Jim Croton recalls life backstage…

From my second year 1967-68 onwards, I was involved in just about every play, musical and film society event which happened. A team of pupils carried out the duties of the projection room, and the lighting crew at these events supervised by a member of staff. I was privileged to be one of that team. The team members variously consisted of:

Pupils:

Arthur Foster
Phil Bailey
Dennis Onions
Mike Savory
Glen Darby
Jim Croton (me)
Rob Hill
Norman Foster
Hugh Bennett

Staff:

(Can you spot the common factor between the first two?)

Lighting:

Brian Hughes (Physics)
Donovan Carless (Physics)

Film Society:

Harry Baptist-Smith (Geography)
John Clifford (History)

Tobias And The Angel

A joint performance with the Girls’ High. While I helped with setting up the lighting for this play, I was considered too inexperienced to be allowed to participate on the night. I recall one spectacular lighting effect which called for several spots to be switched on simultaneously to illuminate the Angel now bedecked in the white gowns of his trade. This was as the character entered stage left front, up the steps from the auditorium. Viewed from my vantage on the balcony (entered from the door at the rear of room 13) the effect was stunning. This darkened figure suddenly turns to face the audience, reveals himself (in the nicest possible way) and is lit up with 5000 watts of white light. I was impressed and I had seen it before!

Billy Budd

My first play as a full member of the crew. This was performed in the old WBHS Hall, the stage of which was much easier to light than the wide low stage of Wood Green. The lighting gallery was mounted about eight feet above the stage so as not to interfere with movement below. A steel ladder gave access through a trap door. Just prior to this performance, a second Furse lighting panel had been acquired (I think it came from Holyhead Road School). We spent quite some time running cable back to this panel from the extra spots, floods and battens (banks of lights for general illumination). The aim was to provide a stage with no shadow unless the director called for it specifically. As the junior, I spent lots of time standing around various points on the stage as Arthur, Phil and Mike moved spots and floods, varied the dimmer settings and so on until the stage was perfect.

All the while we carried out this work, rehearsals would come and go and we would have to make way for them. The final scene called for the dramatic demise of the young seaman Billy Budd. He was hung from the yardarm or in reality we dangled him at arms length from the catwalk over the stage. This was quite a hairy thing to do – no safety rope or belt and due to the stature of our hero (altitudinally challenged) he was literally being held by the wrists in order that his lower legs could be seen by the audience dropping below the valance curtain. The effect must have been good because even from our precarious positions on the catwalk, with three or four of us gripping Mr Budd, we could hear gasps from the audience. It was then a mad scramble as the curtain closed for us to haul the hero back onto the safety of the catwalk and get him back to stage in time for curtain calls.

Oliver

This was unusual in that it was performed by pupils of the lower school only and to complicate matters for the lighting crew, was performed “in the round”. The implications for us were that we could have no footlights or battens, there were no overhead gantries or catwalks and the lighting panel was hidden from the “round” as it was back of main stage (left). Hugh Bennett, Rob Hill and myself spent hours climbing ladders and double mounting every available spot we could muster. Don Carless arranged for some extra brackets to be fitted and cabled by the council works people and he also scrounged a couple of flood stands which allowed us to give a reasonable luminence to the set. We were aided by the approach of having a minimalist set where simple boxes of varied size are used to give body.

It all went off quite well! I cannot recall any of the names of the cast but do remember being greatly impressed by the young lady who played Nancy. She was outstanding!

Wind in the Willows

This was great fun to do. The cast was a mix of staff and pupils following the success of this mix in the Gilbert and Sullivan productions. We were allowed to lash out a bit for stage design and had for the first time a back net. The principal of this is that you can paint a scene on the front and when front lit – you view that scene. If you now dim the front lights and back light the net, it becomes transparent and a whole new scene located at the rear of the net appears before your very eyes. Thus we created Badgers tunnel. I think the part of Badger was played by Mr Payne (not Alan but his cousin whose name escapes me). Another player who comes to mind was Steve Phillips who was Head Boy of the school 1972 – 73.

The Matchmaker

Mention of Steve Phillips has to lead me on to this. Steve played the part of Cornelius, made famous in “Hello Dolly” by the man who went on to become Frank Spencer – Michael Crawford. His partner in crime, Ambrose Kemper was played by Jeff Osborne. This pair were natural partners and for me, looked very at ease in their roles. The costumes for this production came from the superb resources of the Domestic Science department and Nita Taylor – surely someone who missed her true vocation in life. The costumes and cast were brilliant. Even the singing was tolerable (The Red River Valley?) and our lighting was happy to stay well in the background. It wasn’t difficult to light! As the cast grew in confidence with each performance, the ad-libs also increased. We had been egging Steve on all week to throw in one line and he had adamantly refused until the last night. The script had Dolly Levi saying to the shy Cornelius who had hugged her and realised she was wearing a corset……

Dolly: ” A corset is just a corset”
The ad-lib by Cornelius. “Of course it is”

The Crucible

If memory serves, this was the senior school’s dramatic contribution countering “Oliver” (see above). Much fun to light as there are so many gloomy scenes. Not overly taxing though as by this time we had had the pair of lighting panels moved from the old WBHS Hall to supplement the modern but inadequate Wood Green panel. With just about every footlight, batten, flood and spot from both schools available we could conjure up most effects at the drop of a hat. The only difficulty lay in the fact that we now had three “Master Blackout” switches and needed a window pole and two broom handles to perform a slow fade. In my view this was probably the best drama production we ever did. The cast worked very hard and really put their hearts into the production. These were demanding roles and were well acted. I think this play was directed by Richard (Dickie) Moon of the English Department. If this was the case, the cast will well remember the post last-night production party held at Dickie’s parents house up the Wood Green Road.

The Mikado

This was the first big performance in the new hall. We were horrified when we saw the state of the stage and the lights available. Brian Hughes organised the move of the lighting panels from the old hall. This work was carried out by the council staff. It was still left mainly to the crew to cable individual lights back to the panels. We also moved all of the dimmers and mounted them up. No problems in leaving a bunch of schoolboys to play with the mains! Eventually all was in place and we were able to eliminate the three ranks of shadow which had previously meant anyone moving from stage front to rear seemed to dematerialise and reappear every other step. For some reason (Rob Hill’s) my name was omitted from the programme.

The day of the full dress rehearsal which had an invited audience (local pensioners, school pupils etc). The Fire Chief came round and banned the production as there were no emergency exit signs with independent power supplies. We had some back in the WBHS Hall and while Mr Hughes gathered every accumulator the science department could muster, I retrieved the signs from across the way and we had them up and working to the Fire Chief’s satisfaction, inside an hour.

From this production onwards, the lighting crew also became unofficial members of the men’s chorus together with any male cast members not then front of curtain. Hence the reason that a dozen men on stage could sound like twenty! A great feature of this production was the incredibly good costumes. The props department also did very well with Ko-Ko’s fabulous fan collection. Some fell apart as he vainly tried to use them, one was a giant device and a third was a “West Brom Fan”.

The Pirates of Penzance

Marvellous fun and we had some interesting challenges in the lighting department. The ladies’ chorus had been equipped with candles made from wood, a single battery, bulb and some tissue paper. The scene was at night as the ladies seek the men. Hugh and I worked for hours with different settings of battens and foots to create the effect. I watched from rear of house during the dress rehearsal and it looked awful. The girls looked blotchy and horrible. (Someone said they were like that anyway…IT WASN’T ME!). A drastic rethink was needed. Rob Hill suggested adding extra blue filters in the bats to replace some yellows. We tried it and it was a bit better.

I think it was Hugh who came up with the solution – swap the overhead flood filters before the start of the scene and again after it finished. We tried it, timed how long it took and worked out that we had just enough time to succeed. We did it at the final dress rehearsal and the effect was great. Next snag…the producer didn’t like the idea of us careering across the stage with ladders during a live performance albeit during a scene shift. Only when the director came back stage to praise the effect did we get the go ahead. We didn’t do it though. Don Carless came back with a couple of suggestions which involved a major change to the front of house lights, so freeing up two floods which we then hung overhead allowing a seamless change of filter – in reality we changed the whole flood.

What had been forgotten was that we now had a 1000 watt spot out front where previously we had had a 500 watt baby spot / flood. The dimmer allocated was also a 500 watt unit. As Edgar gave his welcoming speech to the gathered throng, the laws of physics took over and the fuse supporting this error did what it was supposed to do. The bang was quite spectacular, rather like a rifle shot and I am told by those at front of house that Edgar did a vertical take off! He then graciously gave the lighting crew a mention for the first and last ever time.

On the Saturday night of the performance, one of the cast – The Police Sergeant – who I remember as being a fourth year pupil, decided to have a bit of fun with the traffic on the Wood Green Road. We were taking some fresh air by the stage door and watched in amazement as this lad stepped boldly into the road in front of an approaching car, waved it down and then had words with the driver before sending him on his way! Surely there can be no greater tribute to the work of Nita’s costume department than this.

Footnote: The final lighting for the night scene was just right and really enhanced the stunning costumes and candles.

HMS Pinafore

“We sail the ocean blue, And our saucy ship’s a beauty; We’re sober men and true, And attentive to our duty”

I think Harry Baptist Smith played the Captain (Corcoran by name?). One of the Upper Sixth [Chris Lockley, ed] was the “Ruler of the Queen’s Navy” – Sir Joseph Porter while the part of Buttercup was played by one of the staff (Nita Taylor, I believe). Only one incident springs to mind from this production which coincidentally involved Sweet Little Buttercup. It was first night just before curtain up and she was standing in the wings by the lighting panel chatting to us when a sudden look of alarm crossed her face and she said “ouch” quietly. A dress makers pin had been left in the costume and had found a fleshy target. Not just one pin though. We struggled not to laugh too much as our heroine frantically searched through the nether regions of her garb recovering several more pins in the process. I fancy that Ron Court volunteered to help with the search – ever the gentleman!

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