“The Boys in the Box”

Dear reader, don’t be alarmed by the amount of unrelieved text in this article; once completed, images will be inserted at the correct places.

Right away let me register an interest here; I’m Keith Bennett and was on ‘lights’ for the majority of the shows during the theatre’s lifetime. I had the enormous pleasure and privilege of sharing the control room (also known as ‘the box’ or ‘the office’) with some wonderful ‘sound’ technicians. Not that we ever gave ourselves such an estimable title – we were simply enthusiastic amateurs who very much preferred being safely behind the scenes rather than in front of them.

Our lair was situated at the back of the auditorium, perilously close to the back row of seats but it gave us a marvellous view of the stage – once we’d built it, that is. Two windows originally gave daylight through an exterior stone wall into what was the service wing of the house and so, across them outside, we erected a timber structure into which we crammed the equipment necessary for operating lights and sound – once we’d built a sturdy table-top running the length of the office in order to support it, that is!

So then we needed power. Luckily the house’s main electricity meters and isolating switches for the thirty-odd rooms sat just inside the back door, some thirty feet from us. A substantial 30 amp power cable was connected to a handy meter, poked through a hole in the door frame and then gracefully draped and nailed up beneath the eaves of the auditorium, round the corner and into our realm via another hole. It was meant to be a temporary ‘fix’ until a) the theatre proved itself viable, and b) we had enough spare cash to purchase proper steel trunking to protect the cable. I imagine that these days some Health & Safely official would have kittens just looking at the installation, but the blessed thing hung there like that, untouched and unprotected, for the next 49 years! Within the office this fizzy snake terminated in an isolator switch and from that spread a spider’s web of electrical cables feeding some dozen or so switched sockets distributed such that we could pick up power wherever it was needed.

The lights themselves in those early days were very generously loaned by the Banbury Amateur Operatic Society (lit by yours truly) and we hired dimming equipment from a local firm rejoicing in the name of Lancelyn Lighting, Oxford. The chaps on sound brought along their own personal audio equipment which comprised reel-to-reel tape recorders and cassette players – more on those, later. We built rudimentary but efficient double-glazing panels to soundproof us as best as we could, so good in fact that  we couldn’t really hear what was going on in the auditorium! So a sound-relay system was developed; our first sound tech was Geoffrey Benfield who just happened to own an electrical retailers in nearby Chipping Norton – he provided the goodies at no charge and installed a microphone which he suspended below the front-of-house stage lighting perches above the audience. Its sound cable fed back to an amplifier/mixer in the office which also had a mic beneath it; from thence a feed went to a speaker situated above the number-one lighting bar on the stage immediately behind the proscenium arch. Thus we could hear the action and – if necessary – talk to the director or actors by means of a two-way switch.

That sorted that problem. Next up was seating for two. The narrow confines of the office precluded anything so elegant as office chairs. Fred, ever concerned for our comfort, “liberated” two tall and exceptionally uncomfortable wooden stools from his place of employment (Easington Modern Secondary Boys’ School). I looked hard at them before – being an ex-pupil of that establishment – recognising the instruments of torture as having come from the technical drawing office, in which I knew full well a redundant pile of them gathered dust in a corner.

As we all know, trying to look out of a brightly-lit room onto a dusky evening scene renders one pretty well blind to detail in the distant gloom. Obviously we needed light to read our scripts but equally obviously the illumination had to be quite low. The answer was a pair of blue ‘pygmy’ 5-watt bulbs, each one suspended above the working area to illume it. To prevent light-spill we manufactured a pair of tiny but most effective lamp shades out of the circular aluminium pie dishes in which small fruit tarts are sold. Although not particularly robust, they were easily replaced – ‘all’ that was necessary was for us to scoff two more tarts! As they weighed next to nothing we could fit them above the lamp holders with no worries about overstressing the twin-core bell wire which supplied power to the bulbs.

To insulate the interior, we clad it in half-inch fibreboard (cue next litter of kittens for any Health and Safety visitor – the board was tinder dry, very fibrous and entirely innocent of any fire protection coating). Like our patent lamp shades, having hardly any weight to it meant we simply tacked the fibreboard all over the walls and roof. The finishing touch was to liberally paint it in pitch-black emulsion paint. This absorbed any stray light and, from the auditorium, it was very difficult indeed for the audience to discern us inmates within.

So we had shelter, power, a long narrow table, seats, relative anonymity and the ability to hear and converse with the auditorium. So far so good. But the chap in absolute charge when a show’s running is the stage manager and communication with him was vital. We’d built his cue desk just beyond the actors’ entrance door at stage right where the pulley cords for the main tabs (curtains) emerged from their nest of pulleys in the ceiling. A folding desk was constructed onto which his scripts could be placed and a switch for him to control two 60-amp bulbs over the acting area (‘working lights’ for scene changes etcetera).

Mysteriously three Post Office Telephone headsets quietly materialised – the type worn by the exchange operators – comprising a black plastic curved horn to capture speech and a single headphone counterbalanced by a slender ear pad on the opposing side for the wearer’s comfort. Each one plugged in to a receiving socket which itself was connected to the wiring circuit joining SM, sound and lights. Power initially came from a 12 volt car battery; this, kindly if perhaps unwittingly donated by the father of Roger Moon (one of the first volunteers to help build the theatre). George and his wife Mary Moon (who owned Waverley Garage in Kings Sutton, a village near Banbury) became a pair of our most faithful supporters over the life of the theatre, insisting on having two seats permanently reserved for them on paid retainer!) Some time later, having wearied of finding the battery flat because we’d forgotten to keep it in a state of charge, we substituted it for a mains 240/12 volt transformer.

A household rotary dimmer switch was added to the auditorium houselight circuit so we could elegantly fade them down and up at the beginning and end of an Act. A simple cue-light system was created between the SM desk and our box, comprising a red and a green very low wattage lamp to act respectively as ‘stand-by’ and ‘go’, controlled by rocker switches so we could flash them or leave them ‘steady’. Incorporated into the circuit were two tiny buzzers by which we could alert the SM if he missed our flashing lights, and vice-versa. These cue-lights were accommodated within a slender plastic box, once the home to twenty 35mm photographic slides. Oh yes, we were very high tech!

And that was pretty much it apart from a heat source to keep up relatively warm (the ‘office’ was located on the north side of the house and had hardly any protection from the winter winds). With no spare space for a radiant fire we had to make do with two three-foot electric tubular heaters, one for each of us. On a winter show we would remove our shoes and rest stockinged feet upon them – resulting in toasty toes and chilly bodies!).

In those early days we had no hard-wired lighting sockets (because we had no lights!) and so along with the Operatic’s equipment came rolls and rolls of extension cables to connect the hired dimmers in the office with the stage lights themselves. The cables were fed through long, narrow gaps above the control room’s windows (soundproofing maintained by stuffing the gaps with foam rubber!)

This makeshift home did us well for several years until, with the advent of ever larger and more ambitious shows, we simply needed more space for more equipment. We had by then purchased our own electronic dimmer packs and gained a dozen or so stage lights and so a major undertaking began to turn the theatre into a ‘proper’ one with its own hard-wired lighting circuits. Back in those days round-pin five- and ten-amp rubber clad plugs and sockets were the norm for this type of installation. Thirty of them were positioned around the stage and auditorium and household cabling fed from them back to the control room, carefully tacked along the roof’s two wooden purlins (more Health & Safety hazards!) and from there, down to rafters and into the office where each line terminated in a 15-amp rubber clad plug with its own label identifying which socket it led to.

This veritable rat’s nest of cables and plugs looked a shade untidy but had the wonderful attribute of allowing me to ‘patch’ any line into any dimmer, thus giving a good choice of mix between the lights. So, for example, a number-one bar light pointing to a ‘practical’ effect electric fire within the set could be patched on the same dimmer as the fire so that the warm red-filtered number one bar light would enhance the tiny glow from the set’s fire. Different shows required differing patching, depending on the effects required.

To accommodate the new equipment, a new control room was needed. With fine disregard for the historic pine partition that had nobly served as our back wall, it was torn down and discarded (Historic England, eat your hearts out!) and, in its place, we erected a sold breeze-blocked building much more suitable for our needs. (Shortly after the new office was built, the Grange was given a Grade 2 listing by Historic England – not because of our cheerful predations but because an Inspector happened to call and was astonished to find an architectural gem tucked away at the end of its drive. The grading pretty much clipped our wings thereafter but – “phew” – we didn’t need any further drastic alterations to the house.

So – where did the appellation “The Boys in the Box” come from? Quite often, at the end of a show, we’d receive Thank You cards from the cast and slowly, rather than putting our names on the envelope, the honorary title was appended instead.

That second control room lasted for around ten years, at which point we began to notice ominous cracks appearing at the point where our side walls met the stone wall of the auditorium: our foundations were beginning to settle and the box started leaning backwards, straining the joints in the roof and the floor. Rainwater leaks stealthily crept through, and some jolly chilly draughts as well.

The decision was taken to dismantle the little building, strengthen the foundations, raise the floor and rebuild as good as new. Fred “forgot” to apprise Historic England of this work, putting his own conscience at ease secure in his knowledge that we weren’t actually erecting a new building – merely “improving” the existing one.

Though we didn’t know it at the time, that was the last of the major infrastructure pertaining to the theatre – from then on it was business as usual, content in the knowledge that it was serving our needs quite adequately and (shock, horror) we could actually begin to enjoy ourselves!

These cue sheets, below, will be captioned when time allows and placed in the proper place in this article.

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