smoke you.”

Interviewed on “ATV Night” he made a special point of thanking the BBC for allowing him to smoke his Montecristo, but Qantas Airlines weren’t so lucky. Stepping off a plane in Sydney, Lew was asked how he’d enjoy the flight. “I’m never going to fly Qantas again,” he told the press. “They wouldn’t allow me to smoke my cigar!”

However, the airline did bend its own rules for the return flight, presenting him with an 18-inch cigar and instructing the cabin crews that he was allowed to smoke.

Yet this love of cigars came about almost by accident, and once again, Kathie was responsible.

Lew had always felt nervous when dealing with stars and so Kathie had bought him a box of cigars to offer them, hoping that it would help put him at ease. Lew agreed, but the box remained unopened in the bottom drawer of his desk for several weeks until one day he wondered what it would be like to smoke one.

Lighting the cigar, he took a couple of puffs and found that he enjoyed it enormously. Then the phone rang. It was Val Parnell, the Managing Director of the Stoll Moss Theatres group, and someone who Lew had previously found intimidating.

Puffing on the cigar, he found this was no longer the case. “Yes Val,” he said, “what can I do for you?”

“That was the day the real Lew Grade was born!” he said later.

By this time, things were deteriorating between Lew and Joe Collins. Meanwhile, his brother Leslie had become an extremely successful agent and when he was called up for service in January 1943, he asked Lew to take over his business while he was abroad.

Leslie was discharged from the air force at the end of 1945, and the two quickly moved into larger premises and began acquiring other agencies that represented acts that fitted comfortably into the Lew & Leslie Grade agency. And, with the war over, Lew set about expanding overseas.

In April 1947, the trade paper “Variety” was reporting that several top US stars had been booked to play in London for huge salaries. After some investigation, Lew was convinced it was a con trick, and was proved right.

However, with the help of brother Bernie, who was able to turn the London Casino into a music hall, he was able to save the day. The acts still earned the money promised, and Lew even managed to turn in a profit, albeit a relatively modest one.

Lew & Leslie Grade were now able to book major acts all over the world. They booked George Formby in Australia, Tommy Trinder in New York and brought Jack Benny and Danny Kaye to London – all of who were highly successful.

In addition, Lew was also building up an impressive list of contacts on both sides of the Atlantic, including important television personalities such as Ed Sullivan and CBS founder William Paley.

However impressive these achievements are, they would be almost forgotten today if it wasn’t for television. It was television that made Lew great, and Lew made some great television.

In the early 1950s, there was a lobby for commercial television in the UK. However, Lew certainly wasn’t a part of it, and when the invitations to apply for an Independent Television licence were published, he didn’t give it a thought.

The man responsible for getting Lew into television was Mike Nidorf, then the manager of the singer Jo Stafford. Nidorf was in London in August 1954 and rang Lew, asking whether he’d seen the advertisement in that morning’s edition of The Times.

Lew said he hadn’t, since he didn’t even read The Times (which was true, he only read the Daily Express). Besides, he pointed out, you needed £3 million to get into television – where was he going to get that sort of money?

Suzanne Warner handled the publicity for the stars Lew brought over to the UK and Nidorf told Lew that if he could get £1 million, Warner had someone who would put up the rest.

Lew asked her who it was, but when Warner couldn’t tell him, he hung up. Almost immediately she rang back, and told him, “it’s Warburgs.”

Lew never bothered with the City pages and consequently had no idea who Warburgs were. He called Sid Hyams, who co-owned four of the largest cinemas in London and asked whether they were good for the £2 million. “Lew, they’re good for 50 million!” came the reply.

“Sid,” Lew replied, “you’re in the television business.” Promising to let Hyams know the full details, Lew quickly set to work and within an hour had pulled together a consortium of many of his show business contacts.

He was just about to call Suzanne Warner back, when he hit a snag. One of Lew’s consortium was Val Parnell, but Parnell’s contract was exclusively with Stoll Moss and Prince Littler, who owned the company, was implacably opposed to television.

Faced with the possibility that his new consortium was already falling apart, Lew told Parnell that he was coming over to see Prince Littler, and after a two-hour meeting, managed to talk him around.

Lew and Prince Littler then met with Warburgs and the Incorporated Television Company (ITC) was born. Both Lew and his brother Leslie were investors in the company, with Lew’s £15,000 stake representing all he owned.

The Independent Television Authority received a total of 25 applications for the six licences in London, the Midlands and the North.

These were interviewed over a three-week period in September and October 1954, and on 26 October, it announced the four contracts that would launch commercial television in the UK – Associated-Rediffusion, the Associated Broadcasting Development Company, the Kemsley-Winnick consortium and Granada TV Network Ltd.

ITC’s bid had been rejected.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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