Wide-eyed and tiny in stature, five-year-old Michael Grade sat on a bucket placed in the wings of Finsbury Park Empire, mesmerised as his Aunt Kathy performed in a production of Babes In The Wood.
Now 70 years later, Grade – who comes from a family of showbusiness impresarios – reveals his enthusiasm for the stage is as strong as ever. With an enduring career in TV that has encompassed London Weekend Television, the BBC, ITV and almost a decade as chief executive of Channel Four, the Tory peer has in recent years produced show-stopping musicals.
Two years ago he and business partner Michael Linnit were behind the smash production of Sweeney Todd starring Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel, while the duo scored further success with last year’s Sunset Boulevard with Glenn Close.
Their latest venture is an opulent £6million revival of 42nd Street at Drury Lane’s Theatre Royal, which officially opened on Tuesday.
The cast includes chart-topping Scottish singer Sheena Easton, in her West End debut as fallen star Dorothy Brock, ex-Emmerdale actor Tom Lister as desperate director Julian Marsh and Clare Halse as newcomer Peggy Sawyer.
The all-singing, high-kicking and prodigious cast of 50 is “dazzling”, says Grade, 74. The tale features the songs of Harry Warren and Jewish lyricist Al Dubin, including such classics as We’re In The Money, Shuffle Off to Buffalo, I Only Have Eyes For You and 42nd Street.
“This is a little Cinderella fairy tale about an understudy who becomes a star. When it was made by Warner Brothers in 1933, they were about to go bankrupt and it was at the height of the Depression in America. The story captured the mood and cheered everybody up and today the message endures,” Grade enthuses.
The rags-to-riches story steeped in a world of showbusiness resonates strongly with Grade, for it is one that echoes his own family’s experience.
His father, Leslie (born Winogradsky), was the youngest of three brothers in a family of Russian-Jewish migrants living in Stepney. Both his parents worked in the textile industry, but Leslie, who left school at 14, pursued a career in showbusiness, eventually becoming one of the country’s best-known theatrical talent agents. Older brother Lew became a television mogul, while middle son Bernard Delfont(Boris), established himself as a leading West End producer.
Showbusiness is more than just something Grade loves – it’s in his blood. “You can say that again!” he laughs. “My uncle Bernie loved musical theatre, my dad was more variety and revue and my uncle Lew loved television, so they certainly covered the spectrum.”
What was it like growing up in a family of entertainment royalty? “I always got the good seats,” he smiles. “I can remember when there was a different variety bill at The London Palladium every week, with huge American and British stars. In the holidays, we’d go almost every night. I fell in love with the theatre that way.”
Grade’s family were also significant in forming his Jewish identity. His mother Lynn, who was not Jewish, left the family when Grade was three, leaving his “Yiddisher” grandmother to bring him up.
“My Jewishness is very important to me,” explains Grade, who is married to Francesca, his third wife, and has three children. “I’m very proud of that; I’ve never hidden it and I feel very strongly about the culture. I feel connected, very much so.”
His impressive career has spanned journalism, television, business and everything in between and he once earned $500,000 while working in Hollywood. He took “the biggest pay cut in history” when he returned to the UK as BBC1 controller – on a salary of £37,000.
Grade introduced the likes of Neighbours, EastEnders, Friends and ER onto our screens. Not everyone has agreed with him along the way, but he has endured and is now looking to take the skills he evolved within the TV industry to breathe new life into West End theatre.
He says he enjoyed his time in TV, but adds: “ I love to go into a theatre and just stand and watch the audience. You can’t do that in telly.”
Grade relishes taking his five grandchildren to the theatre. “I’ve got to nurture the audience of the future,” he quips. “I recently took all my grandchildren to see School of Rock. They absolutely adored it. And they only get the best seats.”
42nd Street runs at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, until 14 October. Details: 42ndstreetmusical.co.uk
Top: Some of the formidable cast of 42nd Steet. Above: Michael Grade