Michael Grade has a bad back. “I’m feeling a bit old today,” he says wryly, as he gets up from the desk in his Chelsea office. “Bits and bobs are not quite as bendy as they used to be.” Given that Grade has just turned 69 (“Yes, soixante-neuf at last,” he chuckles), it’s hardly surprising he has a few aches and pains.
“But,” he adds, flashing his trademark showbiz grin, “I had the best year skiing this year that I’ve had for years, so that cheered me up. And as you get older you need less sleep, which is good.”
The idea that Grade ever got a lot of sleep is faintly ridiculous. Before stepping down as executive chairman of ITV in 2009, he’d assembled arguably the most distinguished CV in broadcasting.
From starting out at LWT in the 70s, he’s done stints as controller of BBC1, chief executive of Channel 4 and eventually chairman of the BBC, making him the only executive to have reached the very top of three major British broadcasters.
Now Grade is turning his 40-odd years of experience into On the Box, a six-part Radio 2 series about the history of television. “I do think there was a golden age of television,” he says, settling more comfortably into an armchair.
“I think it lasted about 30 years. The stuff that poured out of ITV and the BBC through the late 60s, 70s and 80s was just gobsmacking – Play for Today, Armchair Theatre, drama series, documentary series, current affairs.”
This was the era when Grade himself was commissioning many of the big series – and becoming famous for his flashy red braces, red socks and cigars. The first episode of his Radio 2 series charts the rise of ITV from its first night in 1955 – and is flecked with Grade’s greatest hits at LWT, including The South Bank Show and the sitcom Agony, which starred Maureen Lipman.
“The golden age was a matter of finance,” says Grade, who still wears those red socks – though no sign today of the braces or cigars. “The BBC had had a huge increase in the licence fee because of colour television. They could hardly spend the money.
“ITV had a monopoly, money was plentiful, you could take any risk you wanted to – you could do 26 hours of The World at War, you could do [Brideshead Revisited, adapted from the novel by] Evelyn Waugh.”
So what would current BBC1 controller Danny Cohen, and ITV chief Peter Fincham, need to re-create that golden age today? “Another billion pounds each,” says Grade. “And no pressure. No commercial pressure.”
One area Grade does give modern television credit for is its high production values, and, ironically, nowhere more so than in the revival of Doctor Who, which Grade helped to kill off in the 80s.
“From clunky Daleks that couldn’t go up and down stairs to the filmic qualities today of Doctor Who, it’s a transformation,” he says. “The show still leaves me cold, but I admire it, which I never did before.”
But Grade laments the box-ticking mentality of modern commissioners: “I think the BBC has become too bureaucratic. I commissioned The Singing Detective in the loo. I bumped into Jonathan Powell, the head of drama.
“He said, ‘I’ve just had a meeting with Dennis Potter. He’s got a thing called The Singing Detective.’ I said, ‘OK, we’ll do it.’ That was it. What’s missing today, to a certain extent, are people’s instincts. You’re not allowed to trust your instincts.”
These days, Grade brings the benefit of his instincts to the three companies of which he is chairman: Pinewood Shepperton studios, online grocery service Ocado and the talent management group James Grant.
He has fronted two BBC4 documentary series, The Story of Variety and The Story of Music Hall. Both harked back to the days of his father Leslie, who was “the best agent ever”, and his uncles Bernard Delfont and Lew Grade, both successful impresarios.
Last year, Michael became Lord Grade of Yarmouth in the House of Lords, where he takes the Tory whip. But Grade still shows the immigrant sensibility of a Ukrainian Jewish family who settled in London’s East End: “It’s a great privilege to live in this country. We were very lucky we were taken in here. I think we’ve contributed – we’ve paid our taxes and created businesses and worked hard.”
Grade’s grandmother Olga worked particularly hard. Her husband died young, leaving Olga to bring up three children. “I can see my grandmother in the East End in 1919, taking in washing, borrowing, buying and selling to try to pay the rent, without government assistance. If she could do it, a lot more people could do that today.”
Olga’s self-reliance is reflected in Grade’s Tory philosophy. “I sit in the Lords and listen to the debates on the welfare bills – you know, welfare has now become an entitlement. It’s not a safety net any more, it’s an entitlement,” he says.
“The words that should be banned in this country are, ‘What is the Government doing about this?’ Well, what are you doing about it? I’m a huge believer in the welfare state – if you are really struggling, then that’s what the state should do, help people. But it’s got to ridiculous extremes.”
Grade has two grown-up children, Alison and Jonathan. With his third wife, Francesca, he also has a 13-year-old son, Samuel. And Olga would no doubt be proud of the high hopes Grade has for him.
“He plays the double bass, which cost me a fortune because I had to change my wife’s car – she couldn’t get the double bass in the Mini. If you ask him what he wants to do, he wants to be a musician – whatever that means,” says Grade.
Then, conspiratorially: “Hopefully, he could be the new Simon Cowell, you know.”
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 27 March 2012.
Michael Grade: On the Box begins at 10pm on BBC Radio 2