In the latest in our series of podcasts Zaki talks to Danny Cohen, who studied literature at Oxford, about his life, career and books that inspire him. Danny is president of Access Entertainment, which invests in film, television and digital companies and content. He was director of BBC Television from 2013 to 2015, having served in senior positions at the BBC before that. At the BBC, he oversaw production of Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing and EastEnders.
You started your career at Channel 4 and moved to the BBC. Tell us about the early stages of your career
I worked principally on documentary at Channel 4, as a commissioner and then head of documentaries and then I moved over to run E4, the youth network.
I greenlit a couple of shows, Skins and The Inbetweeners, in particular, and I think they helped build my reputation. Then I was offered the job of controller of BBC 3, BBC’s youth service.
The first book you’ve selected is Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. Tell us why?
He is my favourite author. Comedy is so hard to write, perform and produce. For me, Dickens is peerless in the way he creates comedy for his characters and creates comic situations. The imaginative depth of the worlds he creates is something I’ve loved since I was a teenager. I read Great Expectations for the first time during my A-levels.
Your next book is The Garden Party and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield (1922). What attracted you to it?
I always had this sense that Katherine Mansfield is under-appreciated. I wish she was more widely read. She died young, in her early 30s, and this meant she only wrote short stories.
I got the sense that she intended to write a novel eventually but she focused on short stories. They’re very beautiful, they’re subtle. She’s an author who makes you very aware that every word counts.
Listen to a clip of the podcast here:
You were appointed controller of BBC One at the extraordinarily young age of 36. What was that like?
I loved those jobs running channels. Particularly at the BBC, you know you are having an influence on culture, you have this very privileged role in deciding what people get to watch or producers get to make. You are very closely connected to what’s going on in public life. That said, those jobs come with ups and downs. Underpinning it all is that I really love story-telling.
You were integral to the BBC’s coverage of the Olympics and Diamond Jubilee. What was that like?
It felt like a wonderful opportunity to be part of something significant in public life. Those events are rightly seen as the BBC at their best, because they involve incredible teams of people.
You are now president of Access Entertainment. Tell us about what your current role entails?
Our company invests in TV production companies, independent film, live theatrical companies and digital content. We also own the Theatre Royal Haymarket. My work is far more commercial than it was at the BBC, but the fundamentals are not that different. I am looking to work with the very best creative talent and find ways to help them tell incredible stories.
You have a particular interest in children’s literature and have also chosen The Skylarks’ War by Hilary McKay, a recent book. What’s so special about this book?
It’s a beautiful story about two children, Clarry and Peter, who grow up at the beginning of the 20th century, with a distant father. They live for their summers in Cornwall which they spend with their cousin Rupert and some other children. World War One then begins which adds additional challenges.
There is something beautiful, timeless, subtle and moving about the writing. You feel their pain and their happiness so deeply. I burst into tears when I finished that book.
Listen to a clip of the podcast here:
Moving on to your Jewish identity, you said in 2014 that you had never felt so uncomfortable as a Jew in the UK. What prompted that?
I said it at a television conference in Jerusalem and didn’t expect it to find its way back to the UK, not that I minded. I felt obliged to say something about the Labour Party moving to the extreme left.
One of the other books you’ve chosen is East-West Street:
I find it a remarkable combination of academic scholarship and personal story. That combination is very hard to achieve. It tells the story of four people, two Jewish lawyers – Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin – and two others Hans Frank [the “butcher of Poland”] and Philippe Sands’ own grandfather who survived the Holocaust. The inter-weaving of those stories around East-West Street has stayed with me.
You are married to author Noreena Hertz. Tell us a bit about her writing and what you have learnt from her books:
I’ve learned that she’s much much smarter than me! I learned how hard it must be to write a book as it’s a very intense, singular process. It’s given me even more admiration for people who write books. Her new book, to be published in September, will look at the crisis of loneliness growing in the 21st century.
You’re a big Liverpool football fan and a lover of sports books. Any favourites you’d like to mention?
Whenever I go on holiday, I like to read at least one sports book. The latest one I read was James Milner’s Ask A Footballer. That said, I probably specialise in 1980s Liverpool biographies.
Danny’s Page turners
- Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
- East West Street by Philippe Sands
- The Garden Party and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield
- The Skylarks’ War by Hilary McKay
- Ask A Footballer by James Milner
Listen to the full podcast here: