Look who’s Aukin! David behind classic British films

By Simon Yaffe

DAVID Aukin is one of the lucky few who consider their job to be their pastime, too.

The producer and director is the man who commissioned such hit films as Shallow Grave, Four Weddings and a Funeral and Trainspotting while head of Film4.

He spent eight years as head honcho of Channel 4’s film arm, a position he was recruited for after making his name in the theatre world.

Now 75, David is head of drama at Daybreak Pictures, which he formed with Hal Vogel.

It has made films Hyde Park on Hudson, starring Bill Murray, and Endgame, as well as award-winning dramas such as The Promise, The Politician’s Husband and Sirens.

In his previous role as head of drama for production company Mentorn, among David’s portfolio were The Government Inspector, The Hamburg Cell, Britz and A Very Social Secretary.

Yet things may have been very different for him had he chosen to stay in law.

After reading the subject at Oxford, David followed his father, Charles, into the profession and practised for two years.

He had, on graduating, a job at the Royal Shakespeare Society waiting for him, but decided to pursue his legal studies.

“I had always had ambitions to work in theatre,” David told me.

“My father was a lawyer and I did enjoy it for a time, but when he retired I was offered a partnership.

“However, I didn’t much care for the junior partners, so I had to leave.”

But law’s loss was theatre’s gain.

David set himself up as a producer and also worked as a literary adviser at the Traverse Theatre and for Granada Television in its legal department.

In 1974, together with David Hare and Max Stafford-Clark, he co-founded the Joint Stock Theatre Company, where he presented numerous fringe companies in the UK and abroad, and also brought fringe companies to the theatre.

Four years later, David was appointed artistic director at the Hampstead Theatre.

There, he produced numerous premieres, including Salford-raised Mike Leigh’s Abigail's Party and Harold Pinter’s Hothouse, as well as the stage version of The Elephant Man.

David was appointed artistic director of the Haymarket Theatre, Leicester, where he premiered Me and My Girl, which went on to win many awards in the West End and on Broadway.

In 1986, he was appointed executive director of the National Theatre, which he ran with Richard Eyre until 1990 — when he was headhunted to be head of film at Channel 4.

London-raised David has roots in the arts world.

He said: “The arts has always been important to me. My mother was an accomplished musician and my sister Liane, who died last year, was an actress and writer.

“Artists and musicians would be in and out of our family home.

“At the time, I took it as the norm, but looking back now, it is quite special.”

His father, Charles, was born in Belarus, while his mother, Regina, was born in Germany to Polish parents.

“Before the Second World War, my parents had been more religious and had a kosher home,” David explained.

“I think the war was the turning point, but they remained culturally Jewish.

“We had the Friday night dinners, we went to shul on the High Holy Days and I was barmitzvah.”

He met his wife, American-raised producer and director Nancy Meckler, through a mutual friend, actress Annabel Leventon.

“I followed her back to New York, which is about the only romantic thing I have done,” David laughed.

“It was my first time in New York, so I was like, ‘wow’, and I forgot about Nancy!”

He is evidently kidding, as the couple married in 1969 and have two children, Jethro and Daniel.

At first, David was reluctant to move to Channel 4, as he didn’t feel he had the qualifications for it.

He recalled: “Stephen Sondheim wrote the musical Sunday in the Park with George, which talks about the relationship between money and art and how you reconcile the two.

“When I was working in theatre, we had to find the money and I was forever being challenged.

“I was being consumed with union meetings, sponsorship meetings and committee meetings.

“When it came to Channel 4, I didn’t feel qualified, but I was told that didn’t matter as they wanted me for my taste and judgement.

“I realised deep down that I had a vast knowledge of cinema and an encyclopaedic knowledge of films which I had seen.

“It was wonderful at Channel 4 because there were no committee meetings and I was there to select the right project.”

In 1990, there were, arguably, few quality films being churned out by the British film industry.

But that started to change in the early part of the decade, with David the man behind it.

First came Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies, which also won the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival.

Then there was Four Weddings and a Funeral, which won numerous BAFTAS and other awards, followed by Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, both directed by Danny Boyle.

David recalled: “I would say that one of my great strengths in the role was my ignorance, but I could still tell who the good filmmakers were.

“Once I commissioned them, I trusted them.

“Trainspotting was really the breakthrough film because it is fair to say that no British film previously had recouped its cost, but it did just that and sold all over the world.

“I remember Danny Boyle, producer Andrew Macdonald and writer John Hodge telling me that they had met with a company which loved the Trainspotting script, but they wanted the iconic toilet scene (where Ewan McGregor’s character Renton disappears down a disgusting toilet bowl) written out.

“I told them that it should stay, so I was protecting the script in that respect.”

David’s time at Film4, where he received BAFTA’s Michael Balcon Award, came to an end in 1998.

“I felt it was the right time to hand over the reins to someone else and move on as I felt there is a limit to how long someone can stay in one job,” he said.

David returned to his freelance roots and, after making the Channel 4 film The Hamburg Cell, which told of the events leading up to 9/11, he was asked to form the drama division for the production company Mentorn.

He churned out a variety of politically-themed series, such as controversial The Government Inspector, about the death of Iraq weapons inspector David Kelly; Britz, which told of a British-Muslim brother and sister in Bradford; and A Very Social Secretary, about the affair between then-Home Secretary David Blunkett and publisher Kimberley Quinn.

After setting up Daybreak Pictures with Hal Vogel, the company made the 2011 Channel 4 series The Promise.

Directed by Peter Kosminsky, it focused on a woman who goes to Israel to find out about her soldier grandfather’s involvement in the final years of the British Mandate in then-Palestine.

But it attracted widespread criticism in the British-Jewish community for an alleged anti-Israel theme.

David, however, is unrepentant that it wasn’t.

He explained: “There are elements of the Jewish community which are hypersensitive to any criticism of Israel.

“What many of them seemed to overlook with The Promise was that there was a very strong defence of Israel and for its existence.”

David is no fan of current Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, though.

“I have relatives in Israel and am concerned for its future,” he added.

“I worry that its government is self-defeating and that is not the way to ensure its safety.

“Israel was supposed to make the world a safer place for Jews, but that has not been fulfilled.”

Much of David’s work tends to tell stories with a moral message.

Does that come courtesy of his Judaism?

“I’d hope so, but it is not for me to judge, although there is clearly something linked with my Jewish background,” he replied.

“There are certain kinds of stories which I am attracted to,” he said.

“When somebody comes to me with an idea, I do ask, ‘what are we trying to say here?’”

Ever busy, he is abut to start work on a film called Denmark.

Set in the valleys of South Wales, it tells of a man who watches a documentary about Danish prisoners.

“He sees that the prisons are air conditioned and that the prisoners receive three meals a day and their own television set, so thinks, ‘this can’t be bad’,” David explained.

“He hatches a plan to go to Denmark to commit a crime but, of course, things don’t work out in the way he hoped.”

Next year, David is also planning to make a film in Australia about the outlaw Ned Kelly, based on Peter Carey’s bestselling book True History of the Kelly Gang.

© 2017 Jewish Telegraph