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The Times (06/Feb/1993) - Obituary: Lord Bernstein

 

(c) The Times (06/Feb/1993)


Obituary: Lord Bernstein

Lord Bernstein, founder of Granada Television, died yesterday aged 94. He was born Sidney Lewis Bernstein in Ilford, Essex, on January 30, 1899.

Sidney Bernstein was a complex personality whose life and career embodied several apparent contradictions. He was a committed socialist and a millionaire capitalist, a businessman who was also an intellectual. He combined a connoisseur's appreciation of fine art with an instinctive feel for mass taste. In public he was a brilliant showman, in private, often reserved and shy. Granada Television was the crowning achievement of a many-faceted career that had included building up a successful cinema chain, using film in wartime propaganda and making features with Alfred Hitchcock. Created very much in Bernstein's image, Granada was the most adventurous of the early ITV companies, the longest surviving and, after a shaky start, the most consistently profitable.

Sidney Bernstein was born into a large Jewish family headed by a Swedish father and a mother who was the daughter of immigrants from Russia. His father owned quarries in Wales and was a property dealer who built some of the first cinemas in the East End of London. Sidney grew up first in Ilford and then Cricklewood. He left school at 15 to follow his father into the cinema business. At 22 he inherited the family's four theatres fortuitously on the eve of the arrival of "talkies".

From this base he developed the Granada cinema chain, choosing the name in fond memory of walking holidays in Spain. A year later he shrewdly engineered a merger of his own chain with Gaumont British, becoming managing director. Then, starting in Dover in 1930, he opened a series of super-cinemas seating thousands which were further distinguished by their exotic decor and aggressive publicity. Bernstein believed cinema-going should be an event, so he brought in the Russian theatre director, Komisarjevsky, to design the interiors, which combined eye-catching elements of Gothic, Renaissance and Moorish architecture. Bernstein's most flamboyant creation was the Granada at Tooting in south London.

Bernstein was an innovator in other ways. He was one of the first to carry out market research into the tastes and habits of the cinema audience and he pioneered Saturday morning shows for children. He was also a leading figure in the campaign for Sunday opening.

As well as running cinemas, Bernstein was interested in film as an art form. In 1925 he was a founder member of the Film Society, which gave British audiences their first chance to see the work of the great Soviet directors, Eisenstein and Pudovkin.

In 1927 he went into theatrical management with Komisarjevsky and Arnold Bennett, putting on a season of plays at the Court Theatre in London and giving Charles Laughton his first break. Three years later he built the Phoenix Theatre in the West End and opened it with the first production of Noel Coward's Private Lives. Though he sold the Phoenix in 1932 he continued to take a close interest in the theatre and, from the 1930s, he joined the campaign to establish a British National Theatre.

Bernstein joined the Labour party in his teens and in 1925 was elected to Middlesex County Council, one of the youngest councillors in the country, serving for six years. He was particularly concerned at the rise of Hitler and his involvement in anti-Fascist causes earned him a place on the Gestapo blacklist.

During the second world war Bernstein was film adviser to the Ministry of Information, making an important contribution to Allied propaganda and handling with skill and sensitivity relations between Britain and the United States over the cinema's wartime role.

In 1944 he became head of the film section of the Psychological Warfare Division attached to Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force and he brought over from Hollywood his friend Alfred Hitchcock to make two French-language shorts as a tribute to the French Resistance.

In the following year Bernstein decided to produce a film based on footage taken by Allied cameramen of the German concentration camps and he invited Hitchcock to supervise it. Bernstein intended the film as a permanent reminder of Nazi atrocities for German and world audiences. But the authorities decided not to show it and its existence was not made public until nearly 40 years later.

After the war Bernstein and Hitchcock formed a production company, Transatlantic Pictures, for which Hitchcock made Rope, with its controversial experiment of the ten-minute take, and the disappointing Under Capricorn. In 1952 Bernstein produced a third Hitchcock film, I Confess.

Bernstein was initially opposed to the concept of commercial television but as its arrival became inevitable, he changed his mind and was granted one of the first ITV franchises. (Later he was equally slow to welcome the advent of colour.) Based in Manchester and serving the north of England, Granada went on the air on May 3, 1956.

The possibilities of television drama and social documentary programmes were clear to Bernstein from the start and the idiosyncratic style of Granada's output in these fields came largely from the authority he exerted and the guidance he supplied. He disliked an over-academic approach to the production of programmes as much as he detested the sensational or the vulgarising of issues in a documentary programme. He would never starve any worthwhile idea of the money it needed to become a good programme but neither would he tolerate what he regarded as waste. His high view of the influence and responsibility of the medium was combined with a businessman's realism in the fields of administration and organisation.

Although in its earliest months, Granada had severe cash-flow problems, forcing it to reach a secret arrangement with the London franchise-holder, Associated-Rediffusion, by which the London weekday company supplied it with the bulk of its production costs in return for the lion's share of its advertising revenue, it very soon became a money-spinner. By 1963, when it still covered both Lancashire and Yorkshire, Granada had higher advertising revenue than any of its rivals. Asked why, as a southerner, he started television in the north, Bernstein said he had made his decision after looking at two maps, one showing population density and the other measuring rainfall.

Though not a man of the north (he never owned a cinema north of Oswestry and his country home remained in Kent rather than Cheshire), Bernstein was keen that Granada should reflect the culture and talent of the region and he made a point of encouraging northern writers and artists. At the same time he aimed to reach wider than a purely northern audience. He succeeded beyond his wildest expectations with Coronation Street (masterminded by Derek Granger who went on to make Brideshead Revisited), which transcended its working-class Lancashire setting to become the nation's favourite television programme and the longest-running drama series.

During the 1960s Granada's dramatic output was consistently better than that offered elsewhere on ITV and Bernstein's other main achievement was to raise the quality and incisiveness of television journalism, even if this meant brushes with the Independent Television Authority and the courts over contentious programmes. His bold approach was epitomised by the trenchant current affairs series, World in Action.

He contended that the best way of losing money in television was to assume a moronic level of intelligence among the public. And he objected to the term "highbrow" arguing that it was "impolite to talk to people in terms they do not understand". He preferred to talk of extending his viewers' experience and said that the only way art and entertainment should be divided was between good and bad. Critics sniped that this was a convenient approach that enabled Granada to transmit wrestling as happily as the plays of D. H. Lawrence providing the cameramen knew their jobs. He also encountered criticism for what was seen as a failure to play a stronger role in pushing through artistic and social developments in the North such as the creation of an arts centre. Granada TV did create the Stables Theatre in Manchester, with a permanent company of actors, but it was not a success. However, the universities of Leeds and Keele found in Bernstein a supporter of their departments of politics and communications and he created a chair of Landscape Architecture at Sheffield University. He was also an ardent supporter of the North West Trust and its plans for cleaning up the North of England.

Bernstein was a tall and elegant man with immense vitality and a forceful personality which he stamped indubitably on Granada television. Not for nothing was the picture of Phineas Barnum, the American showman, hung in his offices. Bernstein regarded himself first and foremost as a showman. Respected in the studios and the cutting rooms as well as in the marketing and accounting departments, he surrounded himself with a youthful and enthusiastic band of loyal professionals. He made a point of being familiar with most of his programme-makers and their programmes and displayed a remarkable, some said obsessive, attention to detail. He liked to imagine Granada operated as a democracy and was mystified by suggestions that it was more of mildly tyrannical autocracy. He once shouted at one of his drama producers: "I'm not trying to steam-roller you. I just want you to agree with me." On another occasion he and Derek Granger were bawling at each other because two writers had defected to another company. "It's your fault," Bernstein yelled. "You didn't oppose me strongly enough."

In 1969 Bernstein was created a life peer and, having reached the age of 72, resigned the chairmanship of Granada Television while remaining chairman of the Granada Group. Though television was Granada's best known activity, it had come to represent only 16 per cent of the company's income as Bernstein had diversified into television rental, publishing, bingo, bowling alleys and motorway service areas. He remained chairman of the group until 1979, when he handed over to his nephew, Alex Bernstein, and became life president of the company.

Aside from television, perhaps Bernstein's greatest interest was friendship. His list of friends was enormous and eclectic, and he kept his friendships in good repair, speaking out for those who needed defending, encouraging others. His munificence was very remarkable; he never forgot a kindness and was lavish in helping, surreptitiously, those who had fallen on hard times. Shy he may have seemed but he was also gregarious, a connoisseur of wine and food, an attentive listener and a sparkling talker; dinner at his table was an exhilarating experience.

Bernstein's first marriage to a Daily Express journalist, Zoe Farmer, was dissolved. In 1954 he married Sandra Malone, a Canadian, who predeceased him. The son and two daughters of his second marriage survive him.

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