He’s been labelled the “boy wonder” of British television for a decade but perhaps the broadcasting executive Danny Cohen has finally arrived, at the tender age of 39. As the BBC’s new Director of Television, Cohen’s £1bn empire encompasses the corporation’s drama, entertainment, comedy and knowledge output, BBC Films, the BBC iPlayer and all online content for television.
It’s a big job. But then Cohen, marked out for greatness since leaving Oxford with a Double First, and who rose seamlessly through executive positions at the BBC and Channel 4, is the figurehead of a fast-track generation for whom life ends at 40 if they have failed to scale the summit of their professions. Cohen is joined at the BBC by two former prodigies whose path to prominence was so swift that they are already seeking a second act – James Harding, appointed the youngest ever editor of The Times aged 38, was named the BBC’s Director of News, while James Purnell, who in 2007 became the youngest member of the Cabinet at 37, is the corporation’s new strategy chief.
All are left standing by 28-year-old Kim Jong-un, who became the world’s youngest leader on the death of his father in 2011. Yet the bellicosity towards the United States of North Korea’s upstart tyrant must in part be compensation for his total lack of political or military experience before taking power. Would David Cameron, elevated to Tory leader aged 39, be a more effective Prime Minister if his CV offered more than the slightest interaction with the real world before a life lived between Notting Hill and Whitehall?
The days when a British Prime Minister could leave office at 84, as William Gladstone did (still four years older than that eternal “future PM” Lord Heseltine), are over. But it is still experience which gets the job done. Alex Ferguson shows no sign of bringing his Old Trafford reign to an end after claiming his 20th Manchester United league title at 71. The hottest ticket of the summer is to see Sir Mick Jagger and Keith Richards (both 69) leading a revitalised Rolling Stones at Glastonbury and Hyde Park. The drums are pounding for another Hillary Clinton run at the White House, even though she will be 69 when the 2016 Presidential election is held.
Cohen, who spent less than three years running BBC1 before his promotion, is undoubtedly a talent. His record includes Call The Midwife and The Village, a Sunday night drama so dour that, instead of being sent to bed, naughty children are forced to stay up and watch it. His experience as Director of Television will enhance his chances of becoming a successful BBC Director-General, a position Cohen is tipped to attain by his mid-40s. In which case, the question from his ambitious contemporaries will be: “What kept you?”