Howard Thomas Part 7: Lew Grade 

2 October 2005

From 1955 until 1981, every ITV company senior executive knew that at some time he would have to face the ultimate rite of passage: a debate with Lew Grade.

Whilst Lew held many, sometimes low-status sounding, executive positions in ATV, his control of the company was always complete. And from 1955 to 1968, ATV’s control of London weekends was also complete.

The inter-company finances of ITV were always complicated, but for weekends it boiled down to a relatively simple equation: a programme made by ATV London and shown on ABC was two-thirds paid for by ABC, ABC’s audience being two-thirds larger. Similarly, a programme made by ABC in Birmingham or Manchester and shown on ATV London was one-third paid for by ATV.

ATV therefore had an immediate advantage on the finances. If nothing else, their programmes could be two-thirds more expensive than was otherwise required. However, ATV London could also take this dominance a step further, for while everything they made went out in London and got the critical exposure required, anything they chose not to show would be unlikely to make many waves in the country as a whole.

This was an arrangement that Lew liked a lot, but Howard Thomas detested. Not only did it prevent exposure for any ABC programmes Lew didn’t like, it also meant Howard had to have frequent, long and loud meetings with the portly impresario. What for everyone else was, hopefully, a once-only rite of passage was, for Howard, a weekly torture.

The meetings took on a standard pattern. Howard would arrive at ATV’s Great Cumberland Street HQ armed with details of his upcoming programmes and a run-down of ATV’s network offerings.

Lew would be sat behind his big desk with a cigar and a large bowl of coffee. In the desk drawer were invoices and statements, ATV to ABC and ABC to ATV.

An effusive welcome from Lew was always guaranteed, plus a free cigar that Howard never accepted. Then it was down to business – and to argument.

Lew had a clear view of how the weekends should shape up. Church services, race meetings and children’s programmes were all stuff of the provinces. They should clearly be made by ABC, and he would happily pay his third and show them in London.

The evening output, with its weekend mix of drama, variety, comedy, variety, entertainment and variety was clearly ATV’s forte. Not only that, but since ATV had the Grade talent agencies and the Moss Empires theatre chain behind them, it was clear that only ATV should be making the programmes.

So the conversation would always start with a rundown of how much more profitable it would be if ATV made all the weekend programmes and ABC paid for them. Everyone would be happy (except, perhaps, the ITA).

Howard would then recap his usual answer: ATV could indeed make all the programmes, as soon as they learnt to make those programmes better and cheaper.

Cue Lew reaching into his desk to produce an invoice, showing just how every penny was accounted for, and how every show was made for the minimum cost. The invoice always disappeared straight back into the desk without Howard getting chance to read it.

That allowed Howard to reach into his briefcase and produce a statement showing how much ATV owed ABC and how overdue those bills were. This was given to Lew and Howard certainly did allow time for him to read it.

That argument over, the real business of the day could start. Howard would bring his programme plans up. Adventure series, drama series, plays and more. Lew would respond with cheap versions of the above, happy to ignore the fact that ITC productions didn’t count in the ITA’s eyes and generally weren’t available to ABC anyway – they played in London at weekends and in the midlands on weekdays, by a curious coincidence.

At this point, either Lew would agree to buy, or the argument would simply descend into abuse. Neither of these things was good. An agreement to buy was followed by arguments over cost and reach – once even culminating in Lew writing a cheque for one (old) penny, which Howard took and probably even cashed.

A failure to buy meant a screamed conversation about costs, quality and access, one that Lew was confident he would win by default. Howard had no choice but to use some choice language and to leave.

It didn’t matter. Lew Grade was incapable of bearing a grudge, if he even meant anything by the argument anyway. He was a consummate showman and someone who loved life; in almost 100 years of business, he only once made an enemy (many considered him an enemy, but there was only one he considered so). And he outlived the guy by almost 20 years, so won by default – a source of endless guilty pleasure.

Thus a session of screamed abuse sent Howard home in a ball of anger and frustration. A few hours later, the phone would ring and there would be Lew: “Who do you think is coming to tea with me? Bette Davis!!” The argument was forgotten – indeed, it never really happened. Howard had to choose whether to let it get to him or to let it wash off. The latter was the only option: Lew was so shallow that the former wouldn’t work, and the latter at least helped Howard pretend to be the bigger man. Metaphorically, anyway.

Howard Thomas was a man who had, so far, beaten every obstacle that confronted him. Yes, sometimes he had won by luck, and more often simply by default. Sometimes he had lost only to be proved right in the end. But it all added up to a man who had never really lost at his own game.

Lew was the closest he got to losing, until the day it dawned on him how to win. He had to play Lew at his own game.

Once the network was fully established, the percentages game of funding was changed, with other companies now putting a (small) amount into the pot. This lessened Lew’s powers slightly, although the London contract kept him as gatekeeper to the network.

But ABC’s persistence at producing high quality programmes had started to attract producers and directors who cared less about London exposure. The contract ABC held was now very profitable and the slice that old, complacent, ABPC kept was minor compared to the profit drain in some other companies.

Since ABC was paying two thirds or so of the costs of their own programming anyway, the problem of a lack of a London output for some of them declined. Associated Rediffusion on London weekdays also suffered from ATV’s determination to keep the most profitable stuff to itself, so ABC had a ready-made customer for any non-live productions that Lew didn’t want.

Most of all, with the realisation that ATV’s money wasn’t worth the trouble, Howard could threaten to drop ATV programming from ABC as a means of keeping Lew in check. This didn’t go down well at all with Lew. For a start, he didn’t believe that ABC would give up, say, Sunday Night at the London Palladium – a show that dominated the ratings but cost ABC a fortune (according to the invoices, it was oddly expensive).

But if ABC could go to a nearby variety theatre, especially one that happened to be owned by ABPC, then they could put out the same material at a fraction of the cost. Pick the time right, and the stars, Grade signees or not, would already be in the provinces doing their summer shows.

So when Lew threatened to pull Palladium from ABC, Howard called his bluff – and had Blackpool Night Out and various New Brighton variety shows ready to take its place. Inflated or not, the last thing ATV’s accountants wanted was to suddenly shoulder the other two-thirds of the bill. Lew had to come crawling back. Advantage, Mr Thomas.

As time progressed, ABC gained programming that ATV couldn’t afford not to run. Instantly the tables were turned, and Howard could now brandish the invoices and demand payment. If Lew didn’t pay, he didn’t get The Avengers. Lew didn’t pay. He didn’t get The Avengers. AR did, and ATV (and Granada, playing AR’s previous role) was the only contractor not showing the biggest hit drama ITV has ever had.

Lew lasted a season without The Avengers, as the rest of the network played it around him and the ITC competition in London failed to prosper. Next year he was happy to sign on and more than usually reluctant to complain of the cost. Game, Mr Thomas.

Even before ABC became Thames in 1968, Lew was showing signs of boredom with ITV, partially driven by ABC and Howard’s strength. The impresario had done everything that ITV could do; worse, an influx of new blood in 1968 was likely to disenfranchise him from the top dog position. Finally, the realisation that ATV London was finished and he was soon to be the Birmingham contractor (imagine!) was enough to turn him off.

Lew kept his hand on the tiller until Robert Holmes a Court appeared on the scene at the Associated Communications Corporation, Lew’s holding company. A man after Lew’s own heart, Lew finally relented and allowed someone to become his loyal deputy and right-hand man.

His failure to do so for so many years had been criticised by the City and the ITA. The moment he allowed it, Holmes a Court took the opportunity to oust him from ACC and to sell the holding in ATV back to the new Central Independent Television that had replaced it. Lew never forgave him; but he did out live him by many years. That would do.

Howard Thomas swapped the battles with Lew for the de facto chairmanship of ITV when ABC was awarded the London weekday contract and allowed to pick clean the bones of Rediffusion in the name of a “merger”. The new company, Thames, would dominate the output of ITV for the next two and a half decades. Freed from competing with Lew, Howard could get down, finally, to making his dream of commercial television domination come true.

Thames Television had a long and distinguished history, with perhaps the majority of ITV’s classic colour programming to its name. Howard Thomas set it up and was its managing director for its first decade.

When he retired, he was promoted to the job of chairman of Thames Television International, the company formerly known as the Associated British Picture Corporation. From there, he proudly surveyed what he had created.

Thames Television was killed by the successor to the ITA/IBA, on the direct orders of a government that changed the rules in order that Thames, specifically, would cease to be such an old fashioned thorn in its side. The result was the effective end of quality commercial broadcasting in the UK – perhaps, or perhaps not, a side effect that Mrs Thatcher and Mr Major foresaw and revelled in.

For the purposes of this story, it doesn’t really matter. Howard Thomas died on 6 November 1986, at home in Henley-on-Thames. He was 77.

Lew Grade outlived him.

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