Richard McKerrow provides a behind the scenes look at documentary Make Bradford British, which aired last night.
MAKE BRADFORD BRITISH
- Length: 2 x 60 minutes
- TX: Thursdays, 9pm, Channel 4 from 1 March
- Producer: Love Productions
- Commissioner: Ralph Lee
Executive Producer, Make Bradford British
William Blake once wrote: “Without contraries there is no progression.” This line feels rather apt in terms of describing both the content of Make Bradford British and some of the hurdles we encountered in production.
We had long wanted to explore this huge subject – what it means to be British today, in an increasingly multicultural Britain. We wanted to do it in a way that would interrogate the issues, create debate and bring an audience. The first decision was where to do it. After a lot of research, we decided there was only really one place to make this series: Bradford. It is working hard to resolve the issues there, but is one of the most segregated cities in the UK.
We needed an original entry point for our constructed documentary approach. After much collaborative discussion with Channel 4, we decided the starting point had to be the real one for people entering this country - the UK Citizenship test. We invited more than a hundred British people from very different communities in Bradford to sit the test. From those who failed the test we planned to select eight individuals of different ethnic and class origins who would then explore what being British meant to them, first by living together in a small local house and then by pairing up with one another, spending time in each other’s real homes and lives.
More than 100 of the 125 people who took the test failed. I failed my first attempt, as indeed did most of the production team. And my co-executive Producer Kieran Smith concluded in response to one of the test’s questions I put to him that it was legal to smoke marijuana in the privacy of your own home. I don’t think so. Not yet at least.
Choosing the contributors got underway. We used a small research team who mostly came from the area, and who immersed themselves in Bradford’s diverse communities over several months. We had assumed finding people to participate in the series would be challenging – it often is. But in fact people were very enthusiastic about the series and keen to take part. And the final selection of which eight individuals to invite to spend time living together was extremely difficult. In the end we chose as close to a representative cross section of Bradford as we could find: Rashid, former rugby player and devout Muslim, Mohammed, Muslim owner of a taxi firm; Sabbiyah, a young articulate female Muslim student; Audrey, a mixed-race pub landlady; Desmond, a black cleaner and a part time DJ; Damon, a young white working class welder and single Dad; Maura, a middle class former Lib Dem councillor; and Jens, a white Anglican former policeman.
We were completely honest with all of them about what to expect and the unpredictable nature of the experience that lay ahead. We explained to them very clearly that we would be asking difficult personal questions and that in order to ensure authenticity we would film pretty much anything and everything.
In practice, it was obviously vitally important to follow the actuality of everything that unfolded with sensitivity and understanding. Rather than use a fixed rig, our approach was traditional observational documentary with a main DOP/Camera operator and a roving team of DV directors empowered to build relationships with the contributors and follow the action with an interrogatory approach. In a multi-camera documentary sensibility environment, it is essential to operate as a team. We held regular team meetings behind the scenes where we shared information, and discussed the welfare of the contributors. Vitally, we discussed what we felt we should be asking in terms of trying to ensure that the contributors experience journey was self-exploratory and beneficial.
Our production team was a very mixed multicultural group of people—like the contributors—and we all openly shared our thoughts about multiculturalism in Britain. What does it mean to be British in 2012? Are there any clear set of defining characteristics? Should ethnic groups integrate or separate? Are there any safe contexts in which certain racial terms can be used without causing offence? As a production team we needed to explore these issues and bravely challenge our own preconceptions. I believe that often the making of a factual documentary series changes you - both the producers and the contributors – and if it doesn’t, it’s unlikely to engage a viewer.
The period of filming the eight contributors was an intense two weeks. The first stage around the clock, in the house where there were some heated emotional debates and significant moments of revelation among our contributors. The second stage was in different locations across Bradford, in people’s homes and in the community, where we witnessed remarkable moments of emotional transformation and bonding between the characters. There were also more dramatic moments, notably when Mohammed walked off and decided he no longer wanted to be filmed. It’s often the case that in the most uncomfortable moments—when you feel like putting the camera down—that you have to carry on filming.
That said, when making a factual series that may be watched by millions, it’s vital that the care for contributors continues long after the filming finishes. We have remained in touch with all eight of the contributors and they have all—including Mohammed—seen the films before transmission. While editorial control will always remain with the producer and the broadcaster, in our view it’s vitally important to agree with contributors what is a true representation of what happened, and for them to know which of their experiences has been included in the films.
All eight characters have said they were changed by the process. And we are hopeful that this Channel 4 series makes a passionate anti-racist statement in favour of a new and tolerant multicultural Britain at a time when the country desperately needs it. The contributors have continued to stay in touch and recently held a reunion. Rashid and Damon now play football together and it is remarkable how even a short amount of time in someone else’s company can lead to strong bonds.
- Worry, worry, and worry again. Feel the fear.
- A good friend and colleague tells you what you don’t want to hear.
- Stay alert because the most interesting things happen when the camera is switched off.
- Choose great characters and the story will write itself.
- The edit may feel comfortable but it’s the hardest place of all.
- Embrace the subject with passion and honesty.