The most striking thing about Baron Grade of Yarmouth is his gravelly nasal voice. It’s classic Estuary English and he sounds a little bit like Michael Caine.
“Not a lot of people say that. I can sound posher if you want,” he quips when I put it to him.
There are only eight years between the two Michaels, but unlike the chippy working-class Caine from Rotherhithe, fellow Londoner Grade was born into television royalty.
He makes his stellar career sound like one long effortless breeze, as if he never put in a shift in his life. He is also shameless about the nepotism that helped him early on.
His uncle was the renowned cigar- chomping Lew Grade who started ATV, while his dad was showbiz agent Leslie Grade.
After school, Grade said he had no idea what to do so his father pulled a few strings and got him a job working at the Daily Mirror as a sports journalist writing about football in the Sixties.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do and Dad said, ‘You love your sport and I can get you a job as a sports writer’. I said, ‘Well, that will do’, so I started on £10 a week at the Mirror.”
But a career in journalism didn’t last and after six years at the paper he went back to work aged 23 at his father’s talent agency business when the elder Grade became ill.
His uncle Bernard Delfont — himself a famous impresario — phoned him up and said: “Look Michael you’ve got to get serious now. You should stop being paid to watch football. Better get serious and come in the family business.”
But as the family business came to a demise it wasn’t long before he made his way into TV, where he was quick to establish himself.
He started off at LWT in 1973 as a controller before making his way to become head of BBC1 in 1984 — which he says was in a mess back then.
Not short of an opinion or two, he ruffled some feathers at the BBC, including giving Doctor Who the chop while he also considered ditching Blackadder.
On Blackadder he says: “They were all running around the hillsides in Wales trying to shoot a Hollywood comedy on a BBC minuscule budget. I made them come into the studio and do it with an audience. And the rest is history. I saved them from themselves.”
On Doctor Who he’s even more scathing: “I hated Doctor Who. I said to the producer, ‘Do you go to the cinema much? Have you seen Star Wars or ET?’ He said yes. I said, ‘I’ve got news for you so has our audience. What we were serving up as science fiction was garbage’.”
Grade says he was fortunate to work in the glory days of TV in the Seventies and Eighties when advertising budgets were plenty and there were only a handful of channels on UK TV screens.
He adds that life was easier and he would commission TV series in the gents if he was standing next to the head of drama. Today he believes bureaucracy is so endemic that commissioning would probably take six months.
But perhaps if he had been less blasé he would never have commissioned Mind Your Language in 1977 when he was at LWT.
The sitcom was set in an adult education college where foreigners were taught English. It was panned by critics for being racist and stereotyping people. Grade doesn’t bother to defend it and says it quickly ran out of steam.
Bureaucracy grates with Grade and it was something he fought against when he rejoined the BBC in 2004 as chairman, shortly after Gavyn Davies was forced to resign in the wake of the Hutton Report.
“I was hired after the death of Dr Kelly and the place was in complete meltdown. It needed steadying.”
He only lasted three years, which he says is the norm for him in the public sector.
“We were trying to get the new charter from the Blair government and we were getting advice. I remember saying in a meeting, ‘The problem with this bloody place is everyone thinks they own it,’ and my head of the secretariat leans over and says, ‘Chairman they do’.”
After the BBC he became chairman of ITV in 2009 but by then the industry had changed dramatically and the broadcaster was in rapid decline. He completed two years amid a terrible TV advertising recession.
Unsurprisingly for a man who loathes bureaucracy he is no fan of the European Union and believes Prime Minister Boris Johnson can deliver a deal.
He was made a Tory peer in 2011 when David Cameron was in office and sticks by both Old Etonians despite their public vilification.
Grade belongs to that shielded group of wealthy men — Jacob Rees-Mogg included — whose attitude towards a potential economic downturn caused by Brexit seems too casual.
The standpoint is hard to fathom, given most Londoners get by on a minimum wage and would find a downturn just a decade after the financial crisis crippling.
“The Remainers’ arguments are mostly economic but I am prepared. We are a resourceful nation, what we’ve been through over the past 100 years. Banking crisis, recessions, world wars, you name it, devaluation of the pound. We’ve been through everything and come out the other side.”
Grade’s current projects include senior roles at two AIM-listed media companies, Reach 4 Entertainment and One Media IP.
He’s particularly excited about Reach 4 Entertainment and its chief executive Mark Boyan, who he believes is as talented as Ocado chief Tim Steiner. Grade was non-executive chairman of Ocado from 2006 to 2013.
His downtime is spent in the theatre — which he prefers to TV — and he recommends Trevor Nunn’s Fiddler on the Roof at the Playhouse Theatre.
“I love the theatre. Oh yes. There’s no experience like it. You can’t stop the show and go get a beer.”
At 76 he may have slowed down but he’s still show business.