Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the British adored variety programmes. And the top variety programme was Val Parnell’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium. It was also probably one of the longest titles in British television.
The Palladium show’s presenters – Tommy Trinder, Bruce Forsyth, Norman Vaughan, Jimmy Tarbuck – became fully fledged stars for compering the programme, with its mix of showbiz acts, audience participation games, popular music and leggy dancers. The queue to guest-star on the show was long, with ATV having the pick of the world’s top talent to choose from every week.
It helped that ATV itself was showbusiness, thanks to businesses its management came from. Val Parnell, the titular head of the Palladium show, was ATV’s managing director and was also in charge of the Moss Empires music halls, theatres and variety circuit. He knew the management of everybody who was anybody. If there was any manager he didn’t know, Bernard Delfont knew them. Delfont’s brother was Lew Grade, deputy managing director (until promotion in 1962) at ATV, and a theatrical agent: he was the management of everybody who was anybody. If he didn’t manage a star, his other brother Leslie did. Even the music at ATV (and today’s Sony-ATV Music is the last gasp of the old ATV empire) was under the management of Val Parnell’s nephew Jack, who also knew everybody in the business.
An appearance on the Palladium was a guarantee of further bookings and a rise up the billing on the circuit. If a “nobody” appeared, they were likely to be signed up by The Grade Organisation and become a “somebody” in pretty quick time. Such was the size of the of this almost incestuous system – ATV, ITC, Moss Empires, Grade Organisation, Delfont Organisation, later even EMI – that the people involved had trouble keeping up.
A, possibly apocryphal, story attaches to Lew Grade. Watching an unknown act on stage, he decided that while they weren’t top-flight, they were not untalented and with the right promotion could go places. When the act ended, he rushed round to meet them. “Your act! It’s great! I’d like to represent you – your current agent is wasting you in a theatre like this!”. “Thanks! We agree,” replied the talent, “and we’re looking to change to someone better!”. “Great!”, said Grade, “I’ll sign you up now and sort your agent out with a finder’s fee. Who is he?”. The act beamed back at him: “Lew Grade!”.