Lewis Chester hasn’t got a background in Film or TV History; he’s an old-fashioned proper investigative journalist, an ex-member of the Sunday Times’ Insight team; this background gives him two things….an ability to tell a story well, and an inherent sympathy towards the subject matter, whose generosity towards journalists was the stuff of legend….and that legend, amongst others, is the story that Lewis Chester is telling.
At the centre of the legend is Lew Grade, the eldest of – in Jeremy Thorpe’s vaguely anti-semitic phrase – The Winogradsky Boys. Born into middle-class comfort in the Crimea, but soon to endure a less-than-comfortable upbringing in the first stop for Jewish refugees of a century back; London’s Brick Lane. His younger brother would become Bernard Delfont, and would be too young to remember much of this transition; the third brother would become Leslie Grade, another top theatrical agent between and after the Wars, but London-born, and far less personally in love with the spotlight.
This slight disparity in backgrounds may also explain how it was that the levels of energy they each devoted to succeeding in showbusiness varied with their respective ages – but only from colossal, in Lew’s case, to immense, in Bernard’s, to extremely high, in Leslie’s….it’s tempting to assume that the memories of childhood poverty, provided for by an ineffectual breadwinner in their father, but shored up by the indomitable matriarch, Olga, who ran the family side of the family, up to and including the raising of her grandson Michael. However, despite lifetimes earning fortunes – not only for themselves – they never reached the multi-millionaire levels of the people they mixed with – they all gave fortunes away to charity – official and otherwise – throughout their lifetimes. So it was probably a combination of Olga’s upbringing, a hint of sibling rivalry, which existed but was more competitive than fractious, though it had its moments, and the way they simply seemed to enjoy the deal-making that, in the spheres of Variety and Legit theatre, and then Television, created a situation that at times gave the combined family a near monopoly of British entertainment.
Exactly how an ex-hoofer with dodgy knees but irresistible energy did this all from scratch is told here, with the rest of the family being the supporting cast; but Lew always was the star of the show, behaving as one would expect – hope – a Hollywood mogul would behave decades before his patchily successful venture into film production, buoyed by his undeniable successes in television productions and international variety that got him noticed and respected in the US. You are given the impression that Lew would have swapped it all to have been, say, Louis B Mayer, but his films were never plentiful nor quite good enough… and the best ones made under his watch, and under Bernard at EMI, seemed to have been less than his pet projects… those tended to be poor. The near-collapse of his film venture, and their shark-like takeover by Robert Holmes a Court, are told in detail here too. Raise The Titanic didn’t help, but it wasn’t the whole story… in the words of his financial-minded colleague, “Titanic is the tip of the iceberg”.
And of course, all the anecdotes, apocryphal and otherwise, quips, Goldwynisms, all are present and correct. What there may not be is much in the way of new information; perhaps surprisingly, while there are some new interviews with Lew’s long serving PA, and his US right-hand man, there are no interviews with Michael Grade or very many of the showbiz veterans who had known or had dealings with him back over the decades, The Collins sisters, Joan and Jackie, knew him as ‘Uncle Lew’ from childhood, for instance, as their agent father was a rival, colleague and friend of the family between the Wars. But this seems a churlish complaint; many of that circle, Lew and Bernard included, had produced memoirs over the years…..in the case of Lew’s ghost-written, and badly. This book brings all that factual material and what must be countless newspaper interviews and articles together to give a rounded picture of a man and a family who dominated British Entertainment in the last century and still exert a strong influence…. how many homes now don’t own a DVD of an ITC-produced show? And it was Lew’s pioneering recipe for what Commercial Television should look like in terms of content that, by and large, and for all its faults, we have today. It’s quite a story, and Chester Lewis tells it well; even if you have the aforementioned autobiographies, I would recommend this book… it’s informative and fun. It would make an interesting film…
All My Shows are Great by Lewis Chester is published by Aurum Press.