GRADE ESCAPE; TV Tycoon Michael Set for a Soccer Transfer as He Pays Pounds 105,000 to Leave Channel 4

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TV boss Michael Grade is to quit Channel 4 after nine years as chief executive.

The bombshell announcement sparked speculation last night that he may launch a second bid to take over Manchester United football club.

The cigar-chomping mogul is also behind a consortium interested in buying legendary movie company Rank Films.

And his name has been linked to the chief executive's post of football's Premier League.

Grade, 53, has paid Channel 4 about pounds 105,000 to be released from the five-year contract which he signed in June 1995.

His annual salary was agreed at that stage to be pounds 450,000 - with a one- off bonus paid from his previous contract of pounds 148,000.

It is believed to have risen since then and to be now more than pounds 500,000. News of his departure stunned colleagues at the station's London HQ.

A close aide said: "He is very buoyant but obviously his feelings are tinged with some sadness. He will unveil his new plans very soon."

Grade is a fierce opponent of government plans to privatise the channel.

He is known to have had disagreements with the station's board over future strategy but will stay until a successor is found.

Chairman of Channel 4, Sir Michael Bishop, paid tribute to Grade, saying: "He has directed this station with skill, determination and style.

"He has successfully steered Channel 4 through its most testing period and campaigned relentlessly on behalf of the company.

"We are hugely appreciative of his contribution and send our best wishes to him for the future."

National Heritage Secretary Virginia Bottomley added: "Michael Grade has made a formidable contribution to British television and to Channel 4 in particular."

Under Grade the station achieved its highest viewing figures and he said recently: "This is the finest job in television. I'll do everything in my power to keep us on top."

He came under fire with claims that he took the channel downmarket. One commentator accused him of being "pornographer in chief".

Grade began his media career at The Mirror when he was 17. He started on wages of pounds 10 a week but arrived every morning in a chauffeur-driven Bentley.

He worked as a theatrical agent - looking after stars such as Brigitte Bardot and Peter Sellers - before moving to London Weekend Television.

Later Grade became controller of BBC1, director of programmes and then boss of Channel 4.

When Anthony Smith, the station's founding father, first heard Grade was to be in charge he exclaimed: "May God forgive them."

A FILM containing scenes of gang rape and child mutilation is being investigated by police after a string of complaints from viewers.

Scotland Yard's vice squad plans to watch 18 certificate The Baby of Macon, which was shown by Channel 4 last Thursday night. …