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24 September 2014

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BBC chairman Michael Grade.
BBC chairman Michael Grade

Michael Grade interview

BBC chairman Michael Grade dropped into BBC East's headquarters in Norwich to see the state-of-the-art studios and take questions from radio's Graham Barnard on EastEnders, the licence fee and his memories of Great Yarmouth.

The chairman of the BBC governors has made his first visit to the corporation's east headquarters.

Michael Grade toured the state-of-the-art station at The Forum, Norwich, and tested the studio facilities first-hand during his live interview with BBC Radio Norfolk presenter Graham Barnard.

During his career, Mr Grade has worked for the BBC and ITV and spent nine years running Channel 4.

Before he went to work in television, he followed his father into showbiz and joined the family business as a theatrical agent.

He booked the stars of the day including Morecambe and Wise for the summer seasons at Great Yarmouth and his father, Leslie, used to own the Carlton Hotel on the seafront.

At the age of 30 he was made head of ITV light entertainment before joining BBC One as controller 11 years later and becoming the BBC's director of programming in 1986.

During this era he launched EastEnders, which he describes as changing the face of soap operas, and pulled Doctor Who, which has been resurrected in turn with his appointment as chairman.

In the interview, he remembers the pranks Ernie Wise played on him from Great Yarmouth, says why EastEnders remains relevant and discusses how the BBC, as a public service broadcaster, is a cornerstone of British culture and why it is vital to give licence fee payers value for money.

Click on the audio link on the right-hand of this page to hear the full interview.

What do you think of The Forum?

I wish my office was as good. We're stuck in Marylebone High Street, which is right in the middle of London, but this is a very agreeable space - and we're seeing it at its best with the blue sky and lovely sunshine.

I did see a quote once where you said you thought you'd never be made BBC chairman.

If I'd have known I was going to get the job I would have never applied given how hard I'm working at the moment. I'm loving every minute. The BBC was in trouble post the Kelly tragedy... I just felt what they needed at that moment was someone with experience.

I understand it was newspapers which gave you your first taste of the media.

My family were in the entertainment industry in a big way. I had two uncles, Lord Delphont, Lew Grade and my father, Leslie. They were all in the business.

I left school at 17 and my dad said, 'What do you want to do - come in the business?' I said, 'I really don't want to come in the business.' He knew I loved sport and he had influence at the Daily Mirror and I got a job as a trainee sports writer in 1960 at the Daily Mirror which I absolutely loved.

Then my dad was very ill and I had to get serious with my life and I had to go into the family business for a very short time because we got taken over by a big company and I went off and became an agent.

When you were in showbiz, I've heard Great Yarmouth was not a strange name to you.

I used to come to Great Yarmouth a dozen, 20 times a year. My partner the late, wonderful agent Billy Marsh and I used to book the summer shows at the Wellington Pier, the Britannia Pier and the ABC Cinema - I don't know if it's still there - but they used to turn it into a theatre in the summer.

We used to book Morecambe And Wise, Val Doonican, Leslie Crowther, Mike and Bernie Winters, Des O'Connor and Rolf Harris and occasionally we used to book shows at the Aquarium.

My dad owned the Carlton Hotel at one point.

The Bloater depot was the main centre of attention. Ernie Wise used to send me kippers and bloaters through the post in the hot summers and he used to put a second class stamp on so when they arrived it was very funny. You should have seen the postman's face!

In many ways was that a short leap into ITV?

I realised that the summer shows were the last flowering of variety. I realised that it was the last knockings and the important thing was television.

I started selling ideas to television companies and London Weekend in particular and they said, 'Why don't you come and work here?' I thought this is the future - variety's had its day.

It was 1973 so I was 30. I came in as the head of light entertainment. I take no credit for this, but it was in the days of On The Buses, Please Sir and all those other wonderful shows.

Was your uncle [Lew Grade] still involved in ATV in those days?

Yes, by then I think it had become Central or was on the way. He was one of the pioneering founders of ITV in 1955.

What did he think when he found out you were on board?

He'd been used to me being a thorn in his side because Billy Marsh, my partner in the agency business, was Morecambe and Wise's man. He looked after them and they worked for Lew at ATV and had a row about money.

Billy was away and I did the deal that took them away from my uncle Lew and gave them to the BBC, which was a great career move for them. Lew was used to me being in opposition.

BBC4 declared in their viewers' poll that the 1970s is officially the golden age of television. Did it seem like good days then?

It was a wonderful age because there was only the BBC and ITV. The BBC had two channels and we had one. We had a monopoly of advertising revenue.

We had labour relations problems - we were in the thrall to the broadcasting unions and they made life very difficult for us.

We were heavily regulated but by and large you could do anything. In those days we used to run three hours of Glyndebourne live on ITV on a Sunday night at peak time. It wouldn't happen today. We could do arts programming, we could do anything we wanted.

What was the reaction when you came to the BBC after all those years at LWT?

Again the BBC was in trouble at the time. Every time they're in trouble they send for Grade. At the time ITV had stolen the BBC's colours. They'd got themselves into a muddle and were showing American material instead of Panorama. They didn't know whether they were chasing ratings or what.

The programmes were good but they were hard to find. There was a huge political row and a big shake-up. Bill Cotton was brought back who was the great head of light entertainment and controller of BBC One.

He was brought back from some outpost to be the managing director of television and he said, 'We need Grade' and he brought me back from America and we launched EastEnders and Wogan and we did The Singing Detective and Tutti Frutti, which is one of my all-time favourites.

You gave us EastEnders...

..I didn't create it, I didn't commission it but I launched it.

Twenty years ago the BBC was different as life was different and EastEnders has had a lot of flack. Do you think there is still a place for EastEnders on BBC One in 2005?

Oh, I think EastEnders is is one of the landmarks of British broadcasting, never mind BBC One.

People have got to remember that EastEnders changed the face of Coronation Street, Emmerdale, and everything else that followed, because Coronation Street was very rose-tinted and cosy and chummy and there was no gritty reality at all.

EastEnders did change the face of soap operas and it is an institution and it will go through periods - as Coronation Street does - where it is amazingly popular and periods where it is just popular. It is a high quality soap opera, it's good drama, it's not a commodity and every episode is hand-crafted.

But are programmes like that public service?

Yes. It makes a huge investment in acting and writing talent and directing talent. It is a high quality soap; it doesn't take its audience for granted; it's challenging; it deals with social issues and hopefully it entertains and compels people. I've no problem with that at all.

Doctor Who is back. You got rid of Doctor Who first time round.

All I did was try to kill it when I was at the BBC. I thought it was horrible, awful. I thought it was so out-dated. It was just a little show for a few pointy head Doctor Who fans. It was also very violent and it had lost its magic and I killed it.

I was quite surprised to see it come back as soon I came back to the BBC. I have to say, I watched the first episode and I thought it was tremendous. Really, really good.

To start with it's in the writing, and the writing presently is witty and clever and imaginative.

I remember the Press thinking it was an interesting move putting Michael Grade in charge of Channel 4.

Jeremy Isaacs, my predecessor, said he was so upset that I'd got the job that he'd throttle me if I spoilt that channel.

But he's since forgiven me and realised that I wasn't there to destroy it but build on his legacy.

That was a very enjoyable nine years, running Channel 4. We had a lot of fun. We did some good programmes.

Do you think the days of the BBC churning out the big, popular programmes have to end as we serve licence fee payers who deserve programmes they're interested in?

This is really a question about ratings. I remember as a viewer and a competitor Morecambe and Wise getting 25 million people watching their Christmas show and nobody said the BBC was dumbing down or had lost its way.

It's all a matter of how you get ratings. If you earn the ratings with high quality - Only Fools And Horses, The Office - big ratings, high quality then that's fine.

If you get your ratings by giving away a £1m or 'get a £6m house if you win on such-and-such show tonight' then that's buying ratings.

People will watch and be entertained by it but you don't need to be a genius to create something like that. The BBC needs to earn its ratings. The BBC is paid for by everybody.

Everybody is entitled to something from the BBC and there are times when everybody together gets something out of the BBC and that's called a hit. Depending on how innovative and interesting and well crafted that programme is, it's perfectly justified.

From your point of view, will the BBC will continue to mean all things to all people?

It has to. If you take £2.6b of public money you have to deliver something for everybody and that includes being popular.

Will BBC One stay the main entertainment channel?

BBC One is the mass channel, no question about that, and it always will be. But within the mix on BBC One there will continue to be arts, documentary, serious drama. BBC One drama is in very good shape at the moment.

People are saying before long the internet and television are going to be the same thing and perhaps there won't be a BBC One, ITV or Channel 4 as we'll download a programme when we want it. Will people in 2016 tolerate paying a licence fee?

The first thing to explain is that whatever the means of distribution - analogue, digital, broadband - that's all wonderful and marvellous and will make the manufacturers happy, but nobody is going to buy any of that kit if there is no content.

And at heart, what the BBC does, is take £121 of the public's money every year and turns it into content: online, radio at national and regional levels, television at international, national, regional.

Those boxes in the corner are just boxes unless you've got content and that's what we do best at the BBC.

The licence fee depends for its continuance on one thing and one thing only and that is the overwhelming support of the majority of the licence fee payers.

If they lose the will to pay because they don't feel they're getting value for money, it's all over. It's got nothing to do with competition or anything else.

It's about can we - and it's in our hands, in the hands of everybody who works for the BBC - deliver content that the British public values.

Click on the audio link on the right-hand of this page to hear the full interview.

last updated: 26/04/05
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