From Star Wars and Royalty to CBeebies, animatronics whizz Tahra Zafar talks about bringing Bing Live on stage.
Mention Bing to any family with pre-school kids and you’re guaranteed to get a knowing smile in response. Not just because of its popularity with tots – Bing is the top-rated pre-school show on BBC iPlayer – but because, as one parent at the playground puts it, watching Bing “is like tuning in to a reality show of my life as a mum – albeit a calmer, quieter version.”
The show’s protagonists may be animals (for the uninitiated, there are bunnies Bing, Coco and Charlie, elephant Sula, panda Pando plus their carers, Flop, Amma and Padget) but they’re really just like little people: excited, tripping-over tots lapping up the messy, happy moments that make up preschool life.
It’s no coincidence that watching Bing and Sula squabble over sharing a balloon or dropping a just-baked cake sees the average parent wondering if the show’s producers have been eavesdropping on their parenting lives. For as well as 23 writers, there are two Montessori teachers, four education experts and child linguists working on each Bing script. Their aim is to create a programme that’s just as likely to teach parents a patient way to help a toddler through their tantrum as it is to give that child some quiet time in their day.
So when producers mooted the idea of Bing Live! – which has played a hugely successful premiere UK tour in 2018 and will head to The Lowry on 12 January 2019 – they called in the brightest creative stars in their field. After all, the TV show’s an International Emmy Award winner which lured Shakespearean actor and Oscar-winner, Mark Rylance to make his TV debut, voicing Flop.
With Bing Live! brought to life by magical puppetry, producers turned to Tahra Zafar – the animatronics and costume maestro whose career has included working with the Queen on her first ever acting role (at the 2012 Olympics’ Opening Ceremony) as well as blockbuster shows from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to Star Wars VII.
The latter, says Tahra, was “a real, pinch-myself moment as I stood on set with Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher, the stars I’d grown up watching, thinking – ‘wow, this is my job!’”.
So how did Star Wars and the London 2012 Olympic ceremonies lead to Tahra designing the stage characters for Bing Live!?
“There might not sound like a lot of crossover but I’ve needed skills picked up over decades in film and theatre to work on Bing – it’s been a pretty big challenge,” the 53-year-old explains.
“We had to find a way to turn much-loved, animated animals into stage-sized beings that are large enough to tell a story in a hippodrome but also small and relatable enough for really young kids who are used to a telly-sized Bing, and perhaps one that they tuck up into bed every night.”
Tahra admits to feeling “a huge sense of responsibility” whilst working on Bing Live! because its toddler ticket-holders are “very likely to be on one of their first ever forays to a theatre.” She explains: “I grew up in the entertainment industry – my dad was a choreographer, and mum a dancer – but I still remember one of the first proper performances I saw: Pickwick with Harry Secombe in the West End. I was really tiny and obviously didn’t take it all in, but the excitement and dazzle got me interested in theatre for life.
“I’d love for Bing Live! to get kids feeling that creative ‘wow’ too. That’s why I’m really passionate about working on pre-school theatre.”
In the fast-faced, constantly-comparing world of social media and Instagram parenting perfection, “Bing is the antithesis of all that,” believes Tahra, whose daughter is now 14. “It celebrates the details of life, when it’s alright for things not to go well, because that throws up another opportunity. It’s the opposite of the perfect life that we’re all meant to have.”
Tahra’s career has certainly been fast-paced: after studying Theatre Design at Central St Martins, her first job was buying costumes for the English Shakespeare Company; her next was working on Phantom of the Opera, “buying one-off vintage fabrics like silk kimonos from around the world.”
After that she moved into film, working with the world-famous Muppet Christmas Carol-maker Jim Henson Creature Shop. “It was extraordinary – a huge building in the heart of London’s Camden Town in the Nineties,” remembers Tahra. “There was an electronic area full of machinery; a mould shop with plasterers and fibreglass, a sculpting room, and, upstairs, a digital focus that – back then – was so futuristic but is now commonplace. Whenever the real Kermit puppet came to visit from New York, we all loved having our photos taken with him and Miss Piggy.”
Then there was the call from Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle that led to “the most incredible opportunity”. As head of costume, hair and make-up for the London Olympic and Paralympic Opening and Closing Ceremonies, Tahra oversaw the completion of 23,000 costumes, dressing everyone from waving children to David Beckham and the Queen.
“I worked on the Olympic shows for 18 months,” Tahra remembers: “It was endless rehearsals, long days – we had four shows to deliver, working with a cast of 17,000 volunteers – and there was constant negativity in the press about the London Olympics, but we knew from the go that the Opening Ceremony would change all that and be really special. We couldn’t wait for everyone’s reaction.”
Tahra set herself the task of using only British manufacturers for the costumes – “with all our funding coming from the taxpayer, I felt we had a responsibility to put the money back into the local community.” That wasn’t the only challenge – “the ceremonies were a mixture of a live event, with everyone in the stadium watching with birds-eye-like views, and a film – with everyone at home seeing all the jewel-like details in the costumes.”
Then there was a certain matter of the Queen, who famously joined Daniel Craig’s James Bond to ‘fly’ into the Olympic stadium. “I had an amazing time working with Buckingham Palace,” Tahra recalls. “I visited the Palace a number of times for meetings – I couldn’t believe little old me was going in this big entrance to see the Queen, with hundreds of tourists outside with their cameras saying, ‘who’s she?!’”
At security, Tahra was asked to fill in her personal details “and I was faced with the best drop-down box I’d ever seen – it took me ages to find the ‘mrs’ I was looking for because there were so many other options – ‘admiral, lord, lady, countesses.’”
Then she did at last get through the barriers to meet the Queen. “She was just lovely – and one of the things I noticed most was her really beautiful skin!”, Tahra giggles. “She was so interested in all of our plans – we had to make multiple copies of her outfit made, and of her exact jewellery – because of course it wasn’t actually going to be her parachuting out of a helicopter.”
On the opening ceremony night itself, “I was running around like crazy all day, but for the arrival of the Queen, when the helicopter came in, I ran to the entrance of the stadium and just watched that moment and everyone’s reaction. I’ll never forget it.”
Buckingham Palace might seem a long world away from CBeebies favourite Bing but the show’s puppets have also been honed to perfection. Flop alone took Tahra and her team four months to create. “We had someone knit a prototype Flop, then a specialist lady dyed wool the perfect colour, then another knitted more prototypes, then we developed Flop’s puppetry… On stage, you see one finished object but many different people with different skills have been involved in creating it.”
Making Bing and friends, then, has been a gently slow, old-fashioned process; the same is true, Tahra adds, of the experience of the Bing Live! stage show for everyone in the audience. “I love that puppets, like the characters themselves, are expressive, forcing us to suspend our imagination, and all be like children.
“We’re all going faster and faster in modern life, and it’s important to have those moments to quieten down – I hope that’s what Bing Live! lets families do, so that the adults of the future will look back on and say, ‘I remember going to see Bing at the theatre in Salford Quays, it was one of my really happy childhood times.”