Not too long ago, I came across a taster for an interesting travel-adventure documentary called 'Two Cultures, One Body' and was immediately intrigued. SceneTV recently caught up with the man behind the doc, Ash Bhardwaj to find out more…
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself e.g. your past career experience and what you do now?
I grew up in my Mum and Dad's restaurant – my Dad was Indian and Mum English. I studied philosophy at university and then became a ski instructor in New Zealand and Switzerland. I now write both as a journalist and a copywriter. Whilst trying to develop programmes, I am working for Walking With The Wounded, the soldiers' charity and have just finished making a documentary about the team who will be summiting Everest.
What is 'Two Cultures, One Body' about and what encouraged you to write and develop it into a programme?
'Two Cultures, One Body' is, essentially, about me trying to resolve my heritage conflict and figuring out what that heritage means to me as a mixed-race person in Britain. It is about me taking my father's ashes to India for a traditional ritual and finding out more about India. I was planning on doing the journey when a friend recommended I write it as a documentary!
What do you hope to achieve with 'Two Cultures, One Body'?
To make programming about identity and how heritage and race are linked to that. There has been stuff done about racism and multi-cultural Britain, but very little from a positive and curious angle – and not much about what the place of our heritage means to us now. Mixed Race Britain explored it from a social angle and George Alagiah is great. I want to take a fairly fun and playful approach to the subject; not make it too heavy and intellectual – to really get involved in India and show it can be a fun and interesting place, not just economic or travel programming. I think there's room to be both Indian and British and I want to see what great things I can take from my heritage – I can almost pick and choose what bits I like.
What process did you go through to produce the trailer e.g. who was involved, who was it funded by, how did you get them on board?
I took the idea to Sam Anstiss at BBC Three (Commissioning Executive Producer) and she invited me in for a meeting. I wanted an experienced producer to come along and I knew producer Russ Malkin (CEO of production company Big Earth) from interviewing him for a magazine, so I invited him. Sam really liked the project and wanted to see a trailer, so she gave us some money for that.
What was producing the trailer experience like? As well as a presenter, what other hats did you wear? What did you find the most challenging and the most exciting?
It was fantastic. Russ really knows what he's doing and he's produced series for years. He has an idea of what works and made me feel very relaxed in front of the camera. I also did the research and, of course, wrote the script and came up with the idea. I had to plan and find locations, organise people to talk to and develop the storyboard for the trailer. I loved it and really took to it. Just turning an idea into reality is so exciting. The challenge is backing yourself and pushing on when you come across stumbling blocks.
What advice would you give to people who have an idea that they would like to develop into a programme in the hope of it getting picked up by a broadcaster?
Think about it from the broadcaster's perspective; why would they pick your story? A commissioner has to convince their boss to part with commission funding, which is a risk, so what are you doing that's either low-risk, or un-missable? Low-risk is unlikely if you are a first timer, so you have to be bringing them something they can't say no to. Also, look at what the broadcaster commissions; don't take art history to BBC Three, for example! Do lots of research on their website, sign up to Broadcast blogs to find out the latest "we're looking for" news, go to Sheffield DocFest, learn the grammar of film. How can you tell a good story and how/why would it be interesting to someone other than you?
What are your views on the UK television industry in general when it comes to showcasing diverse stories and including talent from diverse backgrounds in front of and behind the camera? What else do you think should be done by the broadcasters, production companies and the talent themselves so that they industry keeps on improving in this respect?
I think there's a little bit of lip-service: a claim for needing new talent/diversity that has to be balanced with the reality of producing television that pulls in viewers. Commissioners aren't incentivised to take big risks, when they know what works. The growth of channels like BBC Three has helped but anyone can become a broadcaster now – just look at SBTV. Talent and production companies can find new ways of creating content; you can get stuff out there at low cost and there's plenty of other ways to exploit content other than just getting a commission. Efforts by traditional broadcasters are being made, too; Channel 4 just hosted an equality day. There is more diversity on children's programming, I think, than in the rest of programming. Production companies need to find genuine talent and good stories that really matter and which are made by people who really care: not just ratings winners or formulae. After a few years of celebrity-backed programming, I think there is now more of an appetite for real stories and new people.
Many people feel that it’s often a case of who you know in the television industry; what would you to say to people who have limited experience in the area of TV yet want to get around this barrier?
Yes it is, but that shouldn't be an excuse to give up. If you are enthusiastic and talented enough, people will give you a hand – it’s not complete nepotism, but you need to have contacts. So if you don't have any, make some! I got to know Russ Malkin by interviewing him for a magazine. I contacted Sam Anstiss after chatting to a guy at an adventure event who knew a PA at BBC Three. At every event I go to, I seek out and talk to people in the industry, not because I'm trying to get something from them but because I'm genuinely interested in what they do. From that, unexpected connections can be made.
How has the online sphere helped in promoting and even producing 'Two Cultures, One Body'; how have you used this medium?
I began blogging about my story, which forced me to understand and refine it better. It also massively improved my writing skills, which is always helpful. Also by telling people I was doing it and posting developments on Facebook, people would ask me about it and that created accountability for me! I couldn't fail to make it as my pride would be bruised! Twitter is also a brilliant way of finding and connecting with people. I post the video to Facebook and unexpected things come of it – people I haven't spoken to for years have put me in touch with agents or people who may want to fund the project.
What's next for you as well as 'Two Cultures, One Body'?
An unexpected bonus was that I was recognised as a potential presenter, so I have been asked to go back in with presenter-led format ideas! That could be a lot of fun, so I'm developing ideas that I'm inherently interested in that could work as programmes. I'm also working with the charity Walking With The Wounded and, as mentioned, I was privileged to interview the 5 soldiers who are climbing Everest for a documentary. I'm carrying on with writing for magazines and looking to expand that side of things. I'm still massively interested in adventure and looking at getting to Afghanistan sometime this year. I'm also working on a 10 month project on becoming a better man with a friend of mine!
A huge thanks to Ash for taking part in the SceneProfiles Series! We wish him all the best with 'Two Cultures, One Body' as well as his other projects. He’s also promised to keep SceneTV updated with his progress so we look forward to posting more positive news from him. If you would like to learn more about Ash, his projects or offer support, you can contact him via his blog www.ashbhardwaj.wordpress.com and he’s also on Twitter: @AshBhardwaj