Hurricane Lew 

5 November 2018



BARRY TOOK reports to the hub of showbizland in a bid to discover if there’s life in Mr. Big, the man who has to keep moving if the market’s to stay where it is



From Punch for 16-22 February 1972

Philosopher, Poet, Saint? One somehow cannot find the right word for Sir Lew Grade — this be-knighted tycoon whose multi-storey Elstree dream factory pours its benificent cornucopia of twentieth century myth into the television sets of the nation.

In real life, Sir Lew is a mild mannered, pipe smoking, woolly-pully, “carpet slippers by the fire” sort of man. The type of chap you’d run into at the local, downing his pint and yarning about country days and country ways and I am ex-King Zog of Albania.

Sir Lew’s stately home, Grade Parva, is a rambling pile in the Home Counties. The Romans were coming to Britain when they built it — well, Roman Polanski was anyway.

The “local squire”, as Sir Lew is called by his publicity officer, greeted me at the front door. It was 4 a.m. but Lew had already been up for three hours. “I like to get up early,” he told me. “But it’s your day off,” I gasped. “So I had a lie in,” he chuckled, “and talking of that, let me show you my sales charts.”

He ushered me into his study and sat me down in front of a tape recording of a roaring fire. He looked at me quizzically for a moment and then picked up the phone and called Venezuela. His call was a short one — he couldn’t get the exchange — and then he turned to me and with a characteristically generous gesture offered me an exclusive contract for a million dollars. His interest waned a little when I explained I didn’t have a million dollars, and we settled down to talk about his career.

Sir Lew (left) outside the US Embassy after successfully concluding the sale of his two brothers to NBC

“People say I’m a master showman and a Napoleon of entertainment,” he admitted shyly, “but I’m just an ordinary chap doing a job of work.” I nodded. “Mind you, it does help when you’re a master showman and a Napoleon of entertainment,” he twinkled. “I enjoy selling. Things, people — anything.” He leant down and patted the dog — or at least the place where the dog should have been — “I sold old Bill to America — He’s doing a series of twenty-six one-hour spectaculars.” “A dog?” I asked. “Why not,” he said. “If they’d buy the Marty Feldman Comedy Machine they’d buy anything.”

“It might be good for America,” I ventured, “but what about Britain?” “Yes,” he admitted, “that was a problem.” But he thought he had a buyer. Just give him time and he’d sell Britain. I believed him.

He talked briefly of his triumphs. How he’d got Engelbert Humperdinck on the screen exactly when and where he wanted him — at 7.25 on Sunday on BBC 1.

Sir Lew is a kind and thoughtful host. “Like a spot of char?” he asked. I said I would. He crossed to the fireplace and pulled the long tasselled programme executive who was hanging there. The door opened and there, framed in the doorway, stood an elderly char with a heart of gold, specially created by Lord Willis with all his usual flair and authenticity. She took one step into the room, fell over and broke her hip. Lew was on his feet and at the phone in a second, and before the ambulance arrived, he’d sold her to America. “They’ll just love a series about an old English charlady with a broken hip,” he averred. “Come on, let me show you the house.”

THE EAGLE-EYE: Rumours are rife amongst singing jugglers and witless gangsters’ dollies that Sir Lew has perfect 6/6 vision. Six of one and half a dozen of the other and they can all rely on him to have the vision to make it sell

Some boyish quirk in Sir Lew had caused him to name and decorate the rooms of his stately pile after his TV successes. There was the “Emergency Ward Ten Room” with its kidney shaped occasional table and its rows of beds.

The “Crossroads” room decorated like a motel with cardboard cut out “guests” dotted about. The “Palladium” room in red plush and gilt, the “Love Story” room where everything was faded and secondhand. Even the smallest room in the house was appropriately named “The Charlie Drake Room”. The cupboard under the stairs bore the title “Serious Programmes”.

We came finally to the trophy room. The stuffed heads looking down from the walls seemed almost alive — Millicent Martin, Roy Castle, Tom Jones, Des O’Connor, Jimmy Tarbuck, Roger Moore, Val Doonican. “Just some of my bag,” Sir Lew explained. “Got him at the TV Centre with a two-two.” “A two-two ?” I queried. “Yes, a two-year contract for two million dollars. Got that one at Thames… That one from radio… Look at that one. Ugly brute isn’t he?” “Wasn’t it dangerous?” I asked. “You can’t show fear,” Lew explained, his eyes becoming suddenly grave, “the wild star in his natural state can smell fear. Once you show fear, they’re on to you.”

A distinctive and unusual feature of Sir Lew’s country seat, Grade Parva, is the neo-classical portico with its winged figure keeping the rain off the tradesmen’s entrance through which Took passed

Had he ever been mauled? Well, he admitted that when Lord Hill had been game warden at the ITA he’d been prevented from using the London waterhole, but it turned out that the water was undrinkable anyway and the animals had moved on.

Just then the butler, ancient and withered with skin like old parchment and palsied hands, entered, and announced that breakfast was served. “Thank you, Alec,” said Sir Lew, and the old retainer withdrew shakily. “Good man that. Grown old in my service,” said Sir Lew. And how long had that been, I asked. He thought for a moment. “Nearly six months.”

My time was up. Sir Lew shook me warmly by the throat and asked me with great sincerity to leave by the tradesmen’s entrance. As I stepped out into the frosty dawn, I reflected that my visit to Sir Lew at home had been like a memory of a childhood Christmas. Absolutely ghastly.

Barry Took (1928-2002) was co-writer of Round the Horne for the BBC Light Programme, chairman of BBC Radio 4’s The News Quiz, presenter of BBC-1’s Points of View and briefly Head of Light Entertainment at London Weekend. He was responsible for merging the Do Not Adjust Your Set and At Last the 1948 Show casts, then splitting them into Monty Python’s Flying Circus and The Goodies.

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