Bernard Delfont in Whitchapel by John Rennie
Bernard Delfont in Brick Lane
Three-year-old Boris Winogradsky stood bawling his eyes out. He was lost and a long way from home. To make things worse, he was trying to speak Russian to the confused PC trying to help him.
It was 1909 and the scene was Brick Lane. His father Isaac arrived and, in fractured English, laid claim to young Boris. The family had already journeyed across Europe, from the tiny Ukrainian town of Tokmak, via Hamburg and Tilbury, to make their home in Spitalfields. They weren’t going to lose their youngest member that easily.
Nearly 80 years later, baby Boris would have been through a handful of name changes, becoming Barnet then Bernard, with Winogradsky becoming Grade then Delfont. He would finally find himself Lord Delfont, part of Britain’s most famed entertainment dynasty, theatrical impresario and producer of movies such as The Deer Hunter and the Jazz Singer. As he muses at the end of his autobiography*, ‘I am a most fortunate man.’
Of course most of it was down to hard work, persistence and ambition. The Winogradskys had left a simple life in Tokmak, ‘centred on a house, a garden and some trees’. Now there was no house, no garden and certainly no trees, just a room above a Brick Lane store. As his mother Golda complained to Isaac ‘Don’t we deserve something better? Have we come all this way to live above a shop?’
It was the start of a perpetual drive to something better. A fortunate move to the still-new Boundary Estate soon followed. And Isaac supplemented his work in the garment trade by running a small (and unsuccessful) cinema in the Mile End Road. Meanwhile, he and his wife had a double act, singing Russian folk songs at the Mile End Pavilion, better known as the Yiddisher Theatre, where there was always a sentimental audience for songs from back home.
Isaac’s further venture into the rag trade with his eldest son, who had left Rochelle Street School at 14, was soon to end. Lew – the immigration officers at Tilbury had replaced the Russian ‘Lovat’ with the Anglicised ‘Lew’ just as they had redubbed Boris ‘Barnet’ – was a precocious child. Though barely into his teens, he had been the driving force to set up a profitable embroidery shop with his dad, but then called a halt. Young Winogradsky announced to the family he was following his parents onto the stage, taking to the music halls as a dancer. Lew shortened the family surname, calling himself Lew Grade. His parents were horrified, but changed their minds when they saw the good money he was making.
Meanwhile Barnet, three years younger, had to admit that ‘the fruits of learning were not for me … I was more interested in having fun.’ Fun consisted of making lots of friends, enjoying lots of laughs and developing a nascent stagecraft – practising funny walks and gurning facial contortions. His enduring memory of Rochelle Street wasn’t the lessons but the Zeppelin air raids. Air raid precautions took the primitive form of a man sounding a wooden rattle to warn the pupils to take cover.
There was little shelter of course. Long before the days of Bethnal Green underground, the Winogradskys and their neighbours would trek to Old Street tube. And though the lumbering airships looked harmless, the damage they did was real enough. The real target was the docks, but not far from Barnet’s Henley Buildings home, a stick of bombs was to wipe out an entire street, killing a dozen people.
By 1920, he was at Stepney Jewish School, and it was their Barnet’s habits got him into trouble. He was making a good living running a football sweepstake each week. So good was business, that the young West Ham fan decided to up the ante by increasing the prize to sixpence.
The regime at his new school was stricter than at Rochelle Street, though. An eager-eyed teacher called him to the front, and Barnet opened his hand to reveal a bunch of slips reading ‘Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United’. A swift caning and Barnet decided school was not for him. At the age of 12 he never went back, and was soon to follow his big brother onto the stage.
Last week we left the young Barnet Winogradsky, aged 12, a school dropout. Having travelled the breadth of Europe fleeing the Russian pogroms, it looked like the boy had come a long way, but wasn’t to go much further.
But that reckons without an enormous helping of native intelligence, ambition and chutzpah. Over the next decades, Barnet would become by turns a performer, agent, impresario, and finally businessman. With his brothers he would found a showbiz dynasty that, during the sixties, appeared to monopolise UK entertainment.
First Barnet hit the London stage as an ‘eccentric dancer’ – the high-speed hoofing you see in early 1930s Hollywood musicals. A false start saw him reject his first job, in a revue’s chorus line for famed producer Thomas Convery. ‘I’m not accepting three pounds. I want fifteen pounds a week,’ demanded the pushy Barnet. Thirty seconds later he was back out on Oxford Street.
Accepting fellow East Ender Albert Sutan’s advice that ‘you’re aiming too high … start at the bottom like the rest of us,’ the two formed a duo. They Anglicised their names, becoming Grade and Sutton. The bookings came thin and slow. In desperation their agent tried a name change (‘the business isn’t big enough for two Grades,’ he opined) and dubbed the pair the Delfont Boys.
Bookings all over Europe followed, Paris and Berlin being an eyeopener for the naïve young cockneys. Bust-ups followed too, and when the patronising Albert (later to be reborn as comic Hal Monty) tried to squeeze Barnet (now called Bernie) out of the act, he was rewarded with a punch on the jaw.
Back in London Bernie needed a new partner, and found promising young dancer Toko. But approachin 30 he could see the writing on the wall. Eccentric dancing was hard work, would never top of the bill and was gradually going out of fashion. Bernie took the advice of old East End pal, tap dancer Keith Devon. ‘You’re a businessman, a natural. Why don’t you go into management or set up as an agent?’ And with the encouraging words of Elsie and Doris Waters ringing in his ears (‘We know you’ll be a big success,’ said Elsie. ‘We bring luck.’) he did just that.
It was tough up against established agencies, and he started off, on commission-only, for brother Lew. Lew showed his tough side when Bernie asked for a loan to go out on his own. ‘How can I lend money out of the business to set up my own brother as a competitor?’ Lew pleaded. But the 1940s saw Delfont establishing his own agency, then expanding into theatre production. And by 1947 full-page ads in the Mail and Express were boasting ‘You’re never far from a Bernard Delfont family show.’ The Delfont name was on 14 West End and touring productions plus numerous seaside shows.
By the late fifties, with Delfont running a stable of West End theatres, with agent brothers Lew and Leslie Grade supplying the acts. They’d hardly started though. Into the sixties and Lew was now in TV, as boss of ATV. It made sense for the new TV bosses to look to their variety background for talent, and Delfont’s West End reviews would frequently find themselves on screen. Bernie was now staging the Royal Variety Performance and reinventing London revue with the massively successful Talk of the Town, which was finally to close in 1982.
Delfont was also juggling multiple jobs, finding time to buy up and rejuvenate much of Blackpool seafront (including the Tower, Tower Circus and two piers) for his friend Charles Forte. And in 1966 there was another demand on his skills. Brother Leslie suffered a stroke. With Lew fully occupied at ATV, Bernie stepped in to run his brothers’ company, The Grade Organisation. The success of the organisation was attracting interest, and a bid came in from recording giant EMI. There was only one proviso, that Delfont come with the package.
Delfont had reservations ‘I was not a company man but an independent … a middle-aged businessman who had left it a bit late to start as a corporate executive.’ Nonetheless as chairman and chief executive of EMI Film and Theatre Corporation he built a successful complement to the recording business, funding films as diverse as the Go Between and Mutiny on the Buses. But having steered a merger between EMI and Thorn he was in for a shock. The rules of the newly formed company dictated he must retire, as he’d just turned 70.
There was to be little slowdown. He negotiated the sale of the leisure division to old pal Charles Forte at Trust House Forte, and then just a year later spun the company off again, buying the leisure side and renaming it First Leisure. By now ennobled as Lord Delfont, the East End boy never slowed down until his death in 1994. His legacy lived on … for a while at least. Nephew Michael Grade would head up First Leisure until the company broke itself up in 1999.
East End, West End by Bernard Delfont, published by Macmillan, ISBN 0333511905