Charles Bristow from The Stage, February 1966

Dates: Unknown

From The Stage, 17 February 1966
Charles Bristow, who has been appointed lighting consultant to Sadler’s Wells Theatre was born in Liverpool and began his career as assistant electrician to his father, who was Chief Electrician at the Royal Court, Liverpool for thirty years. It was while with H.M.Tennant that Charles Bristow became interested in stage lighting. He joined Sadler’s Wells and has been associated with that theatre for the past 22 years. He has also been invited to work in many of the world’s most famous opera houses. Only last week he was commissioned to light Jack Carter’s new production of London Festival Ballet’s full-length production of Swan Lake, which was given a gala premiere at the celebrated Fenice Theatre in Venice. He is a founder-member of the Society of British Lighting Designers and also a member of the Association of British Theatre Technicians. 


Charles Bristow was a dominant figure in the development of theatre lighting design through the sixties and seventies, responsible for over 400 productions during his career. His father, also Charles, was Chief Electrician of the Liverpool Royal Court Theatre. 

1954 – Appointed Chief Electrician of Sadlers’ Wells Opera. 

1971 – By 1971 he was lighting engineer / resident lighting designer of Sadlers’ Wells Opera at the Coliseum.

1973 – As well as recently lighting a P&O Cruise Ship, he was also Consultant to the Madame Tussauds Exhibition in London where the lighting changed regularly to match the changing exhibits.

More information:

Lighting an Opera: Wagner’s Flying Dutchman at Sadler’s Wells

A Spanish plaza basking in brilliant sunshine … a desolate river scene at night, the sky shot with lightning and racked with racing storm-clouds…. A great ghostly ship looming up out of the darkness and dropping anchor about 20 yards from the orchestra pit.. ..

How many people in an operatic audience, I wonder, realize how these effects are produced and how much they rely upon the technique and artistry of lighting? Does the audience even consider how well or how inadequately equipped our opera houses are to make this contribution to the total effect? Let me begin by sketching the way in which I, as a lighting designer, fit into the preparation of a production.

In the early stages of planning, discussions take place between the producer, the designer, and myself. I am shown coloured sketches of the proposed scenes and costumes and the producer and designer explain to me exactly how they feel and visualize the completed work. At this point I have to work out ideas whereby I can use lighting to provide colour and depth in the same way as a painter does on canvas. For example, I may during a scene have to change a blue sky to a sunset. This can be done by projecting the required colours on to the skycloth. Very often these effects can be obtained on a plain white cloth, all the necessary colours being provided simply by changes in lighting.

Next, the designer builds a sketch model of each of the sets, on a scale of 4 in. to 1 ft. In making these models he will ask me what openings I need in the scenery, etc., so that I can project my lighting effects without having them obscured. Sometimes special apparatus, like the scenic projector I used in The Flying Dutchmanat ‘Sadler’s Wells, has to be hidden somewhere in the set itself.

We are able now to work out a sequence of lighting effects and changes. The producer discusses the whole opera with me, scene by scene, and explains exactly what takes place—the atmosphere, mood, time of day, movements of the artists, the number of lighting-changes required and their timing. Each lighting cue is marked on the stage manager’s copy of the score, which will be used for rehearsals and performances.

Having all this information plus the model, I then start work on my own ground-plan of the sets, which I work out on a drawing-board. Here I plan the layout of my equipment, plotting the exact positions of the ‘lanterns’ — which are the various sources of light I use, whether they be units disposed round the stage, overhead lighting, or ‘perches’ at the sides of the proscenium. There are approximately 40 different types of lanterns available for use, varying from 4 in. to 4 ft. 6in. in length. All this must then be ‘translated’ on to the lighting console which, as with an organ, controls the whole operation by means of sets of keys. Each key represents a particular lighting circuit, and on this console the operator can pre-set up to 14 separate lighting arrangements each of which can be brought into action at the required moment of the performance. My ground plan shows which lanterns are used for each circuit and with which colours. Incidentally, we in this country, and also the United States, are some way ahead of the Continent in the use of colour. I have a choice of 60 different colours — with 15 shades of blue and 10 of pink. We can mix filters to obtain a further range of colours : in fact the Americans have over 100, but we can achieve the same effects with what we have.

Before the first lighting rehearsal, I have to go round with the crew and set the lanterns according to the plan. This may take me up to two or three hours. However, this is virtually the end of the technical problems : from now on the art or craft of my job begins. I sit in the front of the house with the producer, my crew being at their various posts and linked to me by pocket radio. The stage manager or his assistant walk around and take up positions as though they were the performers. This enables us to work out the intensity and balance of each of the lights, and the producer and I now work out an actual lighting-plot. I have to compose the lighting to fit in with the producer’s ideas of mood, feeling, and any sudden dramatic effects required. For example, in the first act of the ‘Sadler’s Wells production of Tosca there is a sudden opening of the double doors; and later, as Scarpia works down-stage left, at the same time I have to create the new atmosphere in the church — the candlelight must be gently glowing yet must gradually take the main emphasis of the whole lighting of the stage. The next stage for me is the ‘piano dress rehearsal’ with the singers themselves on the stage. Now I put into action all the details so far worked out. The singers walk into the positions which they have already learned in the rehearsal rooms but which they have to establish more precisely on the stage itself, so that they come within range of the appropriate lanterns. Then follows the first dress rehearsal with the orchestra. Adjustments are made to cues and we fine down the timing to split-second operation. Here I am in the auditorium again with radio link to my assistants, giving them instructions which they mark on their separate plots.

Here I should like to draw some comparisons between practice in our own opera house, with the limited resources we have, and those on the Continent. My own operations at ‘Sadler’s Wells involve a crew of 12 men, two of them being engaged in workshop routines and the other ten actively manipulating the lighting system. This number is pathetically small by comparison with other countries: for example, in German opera houses the average is about 30. With us here, the first fully technical rehearsal takes place usually about two weeks before the date of a new production: on the Continent they are able to reach this stage anything up to six months in advance of production.

On a recent visit to East Berlin I was fortunate enough to attend a lighting rehearsal of Handel’s Ezio at the State Opera House. To my surprise I found that the principals and the entire chorus were sitting in the auditorium waiting to take up various positions on the stage solely for the purpose of lighting rehearsal.

On the Continent they have the means to buy the most elaborate lighting equipment in the world; all the same, I did not feel that it was being used to the best advantage. They have a great number of lanterns available but only a proportion of them are used; they seem to rely mainly on the use of following spotlights on the principal singers. Personally I feel that this sadly takes away the artistry and realism which most operas demand. In Leipzig, for example, I attended a performance of Handel’s Radamisto and was greatly impressed by the lighting of the sets and the use of scenic projection. But for me the realism of the show was totally lost, because the principal singers were constantly followed by quite artificial shafts of light. This is quite admissible of course in a stylized production such as is given at ‘Sadler’s Wells to Orpheus in the Underworld, but in a more naturalistic production I much prefer to manipulate directional lighting in such a way that I can put emphasis on a soloist without destroying the realistic atmosphere.

To me, one of the most interesting uses of light in the theatre is scenic projection, whereby images can be thrown up on to a screen. This can take two forms — firstly, static projection in which one uses unpainted backcloth or cyclorama, i.e. a curved surround, and projects on to it a scene which has been photographed from a drawing or painting by the designer. This can be done merely by using three 8 in. x 8 in. photographic plates, side by side. The advantage of this method is that quite a number of scenes can be changed simply and effectively in a very short space of time.

The second method provides moving effects such as storm clouds, rain, snow, and rippling waters. This can obviously add great realism to otherwise static scenes, and perhaps I may be allowed to mention here my own effects in The Flying Dutchman, which I found very satisfying to work out. The outstanding effect in the ‘Sadler’s Wells production is the arrival of the ship itself, which appears on the distant horizon and, within a bare 45 seconds, becomes moored alongside a stationary ship with the silhouette of its crew going about their jobs. Here I used four lanterns, each fitted with low-geared optical flame effect and with a specially designed slide-carrier attached to the aperture. Four slides depicting the ship in silhouette, successively larger, were super imposed on to an unpainted backcloth, and by cross-fading each lantern from the smallest slide I was able to give the effect of the approach of a great ship. We then had to fade out the upstage area and drop in two scenic cut-outs of a ship. We faded in two `chromotrope effects’ (kaleidoscopic effects obtained by rotating discs in front of a lantern) to cover the downstage area as a visual distraction, and we then returned to a general lighting situation for the whole stage, exposing the ship.

Another problem we had was the matter of a backcloth. Had we used a backcloth featuring a painted sky and horizon, then the definitions of the ship-projections would have been entirely lost. We therefore used an unprimed cloth lightly laid-in with grey, so that by means of lighting we could obtain a horizon and colour. In the upstage area there was to be so much activity (with stage tricks for moving the scenery, etc.), that the use of ground rows or floods (lights resting on the floor) was quite out of the question. So we had only one alternative — back-lighting. Our backcloth, being a translucent finely woven cotton duck, proved ideal. A disused straight border was hung upstage of the backcloth enabling the light from a six-way flood lighting-batten to be masked down to the sea area of the backcloth from behind. By mixing contrasting colours we now began to let the backcloth take on a realistic appearance. Now that the ‘Sadler’s Wells Company is shortly to move to the South Bank, where London is to have its first new opera house for many years, I am sure that all opera lovers will want to feel that this new theatre is pro vided with the best possible resources. Opera differs from the average theatre production in that there are many more soloists on the stage, as well as choruses; and lighting equipment has to be particularly cunningly sited so as not to form obstructions in the wings. Big West End musical productions, which are scheduled for long runs, can rig their equipment specially to suit the particular production: but in a repertory house such as we shall have on the South Bank it may be necessary to change in a matter of a single week from the fantasy of Orpheus in the Underworld, with its elaborate colour and sparkle, to the starkly stylized sets of The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny or the brilliant realism ofCarmen.

‘Sadler’s Wells at present exposes the lighting designer to several handicaps. For example, if I set my lanterns at the front of the upper circle, I cannot get at them again for the rest of the evening. Far more room is needed also at the back of the stage for projections, and ‘cat-walks’ above stage are needed so that the lighting team can move about during the performance. Covent Garden’s lighting equipment is at least 30 years old; Glyndebourne is to be given new lighting equipment next year.

British manufacturers of stage lighting equipment are fully equal to those of other countries, and two organizations have been formed in the past three years — the Society of British Theatre Lighting Designers, and the Association of British Theatre Technicians — to advise architects and planners on technical standards in building theatres and opera houses. I fervently hope that those responsible for planning our new South Bank opera house will consult these organizations at every opportunity. Our opera producers are putting on some of the finest productions in the world: surely the technicians working with them should have the best resources which can be afforded.

Charles Bristow,
The Opera Archive, Page 10, April 1963.