This man holds the keys to Harry Potter, but could he hold the key to even more…

By Razi Hassan and Shakeel Esoof

Mention the name Dan Dark round these parts and you will notice a palpable sense of excitement. To call him Watford’s Willy Wonka wouldn’t be far off – magical things happen behind the doors of the Warner Bros. Studio Leavesden which he manages…

Few would argue that the old Rolls Royce factory and former airfield, has forever carried a charm. Talk to local residents, and almost everyone has a story to tell: “my uncle Rodney worked on laying the airstrip”; “my grandmother worked there during the Second World War”… while for many, including myself, the sight and sound of Concorde flying over-head remain etched in memory for eternity.

Inevitably, when the shutters did come down on the factory in 1992, Rolls-Royce planned to build a golf course and hotel on the site. But, Leavesden deserved more than that, and over the coming years entered a new era of mystique and fascination, eventually becoming the home of Harry Potter.

Dan Dark is an influential man. Despite being the proprietor of one of the UK’s most popular tourist attractions and newest film studios, he is modest. He is also a passionate individual. In previous encounters, I have witnessed a dancing Dan Dark, rouse a room full of benefactors to raise money for The Collet School (a special educational needs school in Hemel Hempstead), and sob without inhibition during an event celebrating the ‘Ability in Disability‘.

The formative years

“I was born in Holland to a Dutch mother and an English film-producer father. I spent most of my childhood in Surrey. I was born and bred into the film industry – it really was very much part of family life.”

Dan would work on his father’s film sets during school holidays, “I suppose the passion evolved from there”. He remembers a phone call he received: “I was in the middle of my O Level’s and got a call from a production coordinator who offered me a role on the Peter Hyams film ‘Outland’ starring Sean Connery. I had to take time off work to finish my O Level’s.”

Dan labels that period as the ‘start of the journey’: “I was a runner making tea and coffee in the days when runners actually had to run around rather than just wander. It was pre-mobile phones, pre-fax machines, pre-internet – God I am that old (he mutters to himself).”

Working his way up the ladder through assistant directing, Dan was involved with most of the James Bond films of that time, as well as some of the biggest special effects blockbusters. This included James Cameron’s Alien, where Dan was part of the team that won an Oscar© for special effects. “It was a really fun time. I was traveling around the world doing boys toys stuff.”

Dan’s career then saw him move to the South of Spain to build a TV studio, which he did, operating the facility for several years before returning to the UK.

“It was 1994, I was walking down the corridors of another film studio and popped in to see the makers of the James Bond films – the following day I came to visit Leavesden, and so the story began. Back then, the whole site had been shut for a few years, it was a spooky place. There were acres of space, and when you opened a door there was the worry of what you might find behind it!”

Over the coming years, Leavesden would exchange hands, transforming itself from dereliction, dilapidation, and despair, into the state-of-the-art facility that stands today. Albeit with the help of a little wizard…

The Harry Potter impact

“The studio would not be here if it was not for Harry Potter. Without question that was the catalyst for Warner Bros. to purchase the site and invest over £150 million. We recognised the value of this kind of property in the UK.”

Today, the Harry Potter Studio Tour is a world-leading visitor attraction: “The quality of the product we have been able to put on display, and the quality of our staff is extraordinary. This is something that we are very proud of and I hope the surrounding community is also. When I talk to friends, local business people, and so forth, they say that they are benefitting from the growth.” 

Being privileged

Dan breaks for a glass of water – it’s a hot day. The interview is taking place in his office, all the windows are flung open and outside is a hive of activity as vehicles move around the facility. The persistent beeping of reversing trucks makes me wonder whether the noise is going to interfere with my audio recording.

Our conversation turns toward the real reason why we are meeting today… social responsibility.

“There isn’t a personal story. I wouldn’t say that there is anything that has happened to me in my career or life that suddenly made me think that I need to do something”. He ponders for a moment. “To give something back is an over-used phrase, we all have a responsibility, it is not something I particularly consider, it is just how I feel and so I act on it.”

Dan Dark is under no illusions, he is in a privileged position and he knows it. “I am really lucky, incredibly lucky to be in the position that I am in. To be able to make a difference in some way, shape, or form, is an honour and a responsibility, and that is how I see it.”

The importance of equality

A passionate advocate for equality in the workplace, Dan hosted representatives from over 140 local businesses, education bodies, and community organisations at a special event in May to raise awareness of the untapped potential of disabled people in the workforce. Pressing him on the topic, I asked him what he is doing at Leavesden to lead from the front?

“This is the beginning of a journey. We have a number of people here at the studio with unique abilities, and we are working to have more.

“My point in hosting the ability in disability event was and remains, changing the mindset of businesses to being open to a unique workforce that is out there, a substantially untapped workforce.

“I am only one voice, but I am pleased that a lot of people have listened and are taking action. I want to be a catalyst to make this happen, but it cannot just be down to one person or organisation to drive this change.

“This is where the ‘Chamber of Conscience’ comes in. It is a mindset, as well as an entity, bringing, business; community; charities; and other organisations together in a more unified and cohesive manner under one umbrella.

“Having someone with Chris Luff’s drive, tenacity, and network at the Chamber of Commerce, and Conscience means that we will see a real difference. I really believe in it, that is why I have agreed to help develop an initial strategy along with another business leader who has also pledged their support.”

Dan also advocates the need to ‘help the helpers’: “through the charities and schools that we have supported, we have seen the value in helping the helpers. There are so many incredible people, doing incredible work to help others.”

Working in the supporting sectors can also be hugely underappreciated and Dan believes that this has to change. “We hosted an inset day for teachers and volunteers from The Collet School here at the studio. We talked to them about the great job that they are doing – it was an opportunity to appreciate them. Too often people working in the supporting sectors do not get the recognition they deserve”. Reflecting on an earlier question, he says, “you asked me what drives me, I have to ask, gosh, what drives these people? They are the real heroes.”

The Watford way

As momentum and excitement from the recent Community Action Day continues a week on, I ask Dan what it is that makes Watford’s voluntary sector so vibrant.

“The mindset of supporting the community has always been here in Watford, but I do not want to isolate Watford, we are actually in Three Rivers, so touch on Watford. But, everywhere I go in this local community I see people doing amazing things.”

Dan reiterates the potential impact of the Chamber of Conscience: “I think what has been missing in all this is the ‘linking together’ which results in a really strong volunteering day or week like we have just had. I have to add that Chris Luff has been a big instigator in all of this. Is this just the start – yes absolutely.

“I do not think you will meet a business out there that does not believe in social responsibility, but it is easier for some than others. This is where the Chamber of Conscience can make a difference because whether you are a small charity looking for support or a corporate with volunteer resource, the structure will facilitate.”

Looking ahead

Dan is an ambitious man, and his endeavours are set to expand further as he looks to bring ‘planet’ alongside ‘people’: “our work in the community has been very focused on people, and I am really proud of what we have achieved so far.

“At the beginning of this year, we took a decision, which was influenced by my own beliefs, but also because of Sky’s Ocean Rescue project to bring people and planet together as a focus. We are not slowing down what we are doing with people, we are just bringing these two pillars together.”

As part of this, the studio is looking to partner with the Building Research Establishment (BRE), “who are just down the road”, Dan remarks. “We have also helped to support the PumpHouse theatre with their play ‘Rainforest Dreams‘ which is raising awareness of the devastation taking place in the Amazon”. The play is going up to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and Dan is joining.

“I am also planning a trip, self-funded, to visit the Amazon and stay with the indigenous Indians to learn about the environment and the problems.”

Sustainability has always been a personal passion of Dan’s, chuckling he says: “it is difficult when you are as old as I am, I struggle to remember what goes into which bin. So, my thing is ‘let’s make it simple’, the easier we can make it, the more likely it will succeed.”

Dan working at the Chios refugee camp in Greece

World class

Returning to the topic of Watford, Dan believes that the town has so much to shout about. “We have got to shout loudly about being one of the most generous towns according to Just Giving. But, what an incredible achievement if Watford became a benchmark in sustainable living also? There is a real drive towards that, it is happening, but these things take time.”

Dan also thinks Watford can go toe-to-toe: “take Imagine Watford for example, I was blown away by the performers, they were outstanding. Look at the Palace Theatre, it is a world-class theatre with a world-class producer, we need to be shouting about this a lot more.

“The town has suffered from a reputation that is unfounded now. We are a strong, vibrant, culturally-diverse, culturally-aware place that has so much going for it.”

I draw the interview to a close by asking Dan to depart a little wisdom in his closing remarks.

“The most important piece of advice I was ever given, was that ‘the worst decision, is no decision at all’. We all make mistakes, but as long as we have the courage to make decisions, and to hold our hands up when we get it wrong, we are heading in the right direction.”