Brian takes Edinburgh by storm with 11 'Jewish' shows

BRIAN DANIELS has 11 productions at the Edinburgh Festival.

Among his productions - to celebrate the 35th anniversary of Hampstead's New End Theatre -are Tap & Chat with Lionel Blair, Jewish Chronicles starring singer/songwriter Daniel Cainer, Holocaust related dramas The Timekeepers and The Dentist, and Jordan Herskowitz's one man show Jordy Pordy.

Brian's daughter, Alexa Daniels, has also got in on the act by directing The Merchant of Venice and Chekhov's Ivanov.

For Brian, chief executive and artistic director of the New End Theatre, visiting Edinburgh is an annual pilgrimage.

He first took a show to the Edinburgh Festival 15 years ago with She Knows You Know starring comedienne Hilda Baker, which started at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

The show went on to enjoy a West End run where it achieved an Olivier nomination.

"There is something about Edinburgh that is contagious and you want to go back every year," said Brian. "I've always used Edinburgh as a trade fair to find shows and Jewish interest shows are always scattered about.

"One year there was a Jewish play called My Mother's Soup where the actor made a bowl of his mother's special chicken soup on stage and drank it. It was perfect for us and the play went well in London.

"This year I wanted a good helping of Jewish interest shows so people interested in Jewish humour or Israeli writing only have to go to one place for our productions at Sweet Venues.

"Everyone knows Lionel Blair and the other shows offer something for all tastes. I still get the same buzz and what leads up to it."

It is 16 years since Brian's journey started with a pilot to the film Fanny and Elvis by Kay Mellor.

Shortly after he produced Shoehorn Sinatra starring Susannah York at the Kings Head Theatre, Islington, and from there he has been at the helm for hundreds of theatrical shows.

In 1997, Brian bought the New End Theatre, which produces on average 12 to 15 shows a year.

A leading off West End theatre, it has attracted many star names including Judi Dench, Fenella Fielding, David Soul, Jerry Hall and Maureen Lipman.

Though he has many accolades under his belt, the 'buzz' is still present when a new production arrives.

Born in Leeds, the 56-year-old is the eldest of three sons to Peter and Anita Daniels (the family surname anglicised from Danielovitch).

His most vivid memories date from the late 1950s, sitting on a sawdust table swinging his legs in Joe Silver's kosher butcher shop, where his father was a delivery man, watching trams go up and down Chapletown Road.

At Allerton Grange, Brian learned shorthand and typing, a smart move as he enrolled with a secretarial agency after initially working as a warehouse departmental assistant when he left school.

"I was one of Britain's fastest typists and took part in the finals of a national typewriting competition in London in 1978," he recalled.

"I was the only male contender and typed at well over 100 words per minute but didn't win."

Ditching the idea of becoming a journalist, Brian qualified as a teacher of shorthand, typewriting and business studies, but with experience of working in employment agencies, in 1983 he started his own recruitment business, which built into 14 offices nationally.

A new direction soon loomed after a chat with Kay Mellor, who he knew socially.

"Kay was looking for a producer and it sounded more interesting than recruitment," he said.

"I sold my business and started making Fanny and Elvis.

"Kay also had a play called The Passionate Woman opening in the West End. I was sitting with Kay opposite the theatre having dinner and her name was up there in lights.

"Watching people going in I thought, 'what an exciting life that must be to write a play and have it produced in the West End'. Something took hold of me, the film was going to take a long time to produce, so I thought I'd try do some theatre producing.

"I was 40, had no experience apart from belonging to Leeds' Civic Theatre where I did a bit of backstage work and acting, but soon started to enthusiastically produce plays for the theatre.

"When I produced God Wanted A Son at the New End Theatre, a play about mixed parentage, I heard a whisper the owners may want to sell the theatre.

"I approached them, bought it and since have produced hundreds of plays, musicals and events."

In 2003 Brian successfully negotiated the leases on The Players Theatre in the West End and The Shaw Theatre, Euston.

He disposed of the Players Theatre in 2005 to concentrate on building the 450-seat Shaw Theatre into a leading theatre venue where he has presented major international artistes including Elaine Stritch, Dionne Warwick, Eartha Kitt and Michael Feinstein.

As chief executive of Stars and Angels with business partner David Shepherd, Brian looks after the UK management of artistes including Stritch, Warwick, Boy George and Roberta Flack.

"The interesting thing about these icons is when you are standing with them after a show and people come over for an autograph there is nothing you can say to them they have not heard a hundred times before," he said.

"The cost of bringing them over is so high you have to be absolutely certain you can sell enough tickets to cover the costs of flights, accommodation, band and marketing.

"It's very different to putting on small scale shows at the New End.

"It is high risk, but I'm working with American pianist/singer Michael Feinstein, who is doing a big band Sinatra benefit for me at the Palladium to support the New End."

The future is packed with opportunities including a Bouncing Back tour with Boy George and a gig with Rick Wakeman.

"It's not easy, but the skill is booking the regional theatres because some theatres don't have a strong theatre going audience," he said.

"We miscalculated Gloria Gaynor whereas Eartha Kitt was standing room only and we had to put on another show. People said it was the best night of theatre they had seen."

Back on the Jewish theme, Brian produced Golda's Balcony, a play about Golda Meir that ran for a year on Broadway.

Starring acclaimed actress Tovah Feldshuh the show had 21 sell-out performances at the Shaw Theatre.

On the subject of producing, Brian has a simple philosophy.

"It's always worth talking to somebody because you can come across a gem, so don't want to miss it," he explained.

"We are very driven by productions that are financed because the New End does not get a subsidy. We can't just take a play and find the money to put it on unless it has a lot going for it and know it will sell out.

"When Steven Berkoff came to me with his play Sit and Shiver, I knew it would be perfect for our audience at the New End, which is by and large Jewish and the show sold out."

Berkoff, an acclaimed actor, writer and director, appeared at the Leeds Jewish International Theatre Festival courtesy of Brian, who now advises organisers as artistic director.

"The festival didn't figure on anyone's radar until a few years ago, but suddenly it started to put on interesting things," he said.

"We compared notes and I suggested shows I thought would do well in Leeds that I could then take to London or start in London and take to Leeds for a couple of performances.

"The relationship is developing and it's important for the festival to grow in reputation."

Some of the New End productions have gone on to the West End, most notably a show about Robert Maxwell and one with David Soul, of Starsky and Hutch fame.

Between 1991 and 2001, Brian leased the Latchmere Theatre in Battersea where he presented a wide range of work including A Lump in My Throat by journalist John Diamond who, with his wife Nigella Lawson, made a television documentary about his fight with cancer.

The play was subsequently turned into a TV drama which John saw before his death.

"A Lump in my Throat was solidly booked at the New End so we also put it on in Battersea, it was a huge success," he recalled.

An acclaimed writer, Brian has just finished a play about the Yorkshire Ripper's first victim, Wilma McCann.

"Wilma left four children under the age of six when she was murdered in 1975," said Brian.

"Her son wrote a book called Just A Boy about what happened to the children. I've dramatised it, but it will only work in Leeds, Sheffield and, maybe, York."

© 2009 Jewish Telegraph