Michael Grade 

15 May 2007 tbs.pm/2311

Michael Grade is a member of the famous Grade dynasty, his uncle was the legendary Lew Grade of ATV fame and his father was a booking agent for some of the top names in showbusiness. Since he was seventeen, when he turned up for his first day at the Daily Mirror in the family Rolls Royce, telling an interviewer years later for Saga magazine, ” Being a Grade opened more doors than it closed, and anyway there’s nothing wrong with a little nepotism”, Michael Grade has held some of the top jobs in broadcasting. After working for The Mirror and as a theatrical agent, Grade joined LWT as deputy head of entertainment programmes in 1973 before rising to director of programmes in 1977, where he ended the BBC’s dominance of Saturday nights and poached the BBC’s biggest star Bruce Forsyth in 1978.

After three years in America, he was lured to the BBC as Controller of BBC1 in September 1984, rising to Director of Programmes in 1986, before quitting in December 1987 to become Controller of Channel 4, a post he would hold for ten years. Currently Grade is now a much respected Chairman of the BBC, installed in the wake of the fallout from the Hutton Enquiry. However, it is his spell at the BBC from 1984 to 1987 that is perhaps the most interesting, as he turned around the fortunes of BBC Television from a dark period in 1984 when ratings had tumbled to 40 per cent and programming was dull and uninspiring, with dark hints the BBC could end up privatised. Grade was to prove the BBC’s saviour in those dark days and he has often been regarded as the best BBC1 controller ever.

Grade took over a moribund and beaten BBC1 in September 1984. Since 1981 the station had been run by Alan Hart, a former head of BBC Sport, who while great for sports fans, was hopeless for everyone else, although Hart was not totally to blame for BBC1’s plight as the previous Director of Television, Aubrey Singer, ex BBC2, had little grasp of popular programming and the Corporation was suffering from a lack of funding which had become so bad it was once suggested the BBC started filming theatrical plays rather than make its own to save money. A demand to raise the licence fee to £ 65, which would guarantee the BBC the resources it needed, had been met with contempt by both the press and the government. ” Beaten,boring and costly”, was how the populist Daily Star referred to the BBC at the time and even the serious press was turning hostile towards it, suggesting the BBC had become too greedy and should be commercialised. Clearly Grade was to have a very tough job on his hands to improve BBC1, which was the public’s main access point to the BBC and where most of the criticism was being directed at. Grade took over a BBC1 which was trailing ITV by 19 points in the ratings and whose most popular programme was an American import. This is the story of how Grade turned round what was becoming a lost cause.

Looking through the internet, I have found a typical BBC1 schedule from Wednesday January 11th, 1984, when BBC1 ratings seemed to be falling through the floor. First off at 5.40 was 60 Minutes, a widely disliked successor to the much loved Nationwide which was notable for technical problems, inept presentation and a dated approach inherited from Nationwide that saw the main news bulletin squeezed into a 12 minute slot, when the trend was moving towards longer bulletins, before the regional news and the news features that made up the last 25 minutes of the programme. The programme was generally regarded as an expensive disaster that was axed after ten months in favour of the far superior 6 O Clock News, with 30 minutes of in depth news, which has run for 22 years. On a visit to the BBC in Newcastle in February 1985, the editor of Look North described 60 Minutes as a ” total disaster from start to finish, no one here had a kind word for it.”

Following 60 Minutes at 6.40 came Harty, another almost forgotten show where the late chat show presenter attempted a sub Wogan mix of chat and entertainment that was more suited to daytime and which seemed rushed in its 25 minute slot. After this, at 7.05, was Cliff!, an hour of highlights of shows featuring Cliff Richard, which again would have been more suited to a summer’s evening when most viewers were outdoors than a winter’s night and smacked of cheap, uninspired scheduling. This would be followed at 8.05 by Cockles, from what I recall, a cheaply made and unfunny comedy drama about a seaside resort called Cocklesea. At 9.00, as ever, the news and then at 9.25 Whicker’s World, perhaps the only half interesting programme on BBC1 all night, and then, for sports fans, Sportsnight at 10.30, at which time many sports fans who worked early would be going to bed and for non fans the alternative would probably be Midweek Sports Special on ITV, Newsnight on BBC2 or an obscure film on Channel 4, not a lot of choice. Rounding off a hopeless night’s viewing was an ancient episode of the Phil Silvers Show, which surely belonged on BBC2.

Barring Whickers World, who would really want to sit through this set of programmes? Although I don’t have the rival ITV schedule, obviously there would be Coronation St at 7.30, a game show at 7.00, more than likely big budget variety at 8.00 or a comedian like Benny Hill doing a special, and top quality drama at 9.00, this being the year of Jewel in the Crown. Notice also that BBC1 schedules had programmes starting at ridiculous times like 8.05 when ITV’s always started on the hour or half past the hour, an anomaly that Grade would steadily phase out so BBC1 could compete more effectively with ITV. No wonder, in the month this schedule was inflicted on the viewers, BBC1 ratings fell to 33 per cent, against 51 per cent for ITV. It was a sad reflection on the BBC, which tended to take a view that commercialisation would make drive it as downmarket as American television( which, of course, would be true), that its top rated shows in 1984 were Dallas and The Thornbirds, which were American, and the Corporation was becoming as bad as a poor ITV regional station for its dependence on imports. The Grade revolution could not come too soon, although the appointment of the populist Bill Cotton to replace Aubrey Singer in March 1984 did raise hopes of better times ahead, The Sun, then by far the most popular newspaper in Britain, referred to Singer ” as the kind of BBC mandarin who instead of giving viewers what they wanted, he gave them what he thought they wanted.” However, the Sun, in a editorial which slated Singer, while welcoming the Cotton appointment warned, ” the Cotton appointment could be like rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic” and, in a broadside against the BBC’s unpopular demand for a £ 65 licence fee, advised that the Corporation would be better employed taking some advertising.

Grade took over a demoralised BBC1 in September 1984 with the aim of making the station as popular as ITV by making middle brow programmes similar to those which ITV were successfully producing. As someone who had spent eight years with LWT, and who was related to Lew Grade, he had a good idea about making popular programmes. Grade declared, ” quality and popularity are not mutually exclusive”, and told the Guardian that a programme which attracted 20 million viewers should be classed as equally worthy as a programme that attracted a tenth of that audience figure. Grade was also determined to end the dated and inept BBC1 scheduling which was hampering the network and which was holding back good programmes. He declared, ” When I took over BBC1, I discovered there were wonderful things, it was just a case of where to put them.” ( Apparently Wogan had been scheduled for a slot after 10pm, fortunately Grade saw the show’s potential and moved it to a 7pm slot, where it proved to be a ratings hit for the BBC for seven years.)

Of course, the Grade revolution could not happen overnight and he still had the hangover period from the Hart era. Ratings in his first five months in office still showed no great improvement- on one occasion in January 1985 the BBC’s audience share fell below 40 per cent-and the Corporation’s demands for a £ 65 licence fee, despite a massive campaign by the BBC called ” It’s Your BBC”, a kind of roadshow explaining the case for a higher licence fee, were still met with hostility by the Thatcher government which awaited a report by the Peacock Committee on funding, which it hoped would see the licence fee rejected.

However, Grade marshalled his limited resources for the channel and the first real breakthrough for BBC1 came on the week of February 17th 1985, which from a Transdiffusion point of view was very interesting as the station received its biggest makeover since 1974. Out went the rather sickly and dated looking mechanical revolving green and blue globe as the station ident in favour of a far classier and modern looking computer generated gold and blue globe with a gold serif font which gave BBC1 a far better, upmarket image. (Although the switch from the old mechanical globe to the computerised globe had been planned long before Michael Grade took over, the changeover came in the week BBC1 schedules were given a massive shot in the arm, so he could take some credit for it.) Also, the magnetic strips and symbols that had been a feature of the BBC’s weather forecasts since the sixties were finally replaced by computerised graphics that could also show rainfall totals and temperature charts for different cities which would have been impossible under the previous system.

The BBC wrote of their ident changes and new weather forecasts in a Radio Times article,”There’s a new golden world to be seen on Monday – a new kind of revolving world between BBC1 programmes. The old BBC1 globe will be seen for the last time on Sunday. In its place on Monday comes a new ‘transparent’ earth, with the continents picked out in gold.”


February 17th 1985 was also the start of a new BBC1 schedule that would see the launch of the most successful BBC drama of all time, Eastenders, and the first serious attempt at a soap opera on the channel, which showed Grade was keen to move in on what was always ITV territory. The Radio Times wrote of the new schedule, which is quoted, as was the excerpt above, from TV and Radio Bits, “The BBC1 programme schedules take on a new look, too. There’s the long-awaited arrival not only of Terry Wogan, in his three-nights-a-week live show, but also the new twice-weekly serial set in inner-city London, EastEnders. Between them they share the fixed point of a 7.00pm start time every weekday evening. Plus returning comedy favourites such as Are You Being Served?, The Laughter Show and Only Fools and Horses – watch out for a new character to join Del and Rodney in this one – all of which begin this week.”

This was how the new schedule looked for February 17th 1985. Following the news hour between 6 and 7pm, came Wogan, a forty minute mixture of chat, music and entertainment hosted by one of the BBC’s most popular presenters. This had also been timed to overrun into the first ten minutes of Coronation St in an attempt to damage ITV’s most popular show in the ratings. Next came a weakpoint in the schedule,at 7.40, an episode of the ailing import Fame, but Grade obviously realised that ITV would be at its strongest with Corrie and a sitcom at 8.00, so deliberately placed a weak programme in this slot. However, the biggest change came with the move of Panorama from the 8.10 slot it had occupied to 9.25. Panorama, sometimes nicknamed Miserama for its dour tone, had long been a ratings weakpoint for BBC1, it fared badly against the sitcom on ITV and was often beaten in the ratings by its more fast paced rival World In Action. Moving Panorama to a 9.25 slot would allow the BBC to compete more effectively and give viewers an alternative to current affairs, the programme also benefitted from being moved out of the studio to largely being filmed on location and ratings doubled in its new slot.

Replacing Panorama was the return at 8.30 of Are You Being Served?, a veteran sitcom that would pull in a large audience and prove a viable alternative to World In Action. At 9.00 was the news, followed by Panorama, a logical pairing of news followed by current affairs and an ideal placing for these two relatively low rating programmes, allowing BBC1 to show entertainment between 8 and 9pm and concentrate on its more serious programming between 9 and 10pm, when the ITV schedule was at its strongest. Rounding off a reasonable schedule, and an ideal alternative to News At Ten and Newsnight, at 10.05 was the Monday film, the first in a season of popular films, this one being Dirty Harry. Fair enough, this had been shown a few times by 1985, but it was always regarded as a classic and ratings were healthy.

With Eastenders starting the following day and a new season of Only Fools and Horses, the new look BBC1 saw a five per cent jump in its ratings and even a strongly anti BBC paper like the Daily Star commented, ” at last the battered BBC has got it right.” However, there was still some way to go, Grade had inherited a pile of useless mini series from America that had to be shown and the spring was to see an Aubrey Singer inspired, pretentious and totally boring history cum science series hosted by James Burke at peak time called ” The Day The Universe Changed”, which seemed to resemble an overpriced schools programme with patronising schoolmasterly presentation that few viewers took to. ” Another boring history lesson from Professor James Burke” was how one letter to the Radio Times called it. The rise in the licence fee to £ 58, and the rejection of switching to a commercial BBC by Leon Brittan and the Peacock Report, to the anger of Margaret Thatcher, also led to the criticism in the tabloid press.

The autumn of 1985 saw some tweaks to the schedule and saw BBC1 ratings really take off. Eastenders had been scheduled at 7.00 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. However, this clashed with Emmerdale Farm and hurt ratings, Eastenders ratings hovering around 10 million. Grade moved this to 7.30, when ITV schedules tended to be at their weakest on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and saw ratings soar to 17 million. In comparison Coronation St rapidly became seen as dated and boring and it fell behind the grittier and faster paced London soap. At the same time, Wogan’s overrun into the start of Coronation St was cut back, which raised ratings for Wogan’s chat show. An autumn schedule that was dominated by Eastenders, Wogan, the return of Alf Garnett, and sitcoms like Open All Hours and Allo Allo, which pulled in 17 million viewers, saw the BBC’s audience share back up to 50 per cent for the first time in three years and the gap between BBC1 and ITV in the ratings closed.

Also in September 1985 the BBC’s children’s programming had a much needed overhaul. Unlike ITV, which had introduced the Children’s ITV brand two years earlier with in vision continuity, BBC1 still relied on an out of vision announcer introducing programmes from behind the BBC1 globe. The finish time of children’s programmes tended to vary as well: in the spring of 1985, this varied between 5 and 6pm. From September 9th 1985, and for the first time since 1965, in vision continuity returned when the BBC branded its output between 3.55 and 5.35 pm as Children’s BBC, complete with its own idents, and linked in vision by the then little known Phil Schofield. Apart from making a celebrity out of Schofield, who became very popular on Children’s BBC, the children’s programming, which had started to lag behind ITV’s, was now far more coherent. A fixed finish time of 5.35 now meant that programmes like Grange Hill did not go out before the news, and children did not have to endure the distinctly adult Dr Kildare at 5.05.

Not everyone was impressed by the Grade revolution. After being moved to a Saturday slot again, in an attempt to boost flagging ratings, Doctor Who failed to deliver in the ratings on Saturdays. Grade announced the Doctor was being ” rested” for eighteen months in an attempt to come up with new ideas for the ailing show. Of course, the most diehard of the show’s fans reacted with fury, thinking Who was to be shelved permanently, and Grade was bombarded with hate mail that even included death threats. (Grade let slip on Room 101 in 2002 that he hated Doctor Who, consigning the Doctor to Room 101, and when questioned about the hate mail, replied, ” I received thousands of letters of complaint, then I realised it was from the same nine people.”) However, the show was failing to deliver high ratings and was looking cheap and dated, so Grade’s move was logical, though as a massive Doctor Who fan I did feel let down. Similarly the expensive sci fi series, The Tripods, which had struggled to attract more than 5 million viewers, was axed from Saturday nights.

1986 saw BBC1 overtake ITV for the first time ever in the ratings. New series such as Bread, which would attract 18 million viewers at its peak, and the hospital drama Casualty, which is still a ratings banker for BBC1, saw BBC1 start to dominate the television top ten. Grade’s success in reviving BBC1 from the basket case it was becoming two years previously had not gone unnoticed and he was promoted to Director of Programmes, though still with overall responsibility for BBC1.

1986 was also the year that Grade would fall foul of the Conservatives, although largely not of his own making. Unlike Alasdair Milne, who took most of the criticism for the Real Lives documentary on BBC1 the previous year, Grade had been largely ignored by the Thatcherites. After all, Grade’s main broadcasting interest was entertainment rather than current affairs and he had been largely excluded from the political battles of the time, which he was not interested in. Unlike Milne, who had cut his teeth in factual programming and had only ever worked for the BBC, Grade’s televisual training had been in the less controversial world of light entertainment and his career until 1984 had been in commercial television.

The Monocled Mutineer saw relations between the BBC, the Conservative government and the right-wing press hit a new low. This excellently produced drama about an army muntiny in the Great War was advertised as fact based drama, when in reality parts of the story were only true and the mutiny had been overplayed by the scriptwriter Alan Bleasdale. When the story was revealed as faction, the right-wing press- even though they regarded it as excellent entertainment- went into overkill mode and demanded the BBC’s new chairman ” root out the reds” ( Daily Telegraph) and called for the head of Alasdair Milne, who was to resign four months later. Milne was forced to apologise about the drama, ” We had recently hired advertising space in the papers and they promoted the programme foolishly as being a real life story… and it added to their fury that most of the papers saw the play as left-wing propaganda.” Grade had obviously been stung as well by criticism of his station’s flagship drama and commented,” Fleet Street has a wonderful tradition of getting hooked on fixed ideas. When they’re off on a certain track, nothing can stop them.”

Also attacked for left-wing bias was the hospital drama Casualty. Health minister Edwina Currie was not happy at seeing the NHS portrayed as at breaking point. One episode about a chemical explosion at a dockyard was savaged by Charles Clover, the television critic at the Daily Telegraph, ” As a woman indirectly responsible for a ghastly accident at the docks explained, “I have become one of the new breed of entrepreneurs.” In the BBC drama department, of course, entrepreneur means crook.” The colourful Conservative MP Peter Bruinvels described the BBC as the Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation over programmes such as Casualty and The Monocled Mutineer and his demands that the BBC be privatised were met with applause at his party’s conference. Bruinvels other comments about not watching Eastenders, and encouraging Tories not to watch the show, because several of the cast members were left wing, and referring to the popular character Lofty as Lefty, would not have been so ridiculous had he not gone on the institution he hated so much to express his views to Terry Wogan. Even The Sun found this amusing at the time, as the paper, according to its unofficial history, ” Stick It Up Your Punter,” was a keen promoter of the soap, which it regarded as more popular with its readership, particularly its phase of promoting the actor Leslie Grantham ( Den Watts) as some kind of cockney wideboy made good, over the Labour Daily Mirror reading types who favoured the distinctly outdated Coronation St, which had no equivalent character.

While the political rows were going on, which most viewers, Conservative as well as Labour, did not notice or even care about, the Grade revolution was going at full pace at BBC1. Another glaring gap in the schedule was closed in October when the station launched its daytime schedule. Pages from Ceefax and schools programmes were banished in favour of a magazine type programme in the mornings, similar to Good Morning on ITV, called Open Air, Kilroy, hosted by ex MP Robert Kilroy Silk; the Australian soap Neighbours( another move into ITV territory for the BBC, as Australian soaps had long been popular on the other channel), films and re runs of classic sitcoms and American shows from the seventies. Ok, I will admit I have always found daytime programming terrible, and Open Air was never BAFTA material, but the growing number of retired people and the three million unemployed of the time paid their licence fee and expected to watch something other than pages from Ceefax rolling past and Grade closed a large gap in BBC1’s schedule.

It could be said Grade was a populist, but he did not allow the public service and high cost, high quality programming associated with the BBC fall away in favour of Neighbours. Unlike ITV, he did not clog up the daytime schedule with Australian soaps and began to cut down on American imports on BBC1, seeing their popularity falling in peak time .Also, Breakfast Time was made into more a news based programme to offer a distinct alternative to the more lightweight TV-AM. When AIDS started to become a serious concern, he devoted a week of programming to the subject, which received praise from the government for presenting the subject in a well researched, impartial manner. Series such as Crimewatch UK were carried on from his predecessor in a peak time slot. With a larger licence fee and changing technology,which made location filming far cheaper than at the start of the decade, the cheap studio bound appearance of BBC dramas, which were contrasting so badly with those of ITV, were replaced by dramas filmed on location and often in conjunction with an American broadcaster to cut costs.

Apart from the political crisis going on around Grade, another crisis blew up surrounding the Noel Edmonds series Late Late Breakfast Show. This show featured a member of the general public carrying out a stunt as one of its main attractions. In 1983 a contestant was badly injured on air when a stunt with a car went wrong and the car hit a BBC staff car, but in 1986 a contestant who was rehearsing a bungee jump was killed, though luckily not on air. The BBC was forced to withdraw the programme, make an official apology, but the BBC was even more embarassed when the case was referred to the coroner’s court on January 29th 1987 and it was found the person supervising the stunt did not have enough training, leading to the accident. This led indirectly to the resignation of Alasdair Milne, although his career had been in danger since Marmaduke Hussey replaced Stuart Young as chairman in 1986. Also, this led to a temporary end for Noel Edmonds successful television career, and Grade was said to be badly shaken by the whole affair.

Unlike 1986, 1987 was to prove much more peaceful on the sixth floor of the Television Centre. The resignation of Milne, and his replacement by the more Thatcher friendly former corporation accountant Michael Checkland, with John Birt from LWT as his deputy, saw the Conservatives leave the BBC alone. Thatcher was said to regard the Checkland- Birt appointment as” an improvement in every respect” and, barring a police raid on BBC Glasgow to seize tapes of a controversial episode of Secret Society, the feud between Thatcher and the Corporation died down. ( Although much of the criticism of the BBC came from the Right, it should also be pointed out that Labour left-wingers like Arthur Scargill and Denis Skinner were vocal in their hatred of the BBC, regarding it as too close to the Tory establishment, and Tony Benn once referred to the BBC on Look North as a right-wing conspiracy, Bill Cotton was said to comment in 1987,” we were attacked by toerags on all political sides, I was glad when it all died down.”)

During Grade’s last year in office BBC1 maintained its ratings lead over ITV, which would continue for the rest of the decade, and BBC1 shows dominated the ratings Top Ten. ITV at the time seemed to be confused: it announced it was axing Crossroads in an attempt to move upmarket, but then increased the amount of American imports, which were losing viewers and were seen as downmarket, and in the Thames region there was talk even of Coronation St being moved out of peak time as it had such low ratings in the capital and ABC1 viewers avoided it en masse. Grade’s last year also saw Saturday nights strengthened by introducing a schedule that included Bob’s Says Opportunity Knocks, a revival of the old Hughie Green show hosted by Bob Monkhouse,and the smash hits Allo Allo and Casualty, which would pull in 16 million viewers at its peak.

However, Grade decided to leave the Corporation in December 1987 after it was widely expected he would replace Bill Cotton as Managing Director of Television. Grade did not get on with John Birt, which dated back to his LWT days, and fancied a return to commercial television. He told Saga magazine in 2004 about his relations with the then deputy DG,”He is a master politician. That is of no interest to me. I am interested in entertainment, which is why I left for Channel 4.” One of Grade’s last acts as BBC1 controller, however, was typical Grade populism and was inspired by his daughter. Neighbours was attracting nine million viewers in its lunchtime slot, a record for a daytime show, but Grade’s teenage daughter complained that her friends often missed episodes. From January 1988, the Australian soap was moved to 5.35 and, for a time, became the most popular show on television, and Kylie Minogue could also be thankful to Michael Grade for launching her music career through the soap.

Grade moved to Channel 4, where he was to remain controller for ten years. Although the more serious minded ex controller Jeremy Isaacs was less than happy with some of the changes Grade made, which saw little watched political programmes and operas axed in favour of imports and entertainment, Grade positioned Channel 4 between BBC1 and BBC2 in its remit, so as to attract more viewers but without the station becoming too mass appeal. Although the right wing journalist Paul Johnson dubbed Grade as “Britain’s pornographer in chief” for the sexual nature of some of the station’s programming, Grade was generally seen to do a good job as controller and ratings often exceeded those of the rival BBC2.

Grade left 4 in 1998 to become the chief executive of Camelot and Shepperton studios before returning to the BBC in March 2004, to applause from staff on his first day, as chairman. Although he had little input into the Corporation’s shows, his appointment brought relief to staff after the popular DG Greg Dyke was forced out over the Hutton enquiry, which made the Thatcher feud of the eighties look like a minor spat as Blair’s vendetta against the BBC was far more dangerous and even the Daily Mail moved to defend the Corporation at what was a very dangerous attack on its independence . Under Grade, the BBC still enjoyed healthy ratings despite the massive competition that did not exist when he was BBC1 controller.

In December 2006 Michael Grade’s career took another interesting twist when he suddenly stepped down as Chairman of the BBC to become executive chairman of ITV, a role which contained rather more power than the BBC Chairman’s job and also a return to the organisation where he made his name in the seventies.

Even more serious than the problems at BBC1 in 1984, Grade has inherited an organisation that is in a ratings crisis and whose image is at rock bottom: ITV1 attracting fewer viewers than BBC One and having a schedule dominated by soaps and reality shows. Although it is only, at the time of writing, five months into his reign as ITV Chairman, Grade has made some decisions which could turn around this moribund organisation. Firstly revelations of malpractices on the phone-in quiz shows on the digital ITV Play channel in March saw Grade act quickly and have the station closed down. Also Grade has decided to cut down on reality shows: Love Island has been scrapped due to falling ratings and other celeb based reality shows like WAGs Boutique have been moved to ITV2 or shown in a late night slot on ITV1. Grade’s desire to show more sport on ITV, which will guarantee a male audience that ITV often lacks, has seen ITV outbid the BBC for rights to show the FA Cup and England games after 1998 and this year will also see ITV host the Rugby Union World Cup again.

However, welcome though these changes are, and Grade has commented that he wants ITV to be more innovative, he still has a huge task to improve ITV and viewers are yet to see much improvement. One can but sincerely hope that he ignores the bean counters, and the ITV executives who believe more of the same is the best way forward, and makes ITV the world’s greatest commercial broadcaster again.

It is a tribute to the qualities of the man that shows he created such as Eastenders and Casualty continued to perform well in the ratings 20 years after their inception, and that he is often seen as the most popular media mogul in Britain.

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