An excellent hater

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

Michael Grade<em> Macmillan, 432pp, £20</em>

ISBN 0333712

In his 20 years at the top of the television industry, from 1977 to 1997, Michael Grade had an outstanding creative record. The launch of The South Bank Show, plays by Alan Bennett and Dennis Potter, and pioneering minority programmes at LWT. The birth of EastEnders, The Singing Detective and the successful revamping of Blackadder at the BBC. A Very British Coup, The Big Breakfast, Cutting Edge and such films as Trainspotting and Four Weddings and a Funeral at Channel 4.

Yet he was to quit all his jobs prematurely and enigmatically, feeling bored, baulked or financially under-rewarded. Surrogate father-figures regularly rescued him: the Hollywood sitcom veteran Norman Lear when an LWT salary seemed paltry; the family friend Bill Cotton when he came to despise the inane lottery of pitching projects to US networks; the Channel 4 chairman Dickie Attenborough when, with Cotton gone, the BBC soured.

Because these exits were left unexplained at the time, they have corroded his reputation, allowing snooty commentators to elide his record of commissioning high-quality programming, to view it as somehow accidentally imposed on him by corporate tradition, regulatory pressure or more highbrow departmental heads. So Grade, for them, remained what they always took him to be: as the nephew of the ultra-populist 1950s and 1960s ABC boss Lew Grade, a vulgarian mercenary driven by a hunger for money, mass audiences and the main chance.

Equally mistaken, as his autobiography unwittingly makes clear, is the view of him as an inspirational boy-king over the water, the best director-general the BBC never had. Formerly an agent, Grade was always happiest nursing talent and less effective - despite his brilliance as a salesman - in more conceptual managerial roles.

It was perhaps no accident, then, that he left the TV industry - for the amorphous entertainment conglomerate First Leisure - when a business essentially little changed from the days of Uncle Lew was about to turn irreversibly into the global media multiverse of Rupert Murdoch and Bill Gates. Grade sees naked, perfidious ambition in the way Birt, his old LWT chum, outmanoeuvred him at the BBC. But Birt may have coolly and justifiably concluded instead that he had better credentials for leading the corporation toward the next millennium.

Grade has considerable charisma, yet his charm fails to come across on the page, perhaps because descriptive flair is not among his gifts, perhaps because this scion of a showbiz dynasty requires a visible audience. The candour that so sharply differentiated him from his grey BBC colleagues is present, with no attempt to downplay his estrangement from his mother and sister, or the failure of his first two marriages. But in an autobiography it needs to be complemented by a self-curiosity he seems to lack.

All key decisions come across as merely impulsive, and any retrospective assessments are equally unilluminating (his ex-wives, for instance, "paid the price of my struggle to grow up"). "Yes, but why?" you find yourself continually yelling as you read, astounded by the questions that it never occurred to him to ask. Why, for instance, did the three high-achieving sons of the Russian immigrants Isaac and Olga Winogradski - Lew and Leslie Grade, Bernard Delfont - all marry shiksas? Why did he crave even more money than his enormous Channel 4 salary?

While Grade's candour is refreshing in a genre dominated by self-serving versions of public events and a stuffy restraint in handling private matters, his past openness does the book no favours. So helpful has he been in briefing journalists that his accounts of broadcasting crises - the "Snatch of the Day" football coup he attempted at LWT, the sacking of Alasdair Milne as BBC director-general, his defection to Channel 4 - add little to what has already appeared in print. Except that he's now free to express open anger - at amateurish BBC governors, at anti-Semitism, at his Daily Mail tormentor Paul Johnson. He is an excellent hater.

But it is John Birt who energises him most. In Grade's slyly figurative description of him eating a lobster in a Manhattan eaterie ("it was like observing a pathologist in action - it must have taken him two hours to dissect the creature, pressing on remorselessly till it was just a tiny neat pile of shell"), you glimpse what this book might have been - a more novelistic memoir, written after a long interval from the events it describes and dominated by a vivid central figure, like Denis Forman's wonderful recent evocation of the early years of ITV, Persona Granada.

John Dugdale, deputy media editor of the "Guardian", is the author of a book on Thomas Pynchon

This article first appeared in the 15 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Guns and the Dome