Danny Cohen (Class of 1992)
Danny Cohen is one of the leading figures in British television. After City (1985-1992), Danny took a Double First in English Literature at Oxford, before a rapid rise through the television industry. From director of documentaries at Channel 4, he became head of E4 then Controller of BBC Three, a rise that culminated in his becoming Controller of BBC One (2010-2013) and then Director of BBC Television (2013-2015).
Danny left the BBC in 2015 to co-found Access Entertainment, an entertainment company that invests in high-quality film, television, theatre and digital productions.
Can you tell us about your current projects and how the lockdown is affecting your working life?
My job is split between different areas of content investment: theatre, film, television and digital. Theatre is obviously shut, completely. My company owns the Theatre Royal Haymarket and we closed in March. We are thinking maybe we might open again in November but I think it could be next spring.
But we continue to invest in developing musicals and plays. And that’s work that can carry on through the lockdown.
We were due to be co-financing two films this summer – one about a Papal conclave and one about the Commandant of Auschwitz - and both will be delayed until next year now.
As a side project, I am an Executive Producer on the JK Rowling Fantastic Beasts film franchise. We were about to start production on the next film and that was paused as well.
TV and film production will definitely begin sooner than theatres can open again – you can work with smaller crews, it’s a controllable space and you can test everyone. I imagine TV production will get going sometime in the summer or the autumn.
What was the age at which you knew you had to work in television?
Even when I finished my degree [in English Literature at Oxford], I didn’t really know what I wanted to do... It was really by chance that I got a chance to work with a television production company and that made me interested in it. I hadn’t really thought about a career in television until then.
BBC 2 was making a documentary about a trawlerman’s son trying to get into Oxford and he happened to be applying to my college, Lady Margaret Hall. For reasons I can’t remember, the college asked me to be a liaison between the students and the production company. I was a runner for a couple of days on the production and I enjoyed it; they offered me some money but I asked if I could go and do some work experience for them instead. So I went to Leeds in the holidays for work experience and ended up working for them after I left University.
Can you remember your first day at City?
I found the first year hard. The hour-long journey was tough and I’d been at quite a small primary school. City was like going out into a much bigger world and that was a challenge for me. My teachers were amazingly understanding and good about that.
What about your last day?
I can’t remember it specifically but I have very fond memories of being in the Sixth Form; just the additional freedom it gave you; you form different relationships with the subjects and the teachers. You can see the end of your time there and what’s coming next and there’s a sense of energy around that.
I enjoyed City more and more the longer I was there, culminating in a really rewarding Sixth Form experience with great teaching and the opportunity to go really deep into the subjects I was most interested in: English, History and German.
I think City benefitted from being ethnically diverse and it benefits from its catchment area being so wide – it’s good for your development as a teenager and an adult. You meet people from very different backgrounds; such a variety of people.
Which teachers most inspired you?
Mr Dyke, the English teacher, had a big effect on me. He did this thing… I’d never seen it before. He’d set out the subject at the beginning of the lesson – read a poem or a section of a novel we were studying - and then leave a long silence, waiting for one of us to contribute. Sometimes the silence would go on for five minutes. And, of course, after a while, no-one wanted to sit through the uncomfortable silence and we got better at responding when he said, ‘What does everyone think?’
It was very powerful. It made you think you had to speak. And that gave me confidence in my own voice.
Mr Blanch and Mr Keats had a big influence on me in English too; and Lionel Knight brought so much colour and energy to our history lessons.
I’m not sure I was the best at German but Mr Reardon, my teacher and form tutor, was a very, very good man and he got the best out of me.
Which extra-curricular activities did you enjoy?
Football was my main one… I played for the first XI in the end. Left-back. I’d been practising in the garden since I was about four. That was all, I think. I was actually happy doing school work!
What was your first experience of work?
I washed cars; I did some summer jobs in shops when I was at City. Then, when I left University, I had the chance to be a roadie for [rousing 80s punk-pop hitmakers] The Alarm. I’d met them and become friendly with them. They asked me if I wanted to tour America with them when I left Uni. It was an amazing experience. We went to about 40 States; a lot of miles in the van. I ended up tour managing because someone fell ill. It was quite hard but it was fun. I knew it would never be my long-term future but it was fun to do while I was thinking about what I would do for my career. In the end, I managed to get my first job in television with the TV production company I had done work experience for during university.
Has working in TV been different to how you imagined it would be?
When you start, you have lots of ideas for programmes but most of them aren’t necessarily very good. Certainly, mine weren’t; the more experience you have, the better sense you get of what makes a good programme and what might interest the audience.
It’s really important to think beyond your own experience. You can tell when someone is really passionate about something but it’s actually quite a niche idea. They’re not thinking about the audience; they’re thinking about what would interest them. The clue is in the ‘broad’ part of the word broadcasting. What would interest a lot of people and not just me? And I had no idea about that when I started. Obviously, I had to learn a lot about the whole TV production process, too…
Are there any perennial ideas that seem strong to lay people but that you, as a TV insider, know could never work?
I have sometimes thought so… but often success can be about the idea having real clarity, about who’s making it and how they approach the material. Take The Big Bang Theory. What’s the pitch for that? “It’s a comedy about three science postgrads who make a lot of science jokes and I believe it can be the most popular comedy globally of its age.” It seems absurd. But the clarity of the idea and the quality of the people involved in it makes that work. That’s quite inspiring creatively.
Call the Midwife was a big hit for you on BBC1, but it had been overlooked by a previous channel controller. What did you see in it that your predecessor didn’t?
The truth is I also turned things down that worked for the person after me… That’s all part of the cycle.
On Call the Midwife, I just thought the writing was exceptionally good and the 1950s felt like a world we hadn’t seen on British TV a lot recently.
One common factor about the shows that helped build my reputation - Skins, the In-Betweeners, Call the Midwife, for example – was that the scripts were so good that the decisions to green-light them weren’t particularly hard.
How much creative tweaking would you do personally when you commissioned a show?
In unscripted shows, you can work with the producers on the format and for a documentary or reality show you can work on the casting and the way the story is shaped in the edit.
In scripted shows, it’s more big-picture things. Sometimes, it can be casting – with the In-Betweeners, I commissioned a pilot and the writing was very funny but the cast wasn’t great. So I agreed to commission a series on the condition that they change the four lead actors. So, sometimes, you do something like that – quite a big-picture decision that has a big impact on what follows.
Do you still have a creative involvement in shows even when you are promoted to director of a channel or of BBC TV overall?
You do, but less. You’re more looking at it from 50,000ft rather than in the detail. I was 26 when I went to be part of the launch team at E4, so I got used to being involved in a lot of projects at once quite early in my career. So, as an executive, I would try to say three or four big-picture things to develop a show, rather than micro-manage it. It’s not your job to direct or produce a project.
The job I felt least creative in was Director of Television at the BBC. When you are running channels you are making decisions every day about what will be on TV and shaping how it’s made. As Director of Television you’re managing the people making those decisions.
Does the move you’ve made now take you back to having a creative input?
Yes. My role now involves finding the best projects and the best talent and giving them money to make stuff. After a career that’s been nearly all television, I wanted to be stretched again, to learn new things. This job allows me to start working with feature films and theatre and more digital content too.
Your early career was in helping launch E4 and BBC3, two channels with a younger outlook... What can TV companies do about the younger audience now said to be in decline?
I think if content is really good, that audience will find it. BBC3 is enjoying a great moment with Normal People being one of the biggest shows ever on iPlayer: they found it because it was a show they wanted to watch.
Not many young people sit down and watch TV at random now – they choose what they want to watch. Having content online where they can stream it is the way to reach that audience so you just need to learn as much about that as quickly as you can. If the content’s right, they’ll find it.
How do you produce shows for young people without having an embarrassing ‘hey, kids’ style?
It’s a great question. Sometimes you get it right. Sometimes you get it wrong. When we made Skins, part of the attraction, as well as the script, was that the producer wanted to get lots of young people involved in the production; so there were teenagers involved in reading and rewriting the scripts if they didn’t sound authentic to them. We had a very young cast too. Good producers understand the tone you need. But some programmes do come undone because they feel like dad dancing at the disco.
What qualities would a 15-year old need to go into your career – and what are the difficult sides of it?
Creativity. Hard work. Showing initiative is really important in television production. When you are in a more junior role, being able to think of what your boss needs before they realise they need it. You also need to be resilient – you can apply for a lot of things and not get them.
I was quite lucky because I worked as a member of staff for a lot of broadcasters, but for most people, it can be quite an unstable industry. You’ve got to be comfortable with a freelance lifestyle.
And one thing I notice when I interview people coming in… some of them don’t seem to watch much television, even the channel they are applying to work for. Which makes them seem not that interested. So, watching a lot of TV, having an opinion on it, when you are trying to get into television, is important.