A Significant Lighting Control Failure

In the early 1970s, a unique lighting control system was installed in the Mermaid Theatre, London: Plotlite. At the time, Plotlite was the only system on the market to offer full memory control with fader-per-channel preset manual control, features the Mermaid wanted to meet the needs of its intensive and diverse programme of productions and events.

Plotlite was created by Digital Display Ltd., a company with no previous experience of lighting or theatre. The result was a disaster, leading to recriminations, legal action, and the failure of the company, as well as impacting on the careers of some of those involved.

Dorian Kelly, who was Chief Electrician at the Mermaid Theatre at the time, has made available the documentation he and Philip Ormond Assistant Electrician assembled at the time, which constituted the evidence presented in the subsequent court case brought by Digital Display Ltd. to recover outstanding monies owed. The documentation tells the story, and Dorian has provided an afterward, forty years later (below).

The crisis with the Plotlite system came to a head during the production of a show called Cole, lit by Nick Chelton. Nick also tells his perspective on the story below.


“I came across these papers while having a clear out, and a number of memories came flooding in. Looking back at the saga of the installation of a new lighting console at the Mermaid in 1974, it seems to me that this is was very important footnote in the whole history of lighting control, and one which has largely passed from memory. So I have re-collected them and will deposit them where they can be consulted by future students of lighting history.

This was an interesting, and in retrospect quite a difficult time for us all at the Mermaid. We needed to take a good hard look at the motley assortment of lighting boards with which we were doing some quite complex lighting work. The equipment we were using at the time was completely unsuitable for a producing theatre that, effectively, had aspirations to be the equal to a West End venue, but one which was doing up to four different shows a day, seven days a week. At is most intensive we were doing a performance of a schools show about John Donne, followed by The Molecule Theatre of Science, then a matinee of Treasure Island and an evening show of Cowardy Custard. On the next day we might put or music show. Invariably these were improvised and the lighting was provided on the fly, on a charity show for a group such as Amnesty International, or perhaps a poetry, comedy with the lighting designer at the controls assessing what was needed and putting it into operation there and then. I remember we were very proud of these shows, and the standard of artistic production was kept very high.

We had two paths to choose from: to go with the traditional manually operated board with as many masters and sub groups as possible, or to dip a toe into memory recall systems. We really wanted to take a leap into the twentieth century and go something with memories, but with the flexibility of a manually operated system. But at the time we were looking at this there was little or nothing on the market other than the ill-fated IDM, or a system based on a PDP11 computer with a massive magnetic disk or systems with lots of pin patching – a nightmare to work flexibly. What was being installed in many theatres was the Stand MMS system, which was very suitable for day by day recall of stored cues in a long run, but was not really suitable for a venue that needed the flexibility to wok shows live. Other manufacturers were experimenting, but nothing was actually on the market. None of the lighting control manufacturers thought that having a lever per channel was the way to go at that time, asserting that push buttons were the future. I had many an interesting conversation with various manufacturers about the dynamics of a fade being difficult to control – no profiling of crossfades available then, just klunky proportional crossfades.

The Digital Display Plotlite system seemed a golden opportunity to really get a system that would do everything we wanted and more: a tightly specified hybrid fully manual system with instant and infinite memory recall, chases and the ability to both plot blind and modify live as well as grab dimmer levers and perform live in the best traditions of lighting operators. A system that could cope with a massive 100 channels and an unlimited number of cues. In short, we specified a system which would eventually be the commonplace concept, such as the ETC Express.

The management of the Mermaid, including the Managing Governor and artistic Director Sir Bernard (later Lord) Miles and the rest of the technical and production team were enthusiastic in their support, and remained so throughout the whole debacle.

The day to day story of the installation and commissioning is told in the course of the documents. As you will see it did not work out and almost brought the Mermaid to its knees financially.

What these diaries and legal documents do not show is the heartbreak, the despair, the recriminations and the sheer distress and exhaustion it caused us, and it must be said, to Digital Display Ltd. who were as much losers in this as the Mermaid. The crunch came during the fitup of Cole which was by our standards a massive show with projections, motrorised scenery and over two hundred lanterns. It was lit by that dark master of the lighting art, the greatly talented Nick Chelton – although not always the easiest of people to get on with.

In the spirit of optimism, I had assured him that the desk would work by the time the tech rehearsals, but this optimism was ill founded, and we found ourselves in technical rehearsals with a 100 channel unit that had not only no memory recall but with a manual section with no presetting whatsoever and half the channels so unreliable as to be unusable. Of course he hit the roof, and quite rightly too. He asked for new desks, and said he would need to re-rig everything to accommodate manual operation. My staff were exhausted too, and when they heard of another all nighter, they rebelled. I explained this, and said that for the protection of my staff, we would have to get more help in. He screamed at me that the only person my staff needed protection from was me and demanded my resignation. He did not get it, as the Mermaid backed me up. However Nick then got in an army of riggers from White Light at great expense who re-rigged the whole thing to work with two hired-in manual boards alongside the remaining bits of Plotlite operated manually. He also got in a lot of temporary dimmer racks and made the rig even bigger. One of the electricians who came in got a very bad electric shock while working on a portable dimmer rack with the lid off and the power on, but lived to tell the tale. Cole went on, on time and was very successful, worked manually with four operators and ran for over a year.

Digital Display Ltd. were desolate. They had put everything they possessed into this project, their houses were on the line and apparently they were having huge rows with each other. The row threatened to come to court, sueing us and me in particular for interfering with the system, making the running repairs and keeping the show on the road. However, Philip Ormond had, at my instance, been keeping a diary/log of everything that happened, and it was easily shown that there was no case to answer. I do not know what became of the directors of Digital Display Ltd. They did have, I believe a digital watch and clock business which might have been helpful. By that time, there were several systems available and the Mermaid was able to by a Thorn Q-Master, along with some proper dimmer racks.

For me, it was my Waterloo. Exhausted and humbled by the whole thing I needed to rest. I tendered my resignation and left and went on holiday to Leningrad to visit some theatre friends. My wife was very supportive, but because of loss of confidence and more importantly loss of reputation, depression set in and it was a long long time before I found good work again.”

Dorian Kelly, January 2014

Another Perspective

Nick Chelton, the lighting designer for Cole, offers another perspective:

“Basically, the Mermaid in 1974 was performing single smallish scale plays in 6 week runs. The artistic Director, Bernard Miles was opposed to lighting designers. This was becoming a difficult position to sustain as the commercial managements with whom he sought to collaborate were used to employing lighting designers. It was also difficult to hold on to any quality of staff especially as Bernard was well known to be insane.

There was no need for boards which had preset desks. There never would be again. Within a couple of years all the major repertoire houses would be using keyboard-only access to channels and memories for rehearsals and performances all day long, seven days a week. Bernard Miles either found for himself or was introduced by his electricians to the company who provided the lighting board. This was supposed to be up and working during the run of the play before the musical Cole.

I had already been involved in the idiotic policy of not using lighting designers. Three months earlier the Associate Director at the Mermaid had asked me to light a play called Children. In the event, Bernard Miles would not agree. The director and designer and I got together and I created the lighting concept for them as a favour. The chief electrician at that time apparently lit the show. He resigned during the show’s run and Dorian replaced him.

Throughout the fit-up and focussing none of the Mermaid staff including Dorian worked with me. They were working day and night to make the new board work although I did not realise that then. I essentially worked with my assistant Mark Waters who was there mainly to assist me with the projections which were complex and abundant. Graham Phoenix, another friend of mine from Greenwich Theatre, turned up to help and became production electrician of necessity. Mark was unpaid. Graham was paid very little.

When I discovered, during the opening minutes of the Technical Rehearsal, that the board could not handle any lighting cues I was astonished and quickly furious. A wonderful company of actors had worked for weeks to create a show that was clearly most enjoyable. The creative team of directors and designers and music staff had worked closely over several months to visually create a seamless marriage of design, lighting and projection. Here we were, two days before the first of only a handful of previews, totally lost. There was no back up situation at all. Quickly I cobbled together a plan in which we re-wired the entire rig back to the projection and lighting control position at the back of the auditorium. Here we installed two separate touring lighting boards. This installation was undertaken by half a dozen colleagues of mine from the Royal Court Theatre – not White Light. This plan was proposed and implemented with the full agreement of the theatre management. It was costed by me and they agreed to pay for it before it was embarked upon.

While this was done I went back to my office in the West End and sat down with my assistant (and the lighting cues as written down by Dorian’s operator while I was lighting the show on the previous Sunday as they concealed from me that they had no hope at all of operating it) for one of the longest nights of my life. First we sellotaped the numbers of the channels of the old rig to the huge windows of the office. Then we filled in the new numbers of the two touring boards we hoped the newly cabled rig would contain. At intervals these numbers were revised when my people at the theatre found they couldn’t make the numbers work. The entire Mermaid staff had left us to do this alone.

In the morning we went back to the theatre and started to go through it. To everyone’s immense relief, it basically all worked perfectly. A little later we started the technical and the following day we played the first preview.

Throughout this the cast were wonderful. They never complained about the delay nor the mess that had been created all over the auditorium. The theatre administrator had a nervous breakdown and retired from theatre. He later became a highly celebrated radio comedy producer.

The board never worked at any time. The Strand MMS would have been totally able to work at the Mermaid. Bernard Miles liked the one that was bought because it was cheap. His electricians did what he told them to do and fancied themselves as Lighting Designers as Dorian describes. They did not need to specify new systems of control.

The original plan once the show opened was to use the days to slowly reintroduce the board. That never happened. The board was never used and never sold to anyone else. The Mermaid got a wonderful production and lost a fortune. They very nearly had no production and lost even more.

I never met nor spoke to Bernard Miles at any time.”

Nick Chelton, February 2014

Other References

The Plotlite System was described in Electronics and Power, 3rd May 1973:

Nick Chelton has also provided scans of an article ‘How to Make Light Work’ by Michael Coveney, published in Plays and Players from the period. Coveney interviewed Nick and fellow lighting designer Mick Hughes when writing the article, which includes Nick’s description of the problems on Cole. The article also offers a vignette of lighting life at the time:

Michael Coveney, ‘How to Make Light Work’, Plays and Players