Will Tuckett is a Royal Ballet stalwart, an Olivier award winner, and one of the Royal Opera House’s top choreographers. He’s been treading the boards for decades, and one of his first choreographed works was performed by Darcey Bussell and William Trevitt on the stage of the Royal Opera House, when Tuckett was just 17.
But ask Tuckett how he feels about his latest venture, directing the new stage show of CBeebies’ favourite Bing, and the answer flies back: “I’m terrified.”
The tots’ TV show, the 49-year-old explains, “is a brilliantly clever, funny and engaging programme – one of the few on TV that I let my son watch. And kids really love Bing: it’s regularly one of the most requested shows on BBC iPlayer. So transforming it into a puppet-filled, sensitive stage show is a huge role to take on.
“Even more important to me, though, is the fact that coming to see Bing might be the first time some of the audience come to the theatre. I feel a huge sense of responsibility to help them to fall in love with the experience.”
For the uninitiated, the world of Bing sees bunnies Bing, Coco and Charlie, elephant Sula, panda Pando plus their carers – Flop, Amma, and Padget – tackle the everyday dramas that all small people face. There’s bickering over shared toys, and crying over smashed cakes – scenes that the average parent, like Tuckett, oversee daily in their own homes.
And that’s no coincidence: as well as having a team of 23 writers, each Bing episode is shaped by two Montessori teachers, five education experts, and child linguists who ensure the words tumbling out of Sula and co’s mouths are really toddler-like. The show also saw Shakespearean actor and Oscar-winner Mark Rylance make his TV debut, voicing Flop, and has won an International Emmy award.
So when producers mooted the idea of Bing Live – a UK tour of more than 50 venues – they knew they’d need to call on some cultural big-hitters.
The puppets have been designed by Tahra Zafar, the animatronics and costume maestro whose career has included working with the Queen for her first ever acting role (alongside James Bond at the 2012 Olympics’ Opening Ceremony) as well as blockbuster films from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to Star Wars VII.
And Tuckett, too, is bringing his Royal Ballet and Royal Opera House pedigree to direct Bing Live. The past few months have seen him juggle rehearsals of the animal puppets doing “a Bing thing” – as the show’s catchphrase goes – with rehearsals for both Royal Opera House’s ballet Elizabeth and Kiss Me Kate by Opera North.
“They’re all very different, but wouldn’t it be boring if you went into work and thought, ‘Oh, I’m doing this again…’” Tuckett laughs. “Working on Bing Live – as with [his previous children’s production] In The Night Garden Live, I thought: ‘I could learn more by doing this than anything I’ve done in the last ten years’.”
So what have been the biggest challenges about transforming Bing into a stage production?
“Making the puppets. They need to be big enough for an arena, yet small enough for toddlers to recognise them as the characters they watch in their living rooms or cuddle in their pyjamas.”
Then there was the time factor: the production must captivate pre-schoolers with short attention spans.
“We needed to make a 70-minute show, whilst every Bing episode is seven minutes, without giving that feeling of when you’re running out of butter and trying to scrape it on a large piece of toast.”
Luckily Tuckett has plenty of experience: even as a child, the director already knew he wanted to work on the stage. “I was that really annoying child who wanted to be watched,” he laughs.
His entry into the ballet world came about more serendipitously, however.
“Dancing was easy childcare. My sister did ballet, and my mum realised that if she put me in the same class then she’d have an hour and a half free to herself. As a parent now, I totally understand!”
Tuckett kept on dancing, winning a place at the Royal Ballet School aged 11 – albeit not for long.
“They kicked me out aged 13,” he guffaws, “saying I was too tall, too stiff, and I didn’t have the right kind of feet.”
He reckons it worked out for the best though: “I went home to Bristol, went to a normal school, met some really good friends, got involved in drama, and then when an upper school audition came up at the Royal Ballet, I went back to London to try again.”
Tuckett’s old teachers were the ones doing the auditions. “They said: ‘We haven’t held it against you that you left us,’ whilst inwardly I was thinking, ‘Well I’ve totally held it against you.’”
Still, he passed, rejoined his old classmates and went on to join the Royal Ballet’s corps de ballet at 18, as well as beginning to choreograph.
“I wasn’t exactly the David Beckham of ballet, but I was a bit precocious,” Tuckett acknowledges. “I got a lot of work very quickly.”
But then, after a string of successes in his early twenties, he hit a bit of a wall. “I did some awful shows, got some even worse reviews, and started thinking, ‘These audiences that I’m choreographing work for – they’re a world away from the average person. I realised I couldn’t afford to buy tickets to my own show at the Opera House.”
In fact, he was a whisker away from dropping out of the arts world: “I got all the papers to join the mounted police, and was filling in the application forms.
“I’ve always loved horses. I couldn’t become a horse vet because I’d done no science – back then, we only had one bunsen burner for the entire school at the Royal Ballet – but the mounted police, that sounded amazing.”
But just before he started oiling a saddle, Anthony Dowell (then director of the Royal Ballet) asked if there was anything Tuckett really wanted to do before he quit.
“He made me focus on making the work that I wanted to make, not the work I thought I should make,” Tuckett explains. “And I’ve done that ever since.”
His next work following that conversation was A Dream of Angels, a piece for the Royal Ballet’s first “Dance Bites” touring project, danced to a György Kurtág quartet; next up was Puirt A Beul, a piece to early Celtic “mouth music” recordings. ”That’s still one of my favourites,” Tuckett reflects.
Success has consistently followed – most notably, with a hand puppet-filled reimagining of The Wind in the Willows, which won an Olivier award for Best Entertainment and became the first Royal Opera House show to ever transfer to the West End. And it proved to Tuckett that children’s shows could be rewardingly rich.
“Theatre is about escapism, and that’s at the heart of Bing too – it’s creative, it’s imaginative. We’re making fantastic puppets but the children have to contribute their imagination, they have to dream,” he says.
“As parents, we look at our children and think, ‘When you get big, I want you to have all these tools, all these colours in your palette, to make your life bright and fulfilling.’”
He has concerns about how kids are no longer being given these tools – fewer school music or drama lessons, a National Curriculum with very little literature involved. “Going to the theatre, having that experience, is adding some colour there for them to use in the picture that’s going to be their lives.”
He continues: “We as theatre makers have a huge responsibility to give as many colours as we can through the shows that we make; it’s a great responsibility but a fantastic one.
“How wonderful if, with Bing Live, we’re able to help inject colour into those kids’ lives.”
‘Bing Live’ is on tour from 20 June – 25 November (bingliveshow.com)