The Muppets are back.
Exactly 65 years since Jim Henson’s furry funsters made their TV debut, Jim Henson’s beloved creatures return with a new Disney series, Muppets Now.
Admittedly, it’s a slightly ho-hum return, with lots of Zoom calls and YouTube trimmings to appeal to a younger audience.
It’s certainly a far cry from the glorious highs of The Muppet Show (1976-81), the acme of popular entertainment that was adored by adults and children alike.
That particular success was thanks to a Jewish Russian émigré from the slums of London’s East End – Lew Grade, the media mogul, impresario and all-round cigar-chomping inventor of popular TV.
“The Muppet Show was a huge risk,” recalls Anita Land, Grade’s niece and a leading TV talent agent.
“There hadn’t been anything like it before, but Uncle Lew took a punt and it became his pet project. Broadcasters simply don’t take gambles like that any more.”
In 1975, Grade approached Henson, the American puppeteer, to help realise his dream.
He had noticed that the Muppets had been popping up on other shows since 1955 and knew they deserved a vehicle of their own. (American networks had shown little enthusiasm.)
“Jim Henson and Frank Oz got on with Uncle Lew like a house on fire,” recalls Land.
“The Muppets appealed to him on every level – it was transatlantic, it was for families, it was funny, it had music, dance and big stars. Out of all his many programmes, it sums up Uncle Lew’s approach to TV best.”
Grade persuaded Henson to make the show at his studios in Elstree, Hertfordshire and let him syndicate it internationally. Richard Holloway, the former Thames TV and Fremantle Media boss whose prolific production credits include Simon Cowell’s talent contests, began his career aged 17 in Grade’s postroom.
“Every day at 7am, we’d smell Lew coming down the corridor,” he recalls. “He’d be on his first Montecristo of the morning. He’d tip out the mail sacks and look for anything with an American stamp because it might be a letter from Jim Henson or one of Lew’s other Hollywood contacts.”
Grade promoted him rapidly and Holloway spent five years working with the Muppets at Elstree.
“I made all 120 shows,” says Holloway. “The genius of it was the puppets, obviously, but also the writing. It could be childlike but also sophisticated. Some of the humour went way over the kids’ heads. It was The Simpsons of its day in that way.”
So how did Grade become Britain’s biggest provider of screen entertainment?
“He had a tough upbringing,” says Land.
“He was five when his parents came here and couldn’t speak a word of English. Nowadays, he’d go to university because he was brilliant at maths and had a photographic memory. But his father was unwell, so he left school at 14 to earn money. He had that immigrant work ethic.”
Grade first experienced showbiz from the performance side. He was crowned world Charleston champion at the Royal Albert Hall in 1926, with no less than Fred Astaire among the judges. He turned professional and was signed up by Joe Collins, the talent agent father of Jackie and Joan.
Nicknamed “The Dancer with Humorous Feet”, his trademark routine was an ultra-fast Charleston danced on a small, precarious table. After the war, he went into business with youngest brother, Leslie.
By 1948, the Grade Organisation had become Britain’s biggest talent agency. After bidding for a broadcast franchise, Grade became the managing director of Associated Television (ATV), the country’s first commercially financed TV company.
His variety roots never left him. From the outset, ATV specialised in lighter-hearted fare than the BBC. Early hits included Sunday Night at the London Palladium, which would attract huge audiences for more than a decade.
“He was the powerhouse behind so many great shows,” says Holloway.
“He signed up all these amazing artists – Tom Jones, Liberace, Cilla, Val Doonican – often sealing the deal with a box of Montecristos or a case of Dom Pérignon for the star. Showbiz was in his blood. He single-handedly made Elstree the entertainment hub of the country.”
Crucially, Grade spotted the potential for the sale of UK programming to US networks and formed the Incorporated Television Company (ITC) with this goal in mind.
“He was the first to see that crossover potential,” says Anita Land.
He first cracked the US market with The Adventures of Robin Hood, which cannily utilised scriptwriters who had been blacklisted under McCarthyism. This was followed by Gerry Anderson’s “Supermarionation” shows such as Thunderbirds, then live-action dramas The Saint, The Avengers and The Prisoner – thrilling, tongue-in-cheek adventures that were larger-than-life, just like Grade himself.
Against all odds and via sheer force of personality, the boy born Louis Winogradsky had become the dominant figure in British independent TV. He was knighted in 1969 and made a life peer in 1976.
His philosophy was “to give people pleasure after a hard day’s work”, adding proudly: “My tastes are the tastes of the average person throughout the world.”
ATV became a byword for easy viewing – variety shows, quizzes, soaps – which led to Grade being stereotyped as a “song and dance man” and attracted the sobriquet “Low-Grade Lew”.
This was unfair.
“He was misunderstood,” says Land. “People were snobbish when commercial TV started and assumed it wasn’t interested in the arts. But Uncle Lew was unbelievably bright and introduced so much culture to ATV. I still remember his shows with Maria Callas and Lord Snowdon.”
Grade also commissioned Kenneth Clark’s debut series, Is Art Necessary?, in 1958. In its heyday, ATV produced a third of all the documentaries made by commercial TV.
Highbrow programme-makers loved Grade because he would give the creator carte blanche. He was immensely proud of Jesus of Nazareth, the hit Biblical miniseries, though famously he asked director Franco Zeffirelli if he couldn’t manage with six disciples instead of 12.
Mainly, though, Grade was about entertainment, from the dawn of commercial TV in 1955, through to 1982, when ATV rebranded as Central Television and he resigned. By then in his 70s, Grade gave no thought to retirement and embarked on a more chequered career as a film producer.
When mega-budget adventure Raise the Titanic flopped, he shrugged it off with a wry one-liner: “It would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic.”He died in 1998, days short of his 92nd birthday. We might never see his like again.
“Uncle Lew was the last of a breed but he left an amazing legacy,” says Anita Land. “Nobody else had that longevity or versatility. People still talk about him, still talk about his shows. His fingerprints can be seen all over the TV schedules.”
Land is right. Shows such as Strictly Come Dancing, The Graham Norton Show and Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway are in Grade’s razzle-dazzle image. However, too much TV is now made by committee and box-ticking. We need more instinctive visionaries like Grade. Nobody, alas, comes near. Close, but no cigar.
Telegraph Media Group