- Sidney Bernstein by Caroline Moorehead
Cape, 329 pp, £12.95, January 1984, ISBN 0 224 01934 1
‘If ever there was a Christ-like man in human form, it was Marcus Lowe,’ said Louis B. Mayer, head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, in tribute to a colleague. Graham Greene was listening at the time and impaled the phrase in an essay which traps precisely the earnest fulsomeness of Hollywood speech. ‘I understand Britishers,’ Mayer went on, ‘I understand what’s required of a man they respect and get under their hearts.’ The occasion was a pre-war film-promotion lunch at the Savoy, but still today the show-business style of sentimental hyperbole lingers on. You can hear it in the banquet banalities with which people in the entertainment industry present awards to each other; it seeps into passages of Caroline Moorehead’s biography of Sidney Bernstein. ‘In every field, whether art, medicine, the sciences or technology,’ she begins, ‘there are a few figures who stand out, not only for their personal achievements, but for the way they always seem a little in advance of what is about to happen. It is at limes as if they were possessed of a kind of prescience, a prophetic understanding of what should come next.’ Since Sidney Bernstein’s prophetic understanding has consisted chiefly in a canny, highly profitable judgment of popular taste, in knowing when to pull out of music hall and invest in films or television, or turn super-cinemas into bingo halls, the fanfare seems overblown. As the publishers claim, he has played a significant part in almost every development of the British entertainment industry this century. He has never, however, been an innovator, like his friends Alfred Hitchcock and Noel Coward; he has helped-creative talent to flourish, but always as a promoter, a showman. It was his idea to hang a picture of P. T. Barnum in every office in Granada Television. He is arguably the most successful of the television barons.
Lord Bernstein himself steers clear of personal publicity. While Lord Grade fits the conventional image of a show-business tycoon, bouncy, extrovert, waving a big cigar as he talks of billion-dollar deals, ready, until recently, to demonstrate how he was once Charleston champion of the world, revelling in his own products, unrepentantly anti-highbrow, Lord Bernstein is reticent, seldom interviewed. His interests are not those of the public that has kept Coronation Street so high in the ratings for nearly twenty-five years. He owns a Bonnard, a Gauguin, several Modiglianis and a Utrillo and was one of the first collectors in this country to admire Paul Klee. He has a taste for ballet, for the plays of Sean O’Casey and Arthur Miller and the films of Eisenstein. He has contrived to be a lifelong socialist and a millionaire entrepreneur, to believe in democracy and have the reputation of running his company like a tsar. He is involved in many charities, here and in Israel. A man who insists on privacy, he is quicker than most public figures to reach for a writ.
It is a pity that Caroline Moorehead has settled for a soft-focus studio portrait of this complex, versatile, self-made man. She is, as she makes clear in the preface, the daughter of old friends. His lifetime – he was born in 1899 – has spanned twice-nightly variety shows in suburban theatres and worldwide networks of round-the-clock television, yet the scale of the transformation of popular entertainment is never defined. The documentary detail that gives life to a picture is too often missing. The finest testimonials to his character, for instance, are left unsigned. ‘As one publisher put it,’ she writes, ‘it was in the world of books and book-selling that the Medici and the Rockefeller within him finally rolled, without friction, into one.’ You might think that a publisher who made a remark like that would be identified. ‘He is, says one political friend, “untainted by scepticism or cynicism”, an evangelist in politics, a figure of transparent decency and unfaltering standards, and as such greatly respected within the Labour Party.’ Was this, you wonder, the same unnamed friend who is quoted as saying: ‘I have never known anyone who could do something for someone in such an unembarrassing way.’
From the age of 15, when he left school and a few months later persuaded his father, Alexander Bernstein, to employ him on the film side of his small group of London music halls, Sidney Bernstein has been in the entertainment business. When he was made a life peer in 1969, he took as his motto ‘If I rest, I rust.’ He came from a close-knit Jewish family of nine brothers and sisters; for much of his life he worked in close collaboration with his younger brother, Cecil, whose son, Alex, is now chairman of the Granada company. In 1922 the Bernsteins owned four suburban theatres: in 1979, when Lord Bernstein retired from active management, their show-business empire had declared a profit for the previous year of £34 million. Yet his perceptions of financial structure and the nature of entertainment scarcely figure in the book, which offers instead a breathless, name-dropping tour of his life. The tone is reverent; the hero appears as if by magic, an enchanter in a well-cut suit. ‘ “Isn’t this exciting?” Sidney would say to the people he met in the corridors of Granada as he flew past, blue suit immaculate, coat flung over his shoulders, on his way to yet another meeting, another rehearsal. They were charmed, and they believed him. It was exciting, and he had made it so.’ His elegance is much admired. In the Twenties he has ‘his hair short, slicked down and impeccably parted, tie nonchalantly neat, white handkerchief fashionably ruffled’. In 1940 he impresses the Ministry of Information with his perfect dark-blue suit. On a visit to New York in 1945 he loses a trunk containing six of his nine suits, becoming ‘sartorially ill-equipped’.
From an early age, moreover, the friends he made were not such as to look first at his style in dress or at his business ability. His intellectual grasp must have been remarkable: otherwise, as a young man with little formal education he could not have been at ease in Bloomsbury with people like Maynard Keynes, Roger Fry and Rebecca West. Yet the book gives few insights into the character of his mind. His artistic tastes were mainly formed by conversation and travel. With Ivor Montagu and other friends he helped to found the Film Society in 1925, as a means of introducing the work of distinguished foreign directors to this country. Through the Society films by Pabst, Fritz Lang, von Stroheim and Eisenstein, whom Sidney Bernstein had met in Moscow, reached London. He persuaded Nancy Cunard to bring over Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou from Paris in a hat-box. Every year through the Twenties he visited several European countries, sometimes on a walking tour. The name ‘Granada’, which he and Cecil Bernstein gave to a cinema in Dover in 1930, arose from his pleasant memories of a walking tour through southern Spain. Before the war the word ‘Granada’ meant in this country a spectacular movie theatre, often the work of the Russian stage-designer and director Komisarjevsky, who built opulent palaces in Tooting and Walthamstow in a fantastic mixture of styles, High Renaissance, Gothic, Moorish and Louis-Quatorze. For the past thirty years Granada, one of the sunniest parts of Spain, has meant here the television fief Lord Bernstein ruled from Manchester, a region whose franchise he sought partly because he thought the high rainfall would ensure a large audience indoors.
One of the most significant episodes in Sidney Bernstein’s life, clearly related in the book, has nothing to do with Granada. Throughout the Thirties he was sharply aware of the growth of anti-semitism in Germany, and he was determined that, when the war ended, there should be an immediate factual record of the concentration camps ‘to show the German people the specific crimes committed by the Nazis in their name’. He used all his influence as a producer and government film adviser to get the film made. Hitchcock directed it. It is said to be an unforgettable documentary. Six of its seven reels are lodged in the Imperial War Museum, but for reasons that have never been disclosed, it has not been shown in public.
Although Sidney Bernstein’s biggest success has been in operating Granada Television, like other members of the Labour Party he campaigned against commercialisation of the medium. When his company applied for a franchise he wrote revealingly to Herbert Morrison: ‘This does not indicate any change of feeling about commercial or sponsored television: I still think this country would be better off without it. However, if there is to be commercial television in this country, we think we should be in.’ Caroline Moorehead does not analyse Granada’s distinctive contribution to television programming. She devotes barely a page to Coronation Street. ‘Sidney never quite understood Coronation Street,’ she writes, ‘but he appreciated that his company had given birth to something like a miracle. What was more it was impeccably Northern, and it was cheap.’ A regard for economy has always characterised the Bernstein style of management. In the early days of Granada TV no employee, she says, was authorised to spend more than £20 without the consent of a member of the Board. Granada could be penny-pinching, but it could also be generous. Company cinema managers in the Fifties were expected to work six days a week and write their reports on Sundays, but during the war Granada employees in the Services retained their jobs and their salaries. Some of Granada’s other long-running successes have cost next to nothing to produce, programmes like University Challenge and What the papers say, but the company was among the first to spend money freely on investigative journalism and to bring political conferences directly to the screen. The notion of balance, which still hangs over both BBC and IBA, was neatly punctured by Sidney Bernstein more than twenty years ago. The Granada programme Searchlight had presented an angry report on dirty food, on the lack of hygiene in certain restaurants. There was a protest from the ITA, then as now not welcoming to campaigning journalism. ‘What would you suggest I do,’ Sidney asked. ‘Restore the balance by doing a programme on clean food?’
‘Of all Granada’s many facets it was the drama department that was most his own,’ Miss Moorehead writes. The first story editor of the Plays Department, we learn, was Frances Head, ‘a former Vogue cover girl who looked like a beautiful Pekinese’, but the actual plays, the writers, the directors, the actors get hardly a mention. Plenty of witnesses could recall what it was like to work for Bernstein at Granada Television, but Miss Moorehead prefers to say: ‘Soon he became a figure of legendary powers.’ She mentions his obsession with detail, his passion for tidiness, his complaints if telephone directories were stacked in the wrong order, his constant desire to ‘have his own say about every matter, however trivial’, but she does so indulgently, adding that ‘nearly everyone felt affection for him.’ Philip Mackie, once Granada’s Head of Drama, saw things differently. His satirical serial, The Organisation, was dominated by an unseen Big Brother who counted the paperclips of his employees’ lives. More than the other television barons, Lord Grade and Lord Buxton, Lord Bernstein has cared about the quality of his company’s journalism. Such programmes as World in Action and Disappearing World have reflected aspects of his alert, inquisitive nature. It is the more saddening to find his authorised biography displaying the values of This is your life.