I’m Keith Bennett and here’s the story of how I became involved with the Grange since our theatre’s inception. As I begin compiling what I fondly thought would be a perhaps brief overview of the Grange Theatre’s technical side of things it quickly became apparent there was a vast number of memories just waiting to be aired. This page is therefore rather lengthy, so apologies if I bore you!
Where to begin? Fred was one of my teachers at Easington Modern Secondary Boys’ School (EMS) in Banbury. I attended during the early 1960s and rapidly realised that its philosophy of organised sports was definitely not for me. Happily I discovered that the few boys who joined the small “stage club” were excused games, mainly because as actors they would need extra time to learn lines and rehearse. But nobody was caring for the stage equipment, and the lights especially were in a woefully dusty condition. I offered to learn and was accepted. Oh joy…
The school was a recent build (c. 1953) and the architects perhaps optimistically provided a large, well-equipped stage and a hall which doubled as the auditorium when needed. In my memory, not many productions occurred but those that did often needed the practical set-building help of the metalwork teachers Fred (metal) and Ernest Pitcher (wood). Sets were painted by the art master Chris Philips while science master John Hancock looked after any special effects. (So far as memory allows, I believe costumes fell to the actors’ parents to supply.)
The dark arts of stagecraft were not so much taught to us few lads by these teachers who had sufficient interest in producing the occasional show (there was no specific drama course at the school) but rather we picked things up along the way. On occasion we also dropped them – general electrical tuition and stage lighting was the preserve of one ferocious rugby-playing teacher called Christopher Farwell. Perhaps understandably he was a stickler for what these days comes under the reviled term of “health & safety”. I’d been working off a perilously tall pair of wooden steps – big and not especially stable beasts about fifteen feet high – and had inadvertently left on their top platform a pair of pliers I’d been using to tighten a light’s suspension clamp.
Mister F. needed to move them and, as he tugged, down came the pliers. They missed his head by inches; his corrective slipper (“Matilda”) didn’t miss my bum by one inch… I still tingle at that memory.
A Nottingham-based engineering company called Furse sold their basic (but sturdy – and they needed to be) stage lights into many schools. EMS was no exception. Three types were installed: batten rows containing a series of 100 watt lamps wired into three circuits and capable of having coloured gels fitted to each lamp; a bulbous 1000 watt flood (which we called “Big Bertha”); and spot lights whose steel bodies were painted in a flat brown finish, and carried 500 watt tungsten bulbs sitting in front of a pitifully small concave reflector perched on an adjustable stalk. A rudimentary container allowed coloured “gels” (heat-resistant plastic sheets) to be held in front of the lens.
The whole up-stage area behind the proscenium arch was lit mainly by the battens: EMS had three sets, one suspended a little way behind the pros. arch (“front battens”), one near the backcloth (“back battens”) and a set resting on the ground at its base (“ground row”).
Mid-stage was looked after by “Big Bertha” whose powerful flood of light illumed the general acting area.
The apron area (in front of the pros. arch, which itself carried the main curtains/main tabs) was lit by the front-of-house spotlights and a few of them also hung from a stage-wide steel tube (“number one bar”) just behind the pros. arch where they could light more specific mid-stage areas. There was no provision for footlights; the seating on the flat auditorium floor brought the audience’s eye level beneath that of the stage and so “foots” would have proved visually intrusive.
The lights themselves were controlled by 12 mechanical sliding resistance dimmers installed on the lighting bridge which was situated in the stage-left corner immediately behind the pros. arch. From that lofty perch the operator had a fine view of the stage. Each dimmer was capable of controlling two circuits but, as there was no master dimmer, a full fade meant developing an octopus-like set of arms in order to bring them all down to a relatively synchronised blackout. (In dire circumstances a sudden blackout could be achieved simply by throwing the main switch – subtle but effective.) The bridge itself was illuminated by a dim 60 watt blue bulb (the “working light”) which came into its own only during periods of low light levels on stage.
This gentle existence was suddenly accelerated when in 1961 some of the more musically-inclined teachers decided to form the Banbury Amateur Operatic Society (BAOS – which was to be – and still is – based at the school. Bigger shows required more lights but the county authorities were reluctant to invest in extra cabling and so for every show many yards of temporary lines would snake away from the bridge and above the stage to additional lighting positions. The new society sort of inherited me along with the stage and I was with them for the next 25 years. Why not visit this enthusiastic and friendly company at www.banburyoperaticsociety.co.uk
BAOS started purchasing their own lights and by now the Rank Strand Electric 500 watt series had become very popular indeed. These beautifully made and compact lights were physically smaller than the Furse equivalents: the pattern 23 spotlight in particular produced a superb beam courtesy of a prefocussed lamp which was entirely surrounded by highly-polished reflectors. The body also provided a slot between the bulb and the lens into which a thin steel sheet into which patterns would be cut (called a “gobo”) could be inserted: when the lens was focussed onto the desired area the pattern would be projected.
The pattern 123 “freznel” soft-edged flood had the same lens/reflector set-up but could also benefit from “barn doors”, an adjustable set of four flaps in front of the lens which could cut off unwanted stray peripheral light spill. (In later years Rank Strand’s magnificent pattern 223 soft-edged 1000 watt floods were so efficient and capable of tight-focussing that, in many situations, they could do the job of close-up spotlights.) The ‘Operatic’ also invested in a little six-way dimmer board constructed using the new-fangled electronic thyristor dimmers which supplemented the school’s traditional resistance dimmers. While incapable of being patched into the hard-wired dimmer circuits it did become an effective side-kick for extra lights. It still didn’t have a master dimmer though…
I left Easington Modern in 1966 but of course returned there to light the BAOS shows once or twice per annum. But it still came as something of a surprise when, a couple of years later, Fred approached me to ask if I would visit him and his wife Val at their home, in which they were thinking of building a theatre. Specifically they needed advice on whether the proposed tiny stage area could be effectively lit.
I still recall my utter astonishment at turning up to the Grange (I had a vague idea that Fred, like most people, lived in a cozy semi somewhere; his announcement of installing a theatre – a theatre, for goodness sake – was totally surreal) and wondering what I’d let myself in for.
When Fred and Val proudly took me to that part of the house they had in mind, I couldn’t but help smile: the stage and auditorium would both have fitted into just the stage area back at school. And as for lighting; well, yes, such a small area could easily be lit – but to light it well would be quite another thing.
I explained the manner in which a stage is primarily rigged (see above!!) but expressed some alarm at the close proximity of the audience to the apron, and the exceptionally shallow depth of the stage which would allow shadows to fall on the backcloth. (Val always dreamed of traditional footlights in her theatre but I had to deny her – their presence would have created even more shadows on the back cloth.)
Eventually I adopted a miniaturized version of the EMS rig but with some additional lighting perches. Front-of-house eventually sported six patt. 23 spots plus one other carrying a long lens which could be used as a follow spot (it never was, but it did come in very useful when I needed a very, very tight area lit from f-o-h. On-stage were the familiar front battens zwith a number one bar tight by them. Behind a mid-fly (itself hiding a rolled mid-cloth) came the back battens; two sets of perches sat either side of them (a sort of split number two bar).
People would sometimes express surprise at so many lights above such a tiny stage. Those dreaded backcloth shadows thrown from actors and mid-stage scenery items ruin the impression of distance on a painted landscape so in some respects I had to light from the back wall forward. The battens each had three circuits filtered amber, gold and blue. Combinations and levels of those colours would wash the entire area in the required light (mixes of amber and blue gave the pearlescence of dawn; amber and gold with a touch of blue gave daylight; while a slow fade taking out gold and then amber would leave cold moonlight). With the back battens set slightly brighter that the fronts, shadows could be almost negated. The f.o.h. spots would pick up actors coming downstage to the apron and their angle meant no shadow fell upstage to compromise the backcloth. (Slightly problematic when the mid-cloth was called into use, though.) Tight-focussed spots on numbers one and two bars would illume specifics like the warmth of a fireplace, a particular chair, an area of acting when Val needed attention drawn to one part of the stage, or to highlight say a table upon which stood a lamp. Two small floods on number 2 bar faced downstage; they were there to give a slight back-lighting to actors – this provided a touch of three-dimensionality because otherwise faces lit only from the front/sides could look rather ‘flat’ despite the cunning artifices of the actors’ makeup skills.
The tiny stage area precluded the use of a ground row and this was to cause several headaches when having to light that pesky backcloth. The useable height of the stage roof was considerably lower than desirable; the lights themselves hung barely three feet above the actors’ heads (the major problem with the number one bar spots always arose when particularly tall actors passed beneath them – the tops of their heads could suddenly and distractingly become much brighter and I had to be constantly on the watch to dim the lamp when danger beckoned!) and so the necessity of cancelling shadows meant carefully positioned wing floods on the number 2 bars to help boost the back battens, along with equally careful lighting levels coming from the down-stage lamps.
A unique problem with the Grange’s acting area was the fact that part of the ground floor of the house had to be incorporated into some shows and that, of course, meant installing lights therein. The original building’s entrance door now opened into the up-stage right area, as did the (later) kitchen door to up-stage left (the auditorium was once part of the Grange’s garden!). Stage-right had a doorway leading to the Stage Manager’s prompt corner and a corridor leading to other parts of the building.
** A digression: is it by now too late to explain these stage terms? Early stages sloped from back to front in order to give the audience on their flat floor a better view of the acting area – hence to “upstage” someone was for a person to appear literally above the heads of actors standing down-stage. The scenery had to be carefully constructed and painted in order to preserve an illusion of perspective where necessary. Back stage is the non-acting area behind the scenes. Usually, heavy curtains (“main tabs”, or “main drapes”) separated the acting area from the audience and the stretch of stage in front of the main tabs – where “business” could be acted out in front of the closed tabs during, say, on-stage scene changes – is called the apron. Early aprons had candle-powered footlights across their front edge but, with the advent of electric lights and thus stronger f-o-h spotlights, they became redundant. Pub-quiz fact: these candles were borne upon tiny rafts anchored into a water-filled trough – to effect a fade-out water would be partly drained thus lowering the candles’ wicks below stage level. Early foots were thus called “floats”…
In taller stages, scenery could be flown up out of sight into the “flies” or off into the side “wings”. (Fred would always do his best not to need major scene shifting during a show because the only way off the stage was through one of three standard-width doors.) Stage-left is to the left of an actor as they face the audience and it’s here that traditionally the prompter sat out of sight.
Just to be awkward, the Grange’s prompt corner was at stage-right and incorporated the area inhabited by God – a.k.a the Stage Manager and his cue board. It could be a tight fit when prompter Val joined him “on the book” at curtain-up.
End of digression… **
In our theatre’s early days we relied heavily on the good offices of BAOS for the use of their lights, cabling and their little six-way electronic dimmer board but we always had to plan our shows well clear of the Operatic’s to ensure availability of their equipment. Later, as funds grew, we installed permanent wiring and gradually purchased our own lighting rig.
There was, of course, one huge problem: a suitable power supply. The usual supply to residential premises is sufficient for the inhabitants’ needs, and over the years Fred had laboriously added extra ring mains to various areas in the house without actually having the supply increased. No particular problem there; at any given time there were never more than, say, half-a-dozen folk in the place (there was a self-contained flat on the first floor) and demand was reasonably constant. But with the advent of the theatre all that was to change.
If all the lights were on at once, the draw could theoretically exceed the load carried by the “company fuse” (that fuse common to all buildings; it sits next to the meter and protects the entire circuits. Only an electrician from the supply company is allowed to work on it). Careful loading calculations thus had to be made, especially in the early years, to avoid such a calamity.
We owned 24 dimmers rated at 1000 watts each and then we had to take into account all the appliances which might be also drawing power – room lighting, electric heaters etc. The analogy to our predicament can be neatly illustrated by the fact that most people could support with their heads an armchair if it was very gently lowered upon them. If one such was suddenly dropped though, the result would be “collapse of stout party” or, in our case, collapse of company fuse. But despite bringing the lights up gently at the beginning of a show, local villagers on the supply would often notice their own lights dim a little and know the Grange was once again in business!
(Another digression! A separate story – “The Boys in the Box” is being written to limit the size of this current one: inevitably some details are duplicated but I hope it will still prove interesting and broaden the glimpse into the technical side of our theatre.)
So, to continue: the techies lived in a small control room which we built on to the back wall of the auditorium, utilising two existing windows which once gave daylight to the house’s servants’ area. Here the lighting and sound operators sat. We double-glazed the windows simply because the auditorium’s back row was situated immediately in front of them but during a show we were still obliged to converse in whispers and work by the dim blue bulbs of two “working lights”. Telephone and cue-light systems connected us with the stage manager.
Perhaps inevitably, the interior was never finished (ie decorated) beyond the installation of thick sound insulating fibreboard on the three external walls and the ceiling. It was painted a cheerful matt black in order to render the inhabitants almost invisible to the audience. Rather like the school board, the control room eventually sported its own rats’ nest of cabling, switches, tape racks, cupboards; also work surfaces upon which the necessary equipment stood. Spacious it wasn’t.
This first control room was a wooden affair constructed from a series of pine panels we removed from what was to become the stage area. It had previously formed a passageway between the services and the family side of the Grange. To keep costs down we didn’t add any new wood to the affair and so it was remarkably narrow -only one person at a time could squeeze through its doorway and the two techies had perforce to be good friends.
After several years the amount of equipment needed for shows meant we’d outgrown this office and so it was demolished; we dug foundations, and a proper, stone building erected complete with a concrete floor. At last draughts were a thing of the past and we could actually keep the place slightly more tidy.
The small size of the original control room used to discourage visitors during shows (some productions required actors to enter via the auditorium lobby through which members of the audience would pass on their way to the toilets). The layout of the Grange obliged these peripatetic souls to leave the house by its side door, pass behind our control room and enter the lobby round the corner.
Once the (relatively) more spacious room was built the door might stealthily open and a ‘passing’ member of cast slide gently in so they could watch part of the show from the audience’s viewpoint, before their approaching entry cue obliged them to quietly withdraw and continue on their way round to the lobby.
Now, the room might have been larger, but it wasn’t that large and so our nocturnal visitors had to squeeze behind the techies in order to gain the view through the windows. During the shows the room was, of course, very dark – lit only by two dim blue working lights and the wash from the stage. It was also warm and cozy and after so many years I feel safe in admitting us techies really, really looked forward to any nubile young female actresses pressing themselves against our backs…
We did, however, have a couple of surprises for some folk: one was a large and hairy rubber spider which could be lowered from the darkness in the ceiling and on to the head of an unsuspecting aforementioned nubile; mean, I know, but entertaining . . .
The second was the surreptitious use of a feature used but rarely since it was a small square hole originally intended to allow sound cables to pass into the auditorium until a sophisticated ‘patch panel’ was developed and the hole infilled with a square of foam padding.
This hole led directly onto the back windowsill by the back row of the audience. If any visitor innocently left, say, a box of choccies unattended, sometimes a stealthy hand would emerge behind them, snaffle a couple of sweets and, equally stealthily, withdraw into the gloom! From our thieving point of view, the drawback was that we could hardly fossick around the selection in order to find our favourite flavours! At this distant remove, may I offer apologies to those members of the audience who unwittingly fed us?
Whether we hadn’t dug foundations deep enough or tied the new building in to the existing one I’m not sure, but after a few years a widening crack appeared in the join and the control room began a gentle lean. Which meant rainwater started penetrating and dripping on our equipment. Not good, not good at all. So with heavy hearts we propped the roof up, pulled the walls down, carefully cleaned the stone for re-use, and rebuilt it properly.
As this reconstructive surgery took some time (we had ‘proper’ day jobs to hold down!) it meant that all the power cabling and the sound wires had to be wrapped in polythene bags to keep the weather out, and hung up as close to the inside of the roof as we could. However, once the building was finished, we didn’t waste much time refitting them all very tidily but simply tacked them in their conduits against the wall. And that ‘temporary’ fit-up served us well enough right through to the final show. That door used to open inwards, making the small room more crowded as people entered. We had the bright idea of making it open outwards. Surprisingly, Fred forgot that and one dark night was in with us watching part of a show before having to leave ready for the interval. Without thinking, he leaned against the door (which promptly opened) and he soundlessly fell backwards into the arms of the waiting hedge. Quite a moment!
We never did complete the fitting-out to the intended plan; by this stage (excuse the pun) most of the patrons knew very well that we were in there, and so why bother overmuch with camouflage? I myself would sometimes salute an audience member as they entered the auditorium before a show, by bringing up number 3 dimmer (it controlled the two front-of-house spotlights aimed on the downstage right area and through which patrons would have to pass on their way to the seats – which just showed how very tightly the lights had to be shuttered; once seated, the first and second rows of the audience’s heads were just below the f-o-h lights’ beams, whereas if they were standing, they were well illuminated). This personal ‘salute’ wasn’t accorded to just anyone – only those who I considered deserved it. And on occasions, if I was busy preparing for the start of the show and I missed someone who was watching for that brief flash of lights, they would often come round to see us during the interval and complain bitterly. Honestly, some people were just never satisfied!
That rebuild – though we weren’t aware of it at the time – marked the end of the theatre’s technical growth. In hindsight I can see that by then its development was finished; no more innovation or refinement – from that moment on we were simply coasting along towards the end. Happily we still had a few years in which to enjoy our precious and unique ‘toy’.
For the better part of this story I’ve enjoyed the faithful and ever-patient support of my wife Barbara, whom I married in 1972.
The poor girl suffered my many absences from our home when I was “over at Tew”, whether during the early stages of creating the theatre or for those countless times when I was running the lighting for almost all the shows we presented over the years. Bar, I salute you.