Behind the scenes at Bollywood Carmen

Thursday 6 June 2013, 19:23

Jon Jacob Jon Jacob Editor, About the BBC Blog

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It’s threatening to rain in Bradford the day I visit to attend the first rehearsals for BBC Three’s Bollywood Carmen Live. It’s the first time I’ve been to Bradford, so I end up taking the circuitous route via the National Media Museum, through what will be the ‘set’ for the open-air show – City Park – and on to the rehearsal venue Kala Sangam.

I’m a few minutes inside where the production team and cast have set up for the next ten days and I’m still no closer to getting a handle on what exactly Bollywood Carmen Live will be when it’s broadcast. That’s because this hour-long Bollywood style re-imagining of Bizet’s enduring classic opera Carmen has been created both for an audience (present in City Park) and with television in mind too. There are no previews available and no clip sequences to get a flavour of the show. There are just press releases, calls for volunteers, trailers, and scheduling information. There’s nothing tangible .. yet. Until then, on this first day of rehearsals, Bollywood Carmen Live is an idea in the heads of a director, musical director, choreographer, producers and Bradford City Council.

From a blogging perspective, that’s a tough ask. How you do write about something you’ve no real frame of reference for? How can you write about something you’re not going to get a chance to see a preview of? What is this thing? What will it be like?

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A story of destiny, seduction, deceit and tragedy

Of course, it’s only now – writing this post a week after I’ve returned from Bradford – that I appreciate where that eagerness to know what the live event will be like stems from and how it’s a measure of where television has come in sixty or so years.

This past weekend, BBC Parliament played out the 1953 Coronation in its entirety. I was hooked by proceedings. I was swept away by Sylvia Peter’s 1953 in-vision announcement, and totally entranced by the magic promised to approximately 20 million people by this new-fangled television. I knew it was 2013 on Sunday morning when I watched, but still my heart raced at the thought I might be watching with the same fresh eyes as someone who’d never watched television before in 1953. I was gripped. All day.

No-one knew then what a Coronation service was like. All they knew was that they were going to see one in front of their very eyes for the very first time.

True, Bollywood Carmen Live may not have the mystique of a monarch being crowned, but it does have similarities. Also, my eagerness to see what the live programme will be like before its broadcast – an impatience, in a way - shows how in the sixty intervening years since television’s landmark moment, we’ve been treated to such a host of programming that the formats themselves have become a frame of reference for the viewer. Mix the formats up a bit, and then people like me struggle, feeling as though we need to know what something will be before we sit down to watch it. ‘A leap of faith may possibly be what I need to employ here,’ I think to myself.

The Bollywood Carmen production team TV production stripped back to the essentials.

Oliver MacFarlane – Co-Executive Producer on the project – helps root the show into a frame of reference I can understand in ‘BBC’ terms. A piece of hour-long entertainment which draws inspiration from Bollywood and other Western pop and reworks an opera updated for the present-day, rooted in Bradford. This isn’t a live-relay OB of an event (like the Last Night of the Proms or the Olympics) nor is it a strict adaptation of an opera for television.

Oliver explains the various divisions and departments who have been crucial in getting the idea off the ground – BBC North, Music Television and BBC Learning to name a few – and what’s involved in getting something like this particular idea ‘to air’. Such is his detail and succinctness, there are times when I feel as though I’m line-managing him and he’s giving me his weekly update.

Had we spoken in London I probably would have glossed over the detail he offers me. But here in Bradford the production team is stripped of its usual BBC ‘backdrop’. Access is relatively straightforward. There aren’t banks of computer monitors exuding an air of authority about the place. It’s just a handful of production staff and a few dozen dancers going about their business alongside other groups who are also renting out space in the building for their own activities. It’s a big job, but Bollywood Carmen is co-habiting with the local community and trying not to disrupt things too much, it seems.

Bradford City Centre The Bollywood Carmen costumer designer's view looking towards Bradford City Centre.

Similarly, it’s intriguing to see television being made (or at least rehearsed), in a space other than a TV studio. Stripped of the familiar signs of BBC TV production – cameras, lighting rigs and signage – the television process is laid bare, perhaps even partly demystified. At the same time – as I sit eying up the costumer designer’s lovely bright red apple in front of me – it’s also a miraculous thing I suspect we all of us take for granted.

We can make television programmes so we do, but I wonder if all of us ever appreciate the minutiae of what’s involved in making it?

Next door to the production office, the performance space in the Kala Sangam normally given over to ticketed shows has been cleared of audience seating. Gaffer tape lines the performance space for the pony-tailed dancers. Some are limbering up, some are going the whole hog and practicing their leaps in front of the floor-to-ceiling mirrors. I stare in wonder and remember the gym membership I’m still not actually utilising. 

In front of the dancers the choreographer Honey Kalaria sits at a small square table with a TV monitor by her side. She introduces herself using the microphone she’s holding, taking a moment to explain what will be covered in the rehearsal that follows. ‘Can we have the music in .. one, two, three and four.’

‘Is it bhangra? I’m not entirely sure. I probably should have researched musical styles a little more thoroughly before I came up here,’ I think again. ‘It certainly sounds like its Bollywood-esque. Just don’t say anything out loud, so to avoid potential embarrassment.’ The bass line kicks and feet start tapping. Eyes widen, smiles become fixed. And so the choreography begins.

Bollywood Carmen Cast Some of the Bollywood Carmen Live cast on the first day of rehearsals.

I look at the moves the dancers are making and try and imagine what it is I might see on Sunday 9 June, to get a flavour of the kind of entertainment me as a viewer will be treated to. I struggle to engage until I realise that the secret is the frame of reference I’m missing around the tableaux in front of me. A swift glance at the monitor beside the choreographer transforms the group of dancers into something more familiar: a rectangle with everyone centre-justified; big blocks of colour; taut muscles; and wide smiles. All it needs now is a backdrop, a little bit more colour and a 52” inch screen and I’d be sitting watching it from the comfort of my sofa at home.

I don’t stay long at rehearsals. I resist the temptation to see any more than I have already. Preferring instead to save the experience for that hour when I see it for the first time with everyone else. Maybe I’m a live TV junkie and nothing more. So, I take my leave and block out an hour from 9pm Sunday 9 June on BBC Three.

Jon Jacob is Editor, About the BBC Blog and website.


  • Bollywood Carmen Live is a partnership with the City of Bradford, the world’s first UNESCO City of Film and is a co-production between BBC Three, BBC North and BBC Music Television. The show will be broadcast on BBC Three at 9pm on Sunday 9 June 2013. 
  • More information about the show including interviews with cast members can be found on the BBC Media Centre website
  • The Guardian, Manchester Evening News and Broadcast online also preview the show ahead of broadcast. 


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