The Bootleg Files: Salute to Sir Lew – The Master Showman

BOOTLEG FILES 732: “Salute to Sir Lew – The Master Showman” (1975 TV special with John Lennon, Tom Jones, Peter Sellers and Julie Andrews).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Music clearance issues are keeping it out of release.


John Lennon fans know that the ex-Beatle’s last live performance took place in a 1975 television special honoring Sir Lew Grade, the British television executive. Oddly, Lennon’s time on stage seemed strangely out of place in a show that offered an overripe line-up of 1970s kitsch.

Sir Lew Grade was the Russian-born champion Charleston dancer who became a driving force in British entertainment via ITC Entertainment, which produced and distributed television programs around the world. From the 1960s through the mid-1970s, Grade’s company filled the small screen with such gems as “The Saint,” “Secret Agent,” “Thunderbirds,” “The Prisoner” and “The Persuaders.”

In 1975, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences – the folks behind the Emmy Awards – decided to host a special event honoring Grade’s contribution to the television industry. The event was held at New York’s Hilton Hotel on April 18, 1975. The proceedings were recorded and later broadcast under the title “Salute to Sir Lew – The Master Showman.”

This production opens with a view of the A-list talent gathered for the event – fleeting glimpses of Kirk Douglas, Goldie Hawn, Lauren Bacall, George Segal, William Conrad, Mike Connors and other stars can be seen in the stellar audience. “Salute to Sir Lew – The Master Showman” literally gets off on the wrong foot with a performance by Dougie Squires Second Generation, a British song-and-dance squad who offered a tacky revue number that, in retrospect, brilliantly personified everything that was joyfully wrong about 1970s entertainment.

This dubious opening was followed by the nominal master of ceremonies, the Irish comic Dave Allen. This was a strange choice because Allen was unknown to U.S. audiences, and his comments about Grade’s penchant for cigars – he was called the “man who keeps the Cuban economy alive” – was lost to viewers on this side of the Atlantic.

Allen was followed by Tom Jones, who became a household fixture in the late 1960s and early 1970s via a Grade-produced variety show. By 1975, the Welsh singer was sporting a significant afro-style hairdo and squeezed himself into a tight tuxedo with bell bottoms, along with high-heeled shoes. Jones’ vocalizing may not have resonated with the all-star audience – he only received polite applause – but his incessant pelvic thrusting certainly rang the chimes of more than a few emotionally frustrated housewives watching the show on television.

After a brief return of Dave Allen, the next performer on the schedule was Peter Sellers. The screen icon was not given the best material for this show – a labored quick-change act behind a screen (with an obvious double appearing in outlandish costumes) followed by the appearance of a cute-but-intrusive dog and a musical number with Sellers singing while strumming the ukulele. Anyone expecting “Goon Show” or Clouseau-worthy clowning from Sellers was in for a big disappointment.

By now, “Salute to Sir Lew – The Master Showman” was at the midway point and, incredibly, John Lennon came out at that moment – he was not given the closing act status reserved for the biggest talent on the bill. While Lennon was not above making unexpected appearances on television during that time (consider his guest hosting on Mike Douglas’ daytime talk show or lending his support to Jerry Lewis’ telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association), this was clearly not a labor of love for Liverpool’s favorite son. In 1969, Grade acquired the rights to more than 100 songs penned by Lennon and Paul McCartney during their Beatles collaborative years. Lennon sued Grade in 1974 and the two reached an out of court settlement, with Grade remaining as co-publisher of Lennon’s new songs.

For his number, Lennon dressed in a strange red leather jumpsuit and was backed by a band formally known as Brothers of Mother Fuckers but introduced to the starry audience simply as “Etc.” The band wore skullcaps with face masks attached to the back of their heads while Lennon’s hair was slicked back and his eyes were hidden behind sunglasses. Lennon performed three songs during the live show in a strangely enervated manner, but only two songs – Little Richard’s “Slippin’ and Slidin’” and a version of “Imagine” with a few new lyrics were part of the broadcast. Lennon’s third song, “Stand By Me,” was inexplicably cut from the televised version but can be found online.

The closing act status was given to the star who was considered the bigger draw in 1975 than Lennon: Julie Andrews, who had a TV variety show produced and distributed by Grade’s ITC Entertainment. Andrews did a medley from “My Fair Lady” and “The Sound of Music” (but not “Mary Poppins”) and was joined by Tom Jones for a lyrical duet. Andrews’ solo segment was fine but not sterling – she seemed to be coasting on automatic pilot – and her chemistry with Jones was nil. But the all-star audience seemed more enthusiastic over Andrews compared to what came earlier.

Grade himself eventually turned up on the stage to accept a plaque from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and did a brief version of the Charleston dance that established him in the entertainment world of the 1920s. The lamentable Dougie Squires Second Generation bunch followed Grade to close the show with another tacky dance number, with Jones, Sellers, Lennon and Andrews briefly returning to take the audience’s applause.

“Salute to Sir Lew – The Master Showman” turned up on ABC on June 13, 1975, but made little impact with American audiences; the show received more attention when it played on British television. The Lennon connection ensured the production would not disappear into obscurity, but clearing the music rights to the songs guaranteed that it would not be easily rereleased in any home entertainment format. The entire show can be found on YouTube, but only the most rabid completists of the Lennon, Jones, Sellers and Andrews canon would be interested in its offerings.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

Listen to the award-wining podcast “The Online Movie Show with Phil Hall” on SoundCloud