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The Times (26/Jan/1984) - Enter the bashful showman: Lord Bernstein

(c) The Times (26/Jan/1984)

SPECTRUM: Enter the bashful showman

The Times Profile: Lord Bernstein

When, over the years, reporters have questioned Lord Bernstein, pioneer figure of the twentieth-century entertainment world and founder of Granada Television, about his life, he has invariably replied that it has been "90 per cent Luck and 10 per cent Good Luck". He insists on the capitals. It is a short, memorable, showman's phrase, and Bernstein has always professed to be a showman. It is no accident that when Granada was established as one of the first four independent television companies in the mid-1950s, he ordered that a portrait of Barnum, the famous American nineteenth-century circus impresario, be hung on every office wall. It is our duty, he would say, to entertain the public.

To canniness about what people want and respond to, and personal modesty about his own ability to provide it, must be added a second, apparently contradictory trait of character: a desire for secrecy. Bernstein needs privacy. Almost every activity he has engaged in is marked by a determination that as few people as possible should know of his involvement - whether it be his role in the anti-fascist movement of the 1930s, his long crusade to find a site and backing for the National Theatre or his acts of personal generosity.

It is no accident either that he has reached his 80s - he celebrates his eighty-fifth birthday on Monday - with his name absent from most of the ventures that he has been part of, and that of the really successful British entrepreneurs of this century he is probably the least publicly known. His contribution has always to be discovered from others.

Not that this contribution is easy to assess. It cannot be summed up in neat, progressive steps. There are not only his measurable achievements but all those others which he initiated, or paths that he took for a while, then turned away from, such as politics or film production. Had he persevered in almost any one of them, those who worked with him say, he could have accomplished anything. The brilliance, the drive, the energy arc there. Yet at the last minute, he seems always to have stopped short of final commitment, with the result that he has excelled in many areas but reached the highest point in none. Such hesitation makes him a more approachable figure; it also makes him harder to interpret.

The business acumen, which came to him early, has served largely to finance the rest - the plays he loves to put on, the pictures he hangs not just on his own walls, but on all walls over which he has some say, the educational experiments he is concerned with. About himself, he is prone to say that he should have been an architect, for that was where his true talents lay.

Sidney Lewis Bernstein - old Granada hands refer to him as SLB - was born the same year and in the same East End corner of London as Alfred Hitchcock, the man who became one of his closest friends and whose films he produced. He was the second son of a restless, relatively prosperous businessman who had the fortune and foresight to buy himself into the music hall business precisely at the moment when theatre entertainment was reaching a peak popularity.

Bernstein soon showed himself to be more inventive and determined than his eight brothers and sisters, a lean, somewhat fastidious boy with formal good manners and an alert, quizzical smile. By the age of 15 he was begging his reluctant parents to let him leave school and join the business. In any case, he was already a truant, sneaking away to the Ilford Hippodrome for the matinees, to Covent Garden to see Diaghilev, or to Oswald Stoll's Colisseum, where actors performed Roman chariot races on the revolving stages.

Any uncertainty about the final form his future would take was dispelled by the sudden death of his father. The heir to four suburban theatres, Bernstein now led the large family - his elder brother Selim had been killed at Gallipoli - conscientiously and soon very profitably through the 1920s, supervising his brothers' education and his sisters' betrothals and taking his father's place at Friday night Sabbath celebrations.

In describing his life, Bernstein frequently alludes to lucky encounters with the people who, he declares, were really responsible for shaping his interests: Arnold Bennett, who introduced him to the theatre. Iris Barry, who taught him about music and the cinema, H.G. Wells, James Agate, Eisenstein, Sean O'Casey, Teddy Kollek, Charlie Chaplin and many others. To what extent luck of this kind is really luck is highly dubious, but it is certainly true that his meeting in Paris in 1925 with Theodore Komisarjevsky, the Russian theatre director and designer, shaped not just his personal future but that of the British film industry.

By the early 1930s the two men - Bernstein extremely courageous when it came to taking risks, Komisarjevsky highly inventive but also dilatory -were constructing palaces of entertainment in the London suburbs, vast theatres outrageously blending architectural styles, where thousands of people came and marvelled at the marble and the glass, the chandeliers and the carved ceilings, the frescoes and the gold. In 1935 a new Granada was being opened every three months.

Bernstein's interest was not just in appearance. He had returned from a long tour of America convinced that a combination of music hall and the new talkies, with as much ceremony and splendour as could be engineered, were exactly what was needed to provide an escape from the economic fears and dreariness of the Depression. He showed the best Hollywood could offer in the Granada cinemas, and also became a founder member of the Film Society, formed to introduce the masterpieces of European and Russian cinema to a British public that would not otherwise see them. And he built a theatre of his own, the Phoenix, which he opened with the first performance of Private Lives. Noel Coward, Gertrude Lawrence, Laurence Olivier and Everley Gregg made up the cast. Komisarjevsky designed the Phoenix, and Polunin painted it in the style of Giorgione, Titian and Tintoretto.

It was during the 1930s that the mania for detail which became the hallmark of his professional and private style was born. What surprised friends and colleagues was that he could keep so much in his mind at any one time. His unannounced visits to the Granada cinemas became a weekly nightmare for the managers, who learned to dread the arrival of the white Minerva and Bernstein's rapid tread on the steps - a tall man, he moved at great speed, collecting in his wake apprehensive employees - as he called out; "What is this ash doing?" and "Why haven't the posters been changed?" or "That usher has filthy gloves".

This obsession that all things Granada should be best, allied with small foibles - later, legends built up that Bernstein frowned on beards, dangling earrings and suede shoes - brought him respect but also fear. The charm and drive was real, but it could all be a little tough. The toughness was real too. If crossed, cheated or maligned he instantly sued, taking distinct pleasure in the process of litigation, and leaving an assortment of successful libel cases behind him.

He lived in style. He kept a horse and rode in Rotten Row before breakfast. At St Moritz he acted as brake for the Argentinian team on the Cresta run. And if walking across Europe with a knapsack on his back remained his chief pleasure, often with the poet Laz Aaronson as his companion, he was also to be found at London's the dansants, or in the Cafe Royal talking books and pictures with Raymond Mortimer and Augustus John. In November 1936, to the surprise of friends - for Bernstein was as secretive about his love affairs as his business ventures - he married a journalist called Zoe Farmer. She was 24. They were not suited, and the marriage did not long survive the war.

The son of Orthodox Jewish parents, Bernstein has never been particularly religious. But he took up the cause of anti-fascism when he was very young. In 1933, when the Reichstag trial was being prepared in Germany, he provided money and contacts to set up a counter-trial in London, one of the first unofficial trials of its kind, attended by some of the finest Anglo-Saxon legal minds and at which the Nazis, rather than the hapless Dutch suspected arsonist van der Lubbe, were put on trial and condemned.

The late 1940s were an uncertain time in his life. He hesitated about what direction to take (Eileen Wilkinson proposed that he take over the Arts Council now that Maynard Keynes was dead) and finally chose Hollywood, joining Hitchcock as his producer and leaving Granada in the capable hands of his brother Cecil, his closest associate until his death in 1981. The result was three films. Rope, Under Capricorn and I Confess, not Hitchcock's best, but a great deal of fun.

In 1952, he packed up and came home, rather shrewdly since Hollywood, bedevilled by McArthy's witchhunts, the new anti-trust laws and the advent of television, was just embarking on the gloomiest phase of its history. Within a year, he joined the race for the independent television contracts, returned his formidable powers of concentration to the future of his company, and married again. This marriage, to a Canadian, Sandra Malone, was to be a success: three children and the domesticity of family life pleased him greatly.

Granada rapidly became the most respected independent station, with an unparalleled reputation for investigative journalism in programmes such as Searchlight and World in Action. His battles on behalf of the company left casualties along the way. The survivors seemed imbued with what sometimes amounted to a kind of hero worship.

More important, when someone had a good idea and convinced him of it, he would champion it. He saw television as a new medium with which to challenge received wisdom.

However, not even so enormous an enterprise as the creation of Granada Television kept him absorbed for long. By the early 1960s Bernstein was already searching for new ventures and Granada began to absorb publishing houses and bingo, foreign television stations and television rental agencies. Privately, he was busy endowing chairs of drama and landscape architecture in the North of England, the "Granada-land" he made so particularly his own.

When, in the summer of 1969, Sir Harold Wilson offered him a life peerage, some friends were surprised that he used the House of Lords so infrequently as a platform for his solid Labour views, staunchly held since he first became a councillor for Willesden in 1925. Others, however, believe that Bernstein's politics are a matter of faith, not argument, that what he enjoys is reasserting certain tenets of belief and that political debate loses all its charm for him once it is reduced to caveats and the need to accommodate.

In July 1979, when Bernstein had passed his eightieth birthday, he announced that he was retiring as director and chairman of the company to become president for life. His nephew Alex, son of his brother Cecil, took his place as executive, heir to an enterprise that had transformed itself in 57 years from four suburban theatres to one of the most successful of modern British businesses.

Can curiosity be a determining trait in a man's character? Others have been as determined, as secretive, as far-sighted as he is, with as much flair for drama, for making money and building empires. Though perhaps more single-minded, more narrowly focused, they have not been as curious. Bernstein needs to know about everything, whether it be the mechanism of a new camera, the potential in the drafting of a new law, or what that green thing is on the plate of the man sitting at the next table. The manner in which he demands the information is invariably charming and courteous, though it can be imperious, but the fact that he demands it at all is what marks him out.