Interview: Ian Freeman

Ian Freeman

For decades the Grades were one of the most influential families in the entertainment business. Leslie Grade was the booker of some of the world's biggest stars, Lew Grade presided over the introduction of independent television in the 1950's as well as commissioning some of the best remembered TV shows of all time and Bernard Delfont was known as the 'King of Entertainment'. This was no idle boast, as a cartoon published in a 1968 edition of Punch clearly illustrated. In it, a host of celebrities are lined up for 'A Night with the Stars', a red carpet is laid out and the Queen, seeing a car arrive, turns to the waiting throng to tell them, "On your toes everybody-here comes Mr Delfont."

Sadly, with the passage of time, this once great dynasty has diminished to a small group of family members of which only Michael Grade, Leslie's son, is still at the sharp end of entertainment. One family member however, is very active in the world of PR, communications consultancy, and is a very successful freelance journalist.
Ian Freeman is the son of Rita Grade Freeman, sister of the famous trio that ruled over the entertainment world for so long. From his earliest memories he knew that his family were 'entertainment' connected and this was clearly illustrated to him on his 8th birthday. "I had a party and there was a conjuror - and it was Tommy Cooper!" All the other children at the party were thrilled to see the great man, but Ian simply took it in his stride. "It never occurred to me that he might be a friend of the family and all the other kids were saying 'Hey, its Tommy Cooper' and my reaction was 'So, doesn't he come to your parties?'"

Of course Ian knew that his family were quite 'well off' but he always assumed (and it was true in part) that it was because his father, Joe, was a doctor. "With my father being a GP that gave me something of a levelling influence. But even he had a strange existence because one day he'd be in the surgery in Twickenham attending to Mrs Jones' backache, and the next minute he'd be at a party at the Dorchester for Barbra Streisand." The show business side of the family also worked to Joe's benefit because he obviously had a lot of showbiz patients, so it must have been difficult for a youngster approaching his teenage years to keep his feet on the ground. "When I was about eleven or twelve I used to revel in it...I was a horrible little boy and used to show off like mad. Everyone at school used to know about it because they used to get to go to the pantomimes at the London Palladium. For my birthday I always used to take a little party of kids to the Palladium and we'd sit in the Royal Box."

By the age of thirteen, Ian left prep school and went to boarding school at Epsom College, which was the medical foundation college, so it was obviously hoped that he would follow in his father's footsteps, although a life in medicine was not the be all and end all. Ian jokes, "My father would have liked me to be a doctor -'I only want you to do what makes you happy, it's just that I think you'd be happiest if you were a doctor!'" At the time he went to Epsom, Ian didn't really know what he wanted to do. He was very excited about show business being a natural sort of performer and had good presentation skills, which was something he learned from his family, all of who had been performers before they were anything else. "Obviously at that time show business was exciting, but I don't think I'd ever considered it as a career, not at that age".

At Epsom Ian started doing subjects he would need for medicine; physics, chemistry, biology, but discovered that he had no aptitude for the science subjects whatsoever. "So O level time came and I realised I had no chance of being a doctor and my father knew as soon as he saw my O level results; grade one in English, grade nine in chemistry...and he just went 'oh well, that's the end of that.' So it was round the age of sixteen, when I moved into the sixth form that I thought show business would be a pretty fair career on the basis that I had an aptitude for it and I had the right connections." He knew there would be no trouble, "I'm not one of those people who worry about using connections, I think they're there to be used." So Ian left school with three creditable A levels (English, French and History) and went to work immediately for his uncle, Leslie Grade, who at the time owned a small chain of cinemas and who thought that rather than become an agent it might be good for his nephew to go into the cinema side. "I started training in every aspects of cinema management and after about a year I decided that it was awful, so I went to see my uncle Leslie and said, 'I'm not enjoying this at all' he said, 'well what do you want to do' I said, 'I want to be an agent'-he said, 'Okay, be an agent.'"

Ian joined what was then called the Delfont Grade Agency, subsequently to become London Management, in 1969 working for Cyril Berlin, who was a legendary agent looking after people like Des O'Connor, Ted Rogers and Lonnie Donegan. Within the agency they handled just about every big star there was on the entertainment side, then up on the third floor, which they used to call the 'carpet department' -("we were the lino department")- was the posh end where they handled all the actors. "A charming man called Dennis Van Thal used to handle that side, and they represented people like Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud, the legit side as it was known - as opposed to the illegitimate side, because we were just a bunch of bastards!" The agency was run then by Billy Marsh, "A great character who used to smoke about 80 Senior Service a day, there was always ash down his jacket." Ian was at London Management for two years and it was while he was there that he nearly caused a major television strike.

"Cyril Berlin assigned me to work for Des O'Connor who had his own TV series at that time. It was my job to go along to ATV Elstree Studios (now BBC Studios where EastEnders is made) and make sure that Des was all right and get him anything he needed. Then one day, during a rehearsal, Des couldn't find his mike, so as I was standing right next to it I passed it to him." What happened next was reminiscent of a scene from the TV comedy The Rag Trade. "Seeing what I'd done, the scenery shifters' shop steward immediately put a whistle to his lips and shouted 'Everybody out!' and the whole studio, not just our show, but every show that was being filmed at the time, came to a complete standstill!" It took nearly ninety-minutes of negotiation and it was only after Ian had stood in front of all the workers and apologised that the strike was called off and work resumed. At that time Des was recording two shows at a time, one for British TV and one for the US, which went out under the banner of Kraft Music Hall.

"Censorship in the US was much stricter in those days and Kraft Foods sent a representative from America who checked all the scripts to ensure that (a) there was nothing smutty, and (b) that there was nothing that was derogatory to food - for example, in sketches, no one was permitted to spit food out, or remark that a meal was horrible, in case it should reflect badly on Kraft products! The guy used to read the scripts each week and anything he laughed at, he took out!"

In the world of entertainment there are many ups and downs, and one of the biggest downs for Ian was to witness the destruction of one of Hollywood's biggest stars of all time-Judy Garland. In truth that destruction had begun many years before by a Hollywood studio system that in order to keep their investment a bankable one, had fed her amphetamines as a child star in order to keep her slim. When those drugs stopped her from sleeping other drugs were prescribed to calm her down. Eventually she became totally dependent on them.

Bernard Delfont had opened The Talk of the Town in London's West End and it became the venue for some of the top names in entertainment. Following Judy's much-publicised US comeback Delfont booked her for a three-week gig at the Talk. In his autobiography, 'East End West End' published by Macmillan in 1990, Delfont describes how after a fantastic first night Judy's performances began to go steadily down hill. "By the end of the week the audience were no longer on her side. Instead of rapturous applause she heard the shuffles of embarrassment when her voice cracked or she forgot her lines." Delfont wanted to find a way of cancelling the remainder of her contract and told the star that he would not allow her to go on stage again unless she could produce a doctor's certificate to say that she was fit enough. Billy Marsh was asked to find a suitable replacement, but somehow Judy had found a doctor who was prepared to state that she was fit enough to perform.

Ian takes up the story, "I was working backstage helping to look after the stars at that time and Judy was always turning up late, so we had to put Lonnie Donegan on for an hour to keep them entertained while we waited for her to arrive." An audience that had come to see one of Hollywood's biggest stars must have been a little put out with the British skiffle-group singer, no matter how good he was. "One night Judy turned up very drugged and very drunk. She wasn't well enough to go on but insisted on doing so." Ian's mother, Rita, was in the audience that night, and in her own autobiography 'My Fabulous Brothers', published by WH Allen in 1982, she recalled what the mood was like front of stage. "She started to sing but it was an absolute disaster. Then people started throwing things at her - bread sticks, cigarette packets and even glasses shattered at her feet. Then a man from the audience climbed onto the stage, grabbed the microphone and began shouting: "Miss Garland! Your behaviour is disgraceful. If you can't turn up on time why bother turning up at all?" At that, Judy burst into tears and staggered off the stage."

That was her last ever performance. The following morning her husband, Mickey Deans, found her dead in her London apartment. She had taken an overdose of sleeping tablets.

Michael Grade had by then come into London Management and was training to take over the business from his father, Leslie. Meanwhile, Bernard Delfont, who was by then running EMI, had to divest himself of agency work because the monopolies commission had just come in and they (the Grades) were in a great position, which the commission were only too aware of. Ian laughs "With Leslie running the agency, Bernie running EMI and Lew running ATV, you could pick up an artist, London Management handled them, EMI recorded them and ATV gave them a series!"

This kind of practise of course was not uncommon in those days and most agents went to great lengths and sometimes spent many years grooming and nurturing young talent. "It was like the Hollywood studio system where you used to nurture artistes once you signed them and then built them into stars" says Ian. But the business was an ever-changing world and after his two years at London Management, Ian decided to go it alone. "I'd been looking after Dave Dee of the pop group, Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich, who had a string of top ten singles in the 1960's, but now they had split up and I was Dave's agent. We had a couple of hit records and he worked the clubs and he did all right, and his manager, Bob James, said to me 'why don't we go into business together, as agent/manager?' I said 'Yes, great idea', so I went into partnership with Bob in 1971, our first office was in John Princes Street off Oxford Circus. We handled Dave and became known as the 'Has-beens Agency' because we picked up all the old acts that nobody wanted anymore, Ronnie Carroll, The Kaye Sisters, all these people who were still working but weren't big stars anymore, although they had been."

They continued like this for two years when, following a move to Mayfair and a brief association with record producer David Paramor, they closed the agency and terminated the partnership. "That's just the way it was. It was going all right but we were never going to go anywhere with it and we were on a hiding to nothing. We were never going to be the Grades." However, Ian had proved that he could survive in the business on his own terms and not just because of his famous relatives. Now he wanted to try something different. "I'd always liked the advertising business, so I got myself, through a contact, the equivalent of what I suppose was a management-training scheme at a medium size ad agency called Lonsdales, who handled accounts like Abbey National and Toshiba. I was on a six-month training course, but after about three months they said they'd have to move me on a bit faster because they needed people, and I became a supervisor on the agency's second biggest account, which was Paramount Pictures UK. Three years later, Ian ended up at Paramount as Director of Publicity and Advertising in the UK. This is where he started learning about PR.

"All the time I was keeping my showbiz connections going because whatever I was doing it was connected with show business in some way or other. I had a great three years at Paramount, I was Director of Publicity, and we had some wonderful movies like Saturday Night Fever, Grease and Watership Down." Following that Ian went to EMI Films as Director of International Marketing for Europe and South America, which meant that he travelled quite a lot and was out of the country for about nine months of the year. "I spent two and a half happy years there until Thorn bought EMI and closed down the film business. I had a lot of PR experience by this time so I went into business with some friends of mine and we opened a PR agency called Pushbike, and we handled a lot of film and TV work.

"We worked for Columbia Pictures, several video and TV companies, including Channel 4, who in those early days didn't have their own PR department, and that was fine until a number of our clients began going bust and we went bust with them!" Then, at Bernard Delfont's suggestion, Ian joined First Leisure, which was a company Delfont had formed after having bought out the leisure interests of EMI and Trust House Forte. First Leisure owned over 150 leisure venues across the UK, including nightclubs, tenpin bowling centres, health & fitness clubs, bingo clubs and seaside resort operations including Blackpool Tower. Ian stayed there from 1986 until November 1999, when the company was split up and sold.

That just about brings us full circle. Today Ian is happily working freelance again and says that it took him twenty years to discover what he really enjoys doing, and what he enjoys is working in the leisure business. Ian Freeman is an instantly likeable person, whose relaxed style and easy-going attitude gives him an air of youthfulness, which effortlessly belies his 50 years. He comes seemingly genetically predisposed with infectious confidence and a sharply amusing, sometimes wicked sense of humour that reflects the near legendary status of the all-pervading show business dynasty from which he sprang.

He's a genuine pleasure to spend time with.

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Laurence Marcus interviewed Ian Freeman in 2000. Article Laurence Marcus and Stephen R. Hulse

for Television Heaven