Palace Theatre, Manchester

Date 1949
Location Palace Theatre, Manchester
Number of Dimmers 108
Configuration
Notes According to Jim Laws (personal email 3/4/07): “The Manchester Palace Console was the only one with a desk-mounted pilot indicator per way. The perch position made it important.” (presumably because from the perch the operator couldn’t always see which dimmers were on). It is cosmetically restored and preserved at Gerrietts in France.Operated for much of its life by Gill Binks, the Chief Electrician and 1977 ABTT Technician of the Year, described by Fred Bentham as a “virtuoso of thirty Light Console years”. Replaced in 1981 by a 240-way Light Palette, located in a control room at the rear of the stalls (Fred Bentham, “Pitlochry, Manchester and Puddledock”, Sightline, 15:2 (Autumn 1981), London: ABTT).

Alan Burgess reports (personal email 22/8/2012): “I spent one Xmas season (around 75) at the Palace Manchester. I was the sound engineer for the Black and White Minstrel Show and my equipment was set up right next to the Light Console. I had previously operated several different lighting boards (my first job was a 64 way Grand Master), so I was fascinated to see the Light Console in use. The operator was actually a professional organist and he made it look easy but the chief electrician Gill Binks told me that he was the only person he’d found in years that could actually work it on complex modern lighting plots.”

The operator Alan refers to was David Wyld, who was indeed a professional organist and now an organ builder as Managing Director of Henry Willis & Sons. David offers the following story (personal email, 8/7/2013), which reveals the challenges of operating a Light Console for a show with a complex plot:

“In 1975/6 the Palace took the Harold Fielding touring production of ‘Hans Andersen’, prior to Birmingham and Bristol Hippodromes. Michael Northern did the touring lighting design which completely took up all 108 ways on the Light Console –  there was another, temporary, board installed in one of the Circle boxes to handle the extensive FOH Proscenium towers:  he had a much better view than I did as I saw nothing at all, being on the prompt-side perch, round a corner over the quick-change room.

One of the ‘highlights’ of this extravaganza was a transformation scene involving a coach and horses changing into a sailing ship, the Fly floor was going crazy and the lighting plot looking like a spider had crawled over the paper having fallen out of an ink pot. From memory – bearing in mind this is now 38 years later – I remember all three dimmer banks having to do different things: Middle bank with some dimmers being run down behind the ‘flash’ black-out, while other ways were being run up under blackout; Right bank, coupled to Middle, general fade to black-out with a stop change half way, dropping some circuits off at about 25% and at the same time putting new circuits on for a flash ‘on’ and run-up dimmers behind; Left bank (which was all battens and floats on that board) random flashing to create ‘lightning’.

It wasn’t funny, at least to start with and until I’d worked out a way to get it all under the fingers and on the toe pistons.  We spent a full afternoon running it prior to the ‘dress’ and it did all happen, eventually, but the stage crew were having troubles with the trucks, one of which had to be opened up and turned inside out during the transformation – all happening within less-than-ten seconds.

At the closed dress rehearsal there was a problem, nothing to do with lighting, but I remember that the whole matter got blown out of all proportion with the ‘star’ throwing a hissy-fit and yelling at Michael Northern in the Stalls, then the same things being thrown in my direction!   Michael, who was a consummate professional AND a Gentleman, advised the ‘Star’ not to shout at the Board Operator as to do so could have terrible consequences!  He went on further  to say, very loudly so that even I in my eyrie could hear,… “This Board is a mass of heaving, wheezing machinery that is currently – I know not how –  being made to do things that it was never designed to do and that technically it CAN’T do, and we should be thankful!”.”

David Wyld also reports (personal email 6/5/2016) on the seating arrangements for the operator:

“Manchester had a fixed-height (i.e non-adjustable) bench which looked like a standard Compton organ bench but it was lower due to there not being a pedalboard. The bench wasn’t used by my predecessor other than as a table at the side of the console – he used a normal kitchen chair. I found that too rickety and tried to use the bench but the lack of any backrest made it very uncomfortable so I eventually reverted to the chair!”

References
Pictures

Cartoon of the Manchester Palace Light Console, originally published in the Daily Mirror, 17th January 1951. Reprinted in Sightline, 15:2 (Autumn 1981), London: ABTT, p.95.

There is also a photo from the Fred Brown collection at the Strand Archive here.