Joined Strand in 1932.
Instrumental in many innovations.
Editor of TABS 1957 – 1973.
Awarded Fellowship of the Association of British Theatre Technicians (1984)
Fred’s autobiography ‘Sixty Years of Light Work’ is available from Entertainment Technology Press
Fred Bentham was a rare combination of artist and engineer whose life’s work had been devoted to theatre, cinema and TV. During his 42 years with the same company, Strand Electric, he not only invented and initiated equipment, but pioneered ways of using it. The artist in him developed the use of coloured light as an art form – colour music – which was recognised by the Art Workers’ Guild who elected him as ‘Decorative Colour Worker’ in 1936. His energies were directed towards the design of theatres and scenery, writing, lecturing and demonstrating lighting
Fred Bentham died peacefully in a nursing home in west London on Thursday, May 10th. To many people around the world Fred was the father of modern entertainment lighting and became a well-known personality during his 42 years with Strand. Born in Harlesden in north-west London on 23rd October 1911 Fred joined The Strand Electric and Engineering Company in 1932 and quickly made his mark by overhauling the product range, publishing a new case-bound catalogue in 1936 which included a host of innovative products including mirror spots, Acting Area and Pageant lanterns and of course, the Light Console. This revolutionary lighting control, and the ubiquitous Pattern 23 spotlight became synonymous with Fred Bentham and Strand. The Light Console’s lasting legacy was to progress the technology of lighting control from a complex on-stage mechanical device to a remote control which could be located where the operator could actually see what was being lit. Fred’s reputation grew after the Second World War when he took over the editorship of Strand’s popular journal Tabs, and this, combined with regular lectures and Colour Music demonstrations gained him a wide following as the focus of the industry’s progressive developments. Strand’s development team, under Fred’s direction, was at the forefront of thyristor dimmer design, profile spotlight developments and ultimately, memory lighting systems. In addition to being a founding member of the ABTT, ALD a prominent member of the IES (later CIBSE) and editor of Sightline, Fred was especially proud of his election as a member of the Art Workers’ Guild after his 1936 lecture on ‘Stage Lighting as an Art’ to members of the Guild (which included his father, the sculptor Percy Bentham, and on that occasion, George Bernard Shaw). Fred continued his connections with the industry into his 80s, publishing his autobiography Sixty Years of Light Work in 1992.
Memorial Event at London Palladium (June 2001)
Fred’s Palladium Bouquet! by Roger Mills
London’s Palladium was the only possible place to celebrate Ninety Years of Light Work. It is, quite simply, gorgeous. An extravaganza of gilt and gloss, plush and pleasure, showcase for every major twentieth century star, its framed playbills and portraits triggering waves of nostalgia for a world Fred Bentham served so well. Scene too of both his ‘walk through the valley of death’ visit to the dimmer room* and pioneer Light Console installation.
The best mid-morning house in the history of this venerable old theatre? Perhaps – from eleven a steady stream mounted the steps, paused to sign a memorial book, then headed for the stalls bar.
Amongst the hubbub overheard chat identified ex Strand people, family, and industry types who’d clearly known Fred, and each other, well. But, hovering at the edges, were others come to remember an influence from afar.
With settings for The King and I sumptuously lit and star cloth flown in the stage was set for colleagues acclaiming FPB’s contribution to live entertainment and Ilse, Fred’s widow, recalling the family man. True to the tradition of variety, MC Roger Fox promised, we’d be treated to a mystery top of the bill!
Surprises at the start too in the form a shellac model light console Fred constructed for the model theatre that shaped his future career – early days sketched in by Roger Fox – before Francis Reid set the celebratory tone.
“Fred exercised insight into the art of the theatre and its technical requirements. He understood and cared deeply about it and working with him only enhanced my admiration”
“He was one of the great theatrical lateral thinkers.” he continued, citing the light console, Patt. 264, rocker switches for level setting, and even the mundane hook clamp. “The creative stimulation offered in debates and meetings left one with lots to think about. He was a brilliant marketeer too. His first catalogue in 1936 contained models that only had an existence in its pages but could be built if required. He was recognised by architects as a sensitive consultant.”
“It is Tabs though that is Fred’s key contribution to future theatre,” Francis concluded. “assuring his place in the annals of theatre in general and lighting in particular.”
“You might be surprised to hear that he could be ambivalent!” Brian Legge remembered, recalling Fred’s wavering indecision about attending a meeting in the early sixties. “They’re all youngsters in wrinkle-pickers and I don’t think its my kind of thing!” vacillated FPB. Would Brian to take his place? But Fred did attend the birth of ABTT! Luckily for them – as his presence gave an early momentum to the infant association. Luckily for the man – because after Rank, in Legge’s words, “ABTT was a bit of a salvation to Fred personally.
Bob Anderson harked back to television in the 1950s when competition from ITV led the BBC to Riverside Studios. “The experts knew what they wanted. Lean labour, easier rigging and a central control alongside the vision controls. Enter Fred and B. They knew the importance of TV and what was coming. Used to devising solutions for potential customers there were no other serious competitors – so they knew they were fairly certain to sell something!”
“For Strand the BBC was a very important customer but BBC engineers looked askance at the Compton technology, which worked but wasn’t quite what they were used to. In 1966 they demanded a move to new technology.” Solid state thyristor dimmers and a new approach to control, System C/AE, was the result. But, he admitted, it was something of a last gasp before Q-File pushed Strand aside.
John Watt remembered Fred’s public face. “I attended many of the lectures at King Street, Fred and Strand provided the only early forums for lighting. No lighting gathering was complete without a pithy comment when we were getting too pompous. Off we’d then go into uncharted waters when the real debate would begin.”
“One of the greatest theatrical innovators of his time and the grandfather of stage lighting! You missed a treat if you didn’t have a chance to work a Light Console.” Looking up to the gods John remarked: “A benign ghost will watch over us for a long time yet!”
Richard Pilbrow was in no doubt. Fred: “Was the cause of Strand becoming a world-wide leader! Extraordinary artist – I was sceptical about Colour Music but was blown away by it! Believed in simple bold lighting critical of saturation rigs – but was quite willing to sell you the stuff! Innovator – he revitalised Strand immediately when he went there. Bloody good theatre consultant.”
“But not happy being the cog in conglomerate.” Pilbrow commented musing on Fred’s experiences of the Rank Organisation “Corporate stupidity was appallingly destructive for Strand and must have come close to breaking Fred’s heart. He left and devoted himself to the ABTT where his impact continued.
“This was a very special man, and extraordinary engineer and man of the theatre and a true artist of light”
Life with Fred was, according to Ilse, ‘Fifty one years in the shade of light work.’
They met during his recovery from a traumatic and savage ‘kill or cure’ operation for TB. She was a nurse. The prognosis so poor concerned nursing colleagues counselled “Surely there’s’ no future for you there?” Isle’s reply? “He’s been given four or five years and we intend to be happy.” This was a very sick, very determined man “His first book was written from his sick bed. His rehabilitation was the Royal Festival Hall.”
His work? “I found it all cheerfully odd and interesting. Strand was another lot of in-laws!” Introduced early with a panic call came as they left for the ceremony – typical Strand – Fred solved the theatre’s problem while his bride to be knelt on the floor doing up his shoes.
Relationships with those in-laws eventually went sour, after the take-over, when Fred told her “Now I’ve got to fall out of love with Strand.” Happily he fell in love with the canal boat Peter Sam, which, with his variegated interests, led to a contented retirement.
As the ovation that greeting Ilse Bentham’s moving recollections died away Fred’s voice, recorded in the King Street Theatre, filled the house, the star cloth flew out, revealing the top of the bill. On a dais, picked out in open white, was the Palladium light console!
It was showmanship worthy of the man, sending the audience off to the bar for drinks, refreshment and to talk far beyond the time suggested in the programme. At eleven I knew one other person, by three thirty I knew a lot more – met through lighting and theatre chat. I think Fred would have approved of that as well.
British live entertainment was richly blessed that its leading stage lighting figure was an artist manqué, not simply an engineer. Under his inspiration Strand offered solutions to real performance needs. Change for changes sake never drove innovation in their catalogue under Bentham who was always looking for the quantum leap. Much of the equipment he designed still gives sterling service due its superb fitness for purpose.
Will we see his like again? Probably not. Strand exemplified a kind of specialist niche company rare today in any field. Modern corporate life doesn’t tolerate the maverick or the individualist easily – as Fred found himself after 1968. May he rest in peace.
*as recalled in Sixty Years of Light Work shortly to be re-published.
Details in September from www.etnow.com/books/index.htm
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