John Pomphrey is the man responsible for all the gorgeous lighting for the first six series of Red Dwarf. We met up with him on June 5th for a natter…
G&T: How did you get into the television industry?
JOHN POMPHREY: I saw an advert, in the paper, years ago in London, and applied, wanted to be a cameraman, because of my background. They said you needed to be an engineer, so I became an engineer at the BBC in London.
What year was that, vaguely?
Early sixties, I’m very old: 60ish. They’ve got a residential training school called Norton Hall, near Evesham, and they send you there. I think it was about 3 months; everything from how to solder two bits of wire together to how the cameras work, and then you go back and progress up the ladder, and at each level they send you back again to training school and they teach you to light.
I applied for a job as a lighting director, so you go back to Evesham again and experts teach you, and you’re sent to Television Centre and attached to top lighting directors. I was attached to a guy called Bert Postleswaite, and Duncan Brown. Duncan Brown is still lighting bits and bobs, and he was brilliant, just brilliant. Two different people, different approach: one was all precison and measured it all out; Duncan lived by the seat of his pants, but he was great. He would send me down to the Tate Gallery and say “Look, see how the artist has created the shadows…”, and that’s how we did it.
What happens now?
I think the training’s still there, but there they would train you on spec and you would go back and do your old job, you then had the qualifications to apply for jobs as they turned up. Now, it’s so, so expensive that you have to prove you can do the job and just want little bits and bobs, and then they’ll teach you.
Is it a lot more competitive now?
Well, yeah, if you want to go into it, there’s more people, and the BBC is more now freelance workers, in days gone by, the BBC just didn’t employ freelancers, they didn’t come in. If you were a lighting director in Manchester, you lit everything from Manchester, you lit everything that came to Manchester, there was no question about it. You didn’t have anybody else from outside, London, or anybody else, anywhere in the Beeb.
So that’s how you got to work on Red Dwarf, you were assigned?
Red Dwarf, I’ll tell you what happened on Red Dwarf. I sat in the office and the monthly schedules, they’d come up and you’d go to a meeting and they’d say these are the programmes coming up in Studio A, Manchester, and my boss, sitting next to me, the desk next door to me, and there were three lighting directors, I was the junior, and they said “Ooh, Red Dwarf, don’t fancy that, do you? John..?” and that was that. They were a lot older than me, I was the lad, and “seems like your cup of tea, that, John” and it was as simple as that. The other two didn’t want to do it.
Was that the same with Filthy, Rich and Catflap?
I was the TMT [Technical Co-ordinator]. I think you’ll find, if you look at the credits, [the lighting was done by] a guy called Tommy Mottram. The setup there was, they didn’t call lighting directors ‘lighting directors’ in those days, they called them ‘technical managers’; and if you were lighting, you were technical manager one, and if you were an engineering type, you were techinical manager two, so everybody could light. So what happened then, Tommy lit F, R and C, manager one, and I was a technical manager two, who could light little shows or whatever. But I orgainised the times, the cameras, and made sure everything was all right. I was the technical co-ordinator, running the studio on the day, making sure the talkback works and everything else, just sorting it out. I sat with the production team, the producer and director in the production gallery, and Tommy would be next door, and I wrote the log book. But I would have attended all the rehearsals, and had Tommy gone sick, as technical manager two I would have taken over and run the show.
Was that at BBC Manchester?
Yes, BBC Manchester.
Is that still going, BBC Manchester?
Nope, that’s closed… no, that’s not true. Regional television still works, but the main studio, the actual Studio A, is shut, and the staff went to Granada and set up an independent company, threesixtymedia… that’s a company within the Granada group.
So when the studio shut for refurbishment after RD series 3, did they actually get refurbished, or did it shut?
It was too small, Studio A Manchester, for what we all wanted, so they knocked a wall down and they got an extension. The refurbishment extended it out to the car park out the back, as they had a very ‘go ahead’ head of region, who realised with the refurbishment, and new equipment and bigger studio, that they’d get more work. So the refurbishment was the actual increase in the size of the studio, and they increased the height as well. Red Dwarf had to come out…
And you moved with it, down to Shepperton?
Yep, and a guy called Dai Thomas, the camera operator.
What was it like, compared to Manchester?
Totally different. It was an OB, by a company called Telegenics, that would come in, do the pre-records, and come back and do the next bit in front of an audience, playing in the inserts, so the truck would come back. I mean, it’s a film stage, Shepperton, there’s nothing there; a television studio has electric hoists: you press a button, a light comes down, all pre-loaded and pre-wired and everything.
Did you prefer working up at BBC Manchester?
It was quite scary first going into Shepperton, because it’s a different ball game, but, no, I liked it, in the end it was very good. We hired the studio at… yes, I think it was G stage, and we hired the set for 9 weeks, and it was better for the artists, because they could rehearse.
You did a week… you did it week by week by week, by episode by episode; I can’t remember the days, I think we had Sundays off. Mel Bibby rebuilt the set on Sundays, but they would rehearse it in the set. Where when it was at Manchester, they would rehearse in rehearsal rooms, which are just big rooms with tape on the floor, and furniture from junk shops, so it was much, much better for the artists, I’m sure. And everything was off scaffolding. It was an OB; we put in dimmers, because all a film stage is is a big shed, with a load of electricity coming out the floor in the corner, and that’s all it is.
You had to build it up…
Yep, well there’s girders at the top, with big chain hoists, and you just hang rigs, which you design, and you hang all the lights from that, so everything gets wired in. Camera truck came up, rocket telegenics plugged up, did the job, and that was it. Rip it all out at the end, and Mel’s sets would stay in control rooms.
How much room was there?
Oh, it was a bigger studio than… it felt like it was.
So you worked very closely with Mel Bibby…?
Oh, yeah, Mel Bibby and Steve Bradbury was the assistant designer, yeah you’d go to a big planning meeting and have the script before you, and draw up all the plans. We worked together, and the biggest decision that I made with Mel was, Mel said, “y’know, all these celing pieces, I’ll just put them round the edges, do you mind?”, and I said, leave them in; that was the decision that Mel and I made, to give the feeling that they were in a real place.
There’s one shot in Demons & Angels where it’s just corridors, and there’s this gorgous hand-held shot looking up through the girders to the studio, and it’s just lovely.
That was a big decision to make, because everyone would be covered in shadows…
That’s compared to seriess 1 and 2…
Well, it was very different, you see. Paul Montague, who designed that, he wanted it to feel like a WW2 submarine, which, the bunks all have rivets and the like, he wanted it to look shabby, but he wanted it to look like a submarine, very bright, very dull, really knocked about a bit. Then it presumably changed. Paul, who lives near me now, he’s retired and living in sunny Herofordshire, he started off from nothing.
Every time I look at the cabinet, there’s two bunks, there’s a window to the left of the bunk with a soppy blue light on the bottom, and I look at that… at the time I thought it was really clever, and I look at it now and think “You fool…”. It was meant to be light coming in from space ..aggh.. and I really think “Oh no…”
I can’t say I’ve ever noticed…
Well, you take a look next time… there’s a little window next to the bunk, and there’s not a lot of space behind it to get anything in, and we couldnt get a star field or anything like that. So I put a soppy blue light, it shines out, and at the bottom of the window frame, there’s this little bit of blue, and I wish I’d never done it.
Is there anything you’re particularly proud of?
Nah, not really… What I tried to do was, Star Trek at the time was very clean and crisp, and Red Dwarf had to look a bit tatty, so I never bothered about fine detail on faces, nose shadow, etc. It had to look a bit scruffy, and the lighting is a bit scruffy. There’s lots of bits where there’s nothing there, and it’s fine as long as it’s not totally blank, and I just wanted it to look like what I thought a space ship would look like; dull, not all the bulbs working, things like that.
When you’re doing a pre-record, did you have more control over things?
You always have more control, as you can do it again. You didn’t often do it again, but you did have that, and the artists knew that as well. Paul, and Doug and Rob, quite rightly, were always very keen on the performance. There was no way, if I whinged and said could I do that again: “On your bike, it got a laugh, they performed right”; quite rightly, and they said people aren’t tuning in to look at my one nose shadow, they’re there to watch the show. I generally felt that if it felt right, it was right.
Have you done any shows where the lighting absolutely has to be…
Well, all the modern shows really… Richard and Judy, Judy’s got to look spot on, and Richard had… and Mrs Merton… all these sort of shows. Kilroy, very interesting; he had to look right… on shows like that where there’s a big close up, and various multi-cameras, it’s their career I’m messing about with. If they look horrible, they won’t say “John Pomphey’s lighting was crap”, they’ll think “he looked a bit rough this morning”, so I affect that. And corporates, stuff like that: ntl, your Reuters thing, they were most worried about getting the lighting on the logo correct. Auctionworld, I don’t go there every day, I set it up, and they’re really concerned about the lighting on the jewellery, and the products. Martyn Lewis on Today’s the Day, suddenly got big rimless glasses, which were all the rage then, and suddenly, there was a bright mark on his cheek, and we couldn’t work out what it was. It was the light coming down, hitting the top facet of the lens, going straight through the lens; and everyone was quite agitated about that, because it was a little hot spot on his cheek. We had to get rid of it, and adjust the light so it didn’t happen. Most shows with big close ups, they’re all demanding in their own way.
So RD was quite liberating to work for?
Yes, that was quite good, I worked on it from start to finish… before it went to single camera.
Why did you not do [Series VII]?
Because Ed had been doing The Detectives, and he had a single cameraman he was working with, the lighting cameraman, and they did it without an audience, and he just wanted the change, so I didn’t do it… I don’t know what’s going to happen now. Mel’s passed on now of course, Mel’s died, so it’ll be interesting…
They’re talking about the movie now.
Well, they keep talking about it, they talked about it 15 years ago…
I do hope, they’re now talking about Jan 2005 shooting, but then they talked about Jan 2001 shooting (laughs)..
Some of it did appear in a movie, because me and Mel sat down and looked at it. We came across a cheap American video, a very cheap science thing, and Mel said “It’s the control room!” Someone in America had copied it, and we spoke to Doug and Rob at the time, but there was nothing we could do about it, but it was absolutely identical. Same lighting; it was evident that somebody had got hold of a copy and thought ‘That’s good’ and built it, and it featured in some cheap American science fiction movie. We said “Who do you sue?” and you’d never track them down, you’d never sue them… so we just sat and looked at it. He said “Look at that! It’s the octagonal control room!”, and they were all standing round, and we said “Bloomin’ ‘eck!”…
You can’t remember the name, can you?
Now, series 5, Juliet May…
Juliet May, yes, know her well..
What was it like working with her?
I know Juliet of old, actually, she didn’t complete the series, did she? Juliet did the Oxford Road Show, she was fine.
It just didn’t quite work out..
No… it’s not for me to say. I just don’t know, as a general thing; with all new directors that come on to a show, they always look for new angles, and new ways of doing it, and they’ve generally been sorted out. They try and reinvent the wheel: the reason why we shoot it in such a way is because that’s the way it can logistically be done, that’s the way to do it, and if it becomes the other way, you’re buggered, everything’s wrong, you have to be careful. You can change things, move things about, but you can’t suddenly turn something completely on its head.
But I don’t know…I like Juliet. I remember the first day she worked as a director, she came on, not on this, another show, and she said “I’m very new to this, any help you can give me, sing out”, which is really nice. She’s a very nice lady. She’s still about, doing stuff.
I think, if I remember, she did an interview with the Red Dwarf site, and she said “I don’t do multi-camera shows any more, because I like to control what’s happening on the floor”…
Well, a lot of directors do, they’re scared by it.
Then there was Andy De Emmony…
He was a photographer, I’m told… he was fine. To be honest, I’ve never had any problems with any of the directors… it was a very happy show to work on.
In general, was it a nice place to be?
It was, and the office were very nice too, they were great. They were always trying to help you, the camera crew, Rocket and his lot..it was a good crew, because we didn’t work on the scanners – we couldn’t because we needed so much space – we had a whopping great crane. It wouldn’t happen now, they’d just say “Get on with it”, and they acquired a large portakabin for us, just delivered a portakabin and delivered it outside the studio. We made it home from home; the techinical manager sat in there as well and ran all the VTs which played on all the monitors, we had banks and banks of VHSs and things, with rubbish on them, soppy patterns and things, and he would run em. But we had a nice portakabin outside with windows and flowers and whatever.
Rob and Doug. I just wondered how much control they had…
They were all the time, to the best of my knowledge. They wouldn’t be in the scanner, they were on the set, they were very concerned with the script and everything like that. It can all be sorted out in editing as long as you have ISO cameras recording everything as well, you can always tart up the pictures in the edit.
What’s that, ISO…?
If you’ve got 5 cameras, you’ve got the one camera, if you like, the one mixer that’s cutting all the pictures; then you’ve got a couple of the other cameras, depending on how many you want, feeding into a bank of buttons that goes on to two more, so you’re recording a wide shot of what’s going on as well as the closeups. So later on, if there’s something wrong with the shot, that angle’s clean, and you can compile the pictures.
Is that always the case now?
Yeah. Question of Sport was done, it isn’t now, but was done at the time with 7 cameras: 7 cameras, 7 VTs, and they did it all in post-production. The director would spend 3 days in the office off-lining it, and then he would give it to the main editor, and he’d just cut the VTs.
Was RD about 5 cameras?
It wouldn’t be any more…
It just seems amazing that you’d need seven cameras for Question of Sport!
Team A, team B, there… David Coleman or Sue Barker there, and we had a camera there looking down at that team there writing, so you needed a camera there; but you couldn’t put it there in the shot. So we recorded a whole chunk of footage of him not there, and when you cut to a shot that had him in, you’d just drop the clean background in and wipe him out, and drop in the clean shot of the back in there.
You wouldn’t think so much effort would be gone to for Question of Sport!L
Well, the director and producer, Mike Adley, did it all himself. He used to go away and shoot all the mystery personality stuff, he had a broadcast-quality camera..that was his job too. But there were seven cameras there, all isolated feeds, they would record the output of every camera. The only thing the vision mixer did was cut stuff so the audience could see it, putting the mystery personality on monitors and stuff.
OK… Terrorform. Night shoot. I’ve heard that you fell in…
Yeah, I did, yep, I fell in. It was at the back of Shepperton, it was about 7 o’clock at night. We were due to go all night, all dark, it was all overgrown, this lake, and what I thought was solid grass, and stepped back… wasn’t. Completely arse over tit into the lake, I was absolutely soaked… who told you this?
It’s in that Joe Nazzoro book..
Oh, it is, yeah. And then what happened was make-up girls drove me down and gave me towels, and it was awful, because I had all my cold weather gear on and it got soaked. But then we had another night shoot, and what happened was, the generator turned up, and it had a lifebelt on it with my name on it, they’d got lifesaving equipment from the back of Shepperton! But it did raise the morale of everybody else, there’s nothing like seeing a lighting director flat on his back in the water.
What’s it like doing a night shoot?
You actually have to make it safe for the people around you. Especially round the back of Shepperton, there’s lots of woods and trees, so you’ve got to make it safe for people to walk about. But it’s not a problem, you’ve just got to visualise it. Because you do the recce in the daytime, you’ve got to visualise what the shots will look like at night and use a bit of business here, but what you don’t want is for that lot to look totally black. On that night sequence where they row off on the boat, I’d lit some trees way down the lake, just to give some interest, but of course you have long cables down there, and it’s a cost thing. You’ve got to make it interesting in the far distance.
You see, no-one would actually appeciate that, watching on screen…but they’d notice if you hadn’t done it.
No, I learnt at the hands of good electricians really. On a show called Making Out, I had this scene where this man had to rape a lady in the back of this car, and he was a stunt man, and he did one drive in the daytime, and he said “I’ve memorised it now”, he was really good. We marvelled at how he did that. I was worried, I’d never lit in the woods before, and the electrican that was with me, the day before we were doing another night shift, but in a church, he said “You’re worried about that, aren’t you?” and I said yes, and he said “come on”, and when we were finishing, he took the generator, stuck a couple of lights on and just to put me at ease, showed me what we could do that would work. He was experieced, he’d done films and whatever, he knew what I was trying to achieve. He was great, so I was greatly relieved. So you learn, cause invariably, people around you are very experienced.
Have you done any film work at all?
Only [once]…it was a 35mm film which had to have a game show in it, and the cameraman had no idea how to light a game show, so he rang me up, which was great. Took days, because films have bigger budgets. But it was great; that’s the only film I made. I did this 10 min sequence into this film.
What was the film called?
I knew you were going to ask that… The Final Curtain, they called it. The actor was in Dr Zhivago, and he was great. What was fascinating for me was watching him, he didn’t actually rehearse the scenes for the lighting, he had a stand in for that, and then he would just come in and do the scene. It was just totally different; the star did not rehearse the scenes, he learnt his lines and that was the end of it. He had stand ins… whether that’s standard practice I don’t know, but it certainly was there. The only difference was the timetable, you had a lot more time.
Was it quite rushed on RD?
Yeah, you were always pushed for time, especially the audience stuff, because you’ve got to get the audience out by 10 o’clock or whatever, and if anything went wrong, it does knock you back a bit. So we were pushed, but I liked that.
Peter Wragg. What was he like?
Peter Wragg was amazing; his model stuff was excellent. Occasionally, a couple of times, they never had time to shoot it at Acton, so they’d bring the stuff into the studio and we’d light it. One of them is when the Starbug’s taking off out of Red Dwarf and the doors open and it shoots off, and it was just fascinating. They were brilliant, it was great. We all wanted a skutter, but we never got a skutter. They were like Blue Peter badges, everybody wanted one.
Is it true that you got radio interference from taxis?
Taxis, yeah, the radio communications and mikes weren’t as good in those days, you did have to choose your channels quite clearly.
Red Dwarf was brilliant, it was very innovative. All the early ones when we went up in the lighting gantries, that wasn’t allowed, you needed special permission for that, we had to talk to lots of high-up people to go up there. Lots of good things like the backwards one; that took forever, to drive this van the wrong way down Piccadilly Gardens in Manchester down a bus lane. We had to find a machine that could record backwards, but in sync, and in those days, and they managed to find one.
The one where they’re on a planet, and there’s a huge shadow that falls across them, we shot it at what now is Bluewater, which was Blue Circle cement’s place, and we recced it during the day, and it was fine. We came back at night and set things up…”What’s that bloody noise?” We climbed up to the top and looked over, and there was this huge massive great lake with this crane thing that goes up and down, scooping out cement or what eventually makes cement, and when we’d recced it, he was either having a cup of tea or was at the far end. Of course, when it came over here, there was this massive racket, we couldn’t think, and we had to say, please could you stop for a quarter of an hour and he was ‘Ooh, don’t know about that, guv’, but he did. This noise, unbelievable…
Can you remember what monster it was?
It was quite a sharp…it looked down on them in a pit, and Craig, because it was always Craig, he looks up and gets covered in this…he’s supposed to be on this planet, and the shadow of this monster goes across him..there were a couple of other people in the pit, and a couple of other things happening. There’s a large shadow, it’s quite a sharp sort of dragony type thing, from what I can remember. I had to work out where to put it to get it in focus, because it’s a big model in front of a light, and I had to work it out as it had to be the right size.
What was it like on day shoots? Do you have to do much lighting?
Yeah, you do, as if it’s very sunny, you have to counteract the sun. If you’ve got sun shining in from that side of your face, camera left, then the other side is dark, because the camera can only resolve a certain amount of contrast ratio; so I’ve got to reduce it and bring it up to make it look all right.
The cowboy one was all lit. I enjoyed making it… they were complete nutters, the people that worked there, in the village, because it’s near Brands Hatch, and they all dress up at the weekends; they act out Wells Fargoy-type things. They live the part of cowboys or whatever, and the backs of those bulidings, they were places you would sleep and eat. They have little scripts, and they act out bank robberies and things. You’d talk to a bloke and ask what he did in real life, and he’d say “Oh, I’m a bank manager”. We could only just get the vehicle down the road, we were worried about trees and things, we struggled, but we got it in.
You got it in one day, didn’t you, the OB, which was amazing, considering…
Yeah, it was a day shoot, just one day…
This is what annoys me, you go on some RD forums, not all forums, but some people say it looks cheap and tacky, and it’s not, it’s amazing.
It was meant to look..well, not real, nothing can look real, but a bit rough round the edges, my approach was, certainly, just to give it that feel.
People are also confused that some of it is on videotape rather than film…they think videotape is cheap, which I don’t think it looks cheap at all, I think it looks lovely…
Well, it was the technology of the day….well, it’s still being used..
I think it [can look] more realistic that a film shot that’s taken half a day to light…
Well, it is and film is highly graded, it’s taken up to the labs and tweaked up… no, it was good, I quite often always rehearsed on the floor, and I would have a radio and I’d talk to Dai Thomas and Dai didn’t do the first lot, I had a lady console operator on the first lot, and I can’t remember her name. Anyway, I would talk to Dai and he would be looking at the pictures, the console operator’s got to have an eye for the brightness. If I go outside and look at the lights or whatever, it takes a long time for your eyes to readjust, so he sits in the room with the lighting desks to say if there’s a major problem, so for the first run-through, I will always be on the floor watching it, seeing where they are, I can then, with a couple of electrians with me, tap lamps and do things like that…
Where was the console?
The console was always in the portakabin, and we’d have a feed off the scanner, which is the outside broadcast van, which would feed us studio out on the preview monitor, which still happens these days, and it was a mobile lighting gallery, so Dai would be in there with a lighting plot all drawn out, and he would say if there were any major problems: he was my eyes, which was very important for continuity and anything else..
Have things changed much?
No, it’s still similar. Tomorrow I shall have a console operator for Speed Sunday.
Is it a live show?
It’s a live show, goes out 2 o’clock in the afternoon, 2 or 3 o’clock.
Do you do a rehearsal?
Yes, I shall be in there at 6 o’clock, leave here at half five, get in there at 6. I set the lights, there’ll be a crew in tonight, putting the lights out, and I’ll set the lights between 6 and half 8. When I say set them, they’re all hanging there; I’ve drawn a big plan for them, and I’m just tapping them. Half an hour breakfast, then from 9 till half 12, we’ll rehearse, and if you want to see aerofoils flying off cars…
They did impress me the other week with the first one though, as they put a camera inside a rally car, and I’d never seen that, and they were driving through the forest, and he obviously says something to his co-driver, who leans across with a rachet screwdriver, and is tighting up his steering wheel as they’re rushing through the trees at 60mph, which is very impressive. And he had the right piece, normally you’re rooting through a box of screws! But that goes out live tomorrow at 2, and then on Monday I’m off to Covent Garden to do a recce for a show there and for the horse racing channel as well.
Which channel is that?
It’ll be attheraces, which I set up for once before and it folded… SIS are doing another version, which is going to go on air next Friday, so I’m lighting it and designing it. I’m going to the opera house on Monday morning to do a cookery show, and attheraces, I’ll set up and fiddle about with, and that starts transmission next Friday.
Is one studio more or less like another?
I prefer working here at Teddington, as they’re very good, very helpful, very proud of their studio.
Technically, Nottingham was a brilliant studio, great design. It’s a very clever studio; they decided the stage would be at that end, so they dug a trough, stuff called groundrow, it lights cyclioramas, throws a wash of colour, and you put a bit of cardboard in front of it, they decided they didn’t want to do that: let’s dig a hole in the ground, your lamps in the floor, you see a clean line. They put loads of lights down there, and decided they’d always have the audience at this end, so they didn’t need as many lights, it was just nice, spot gantries, it was a brilliant studio…
And now it’s going to be demolished, which is terrible..
Yes, I did a week on Crossroads there…
What was it like there?
It was fun, very busy; if you called time at 8 o’clock, by 5 past 8 you were recording. Clever studio – what Keith Reid, who designed the lighting and all the technical stuff so all the corridors were built on set, so you lifted a telecon point and you could plug a microphone in, so you didn’t have to have thousands of cables, and for lighting; 13 amp socket in the bedroom, so bedroom no 97 would have a little socket, and you’d look under and it would be socket no 227 or whatever, so you’d shout “227”, and they’d fade it up and power. Very clever, and that was the technical stuff and the lighting director, they’d designed all that. It really was a cracking job.
As I said, I fell into Red Dwarf because no-one else wanted it and I happened to be in on that day, and I’m really glad I did, because..it’s nice, I hang around Smiths, and say “I’m on that DVD” (laughs) “Do you want me to sign it?”, you know… Well, somebody bought one and they said “Craig talks about you on the DVD, you know” and Craig’s saying “Oh, it’s Pomph’s red and orange up here”, or something like that, because I liked red and orange.
I’ve always loved the bright colours…
Well, that was my son, he got me into Iron Maiden, and of course, all the sleeves for those rock albums were all red and orange, they were great and I’ve been to a few concerts. The oldest rocker in town…
Chris Barrie said on the DVD commentary that you, Mel Bibby and Peter Wragg were the three people that went around getting things done, he seemed quite impressed…
Mel was very good, super designer, but so was Paul Montague, who started it, he started from nothing, which is hard, it’s like a lighting plot, it’s got nothing on it, it’s putting the first light down, once you’ve got the first light down, everything’s sorted and you build from there.
I think it looks great, I think it’s underrated, Mel’s looks better, but then it’s the third series, of course it’s going to look better.
Paul’s one of the ones where they had a big do in a hall like a canteen and a mirror ball, because I had to hide a light: there’s a plant pot right in the middle, and in it is a power can, a 1000 watt power can straight up, because there’s all these people milling around and I thought “How the hell can I light this?”, and I think it was Paul who said “Shove something in the middle of the room, I’ll put a plant pot in there, will that do you””Yeah great”.
Do you do a lot of that sort of thing..
Well, yeah, you do…
Especially with a studio audience there..
Yeah, obviously safety’s a factor, but you do all sorts of things…they recreated Casablanca, and the audience seating came down, it was very quick and they said “Can you do that? We want them to come down those lit steps”, which were the steps of the aeroplane, and once again it was one of the sparks who said “Let’s put some gauze in front of the treads and light them”, and job done.
I remember the scene, and you cannot tell that it was the audience seating…
And there was the other stuff on the dockside, that was a good one.
I did make a mistake. I got it right for the transmission, but Starbug is landed on a planet in a massive storm or whatever and so before we did it, we rehearsed it, and I put lots and lots of crinkled silver paper; put a light on it, looked fablous. Run to record, switch the wind machine on, all the silver paper went down the lane, oh my god… fortunately all the equipment had come in flight boxes because it was a night shift, so we took the lids off the flight cases, filled them with water, got some mirrors, which is a standard trick, threw the mirror in, shined a light on it, and it worked.
Can you remember the scene where Starbug crashes into ice and Lister is trying to dig it out?
I remember all the snow blowing around: that was a Volkswagen engine with a propeller on it, and that was filmed in Liverpool.
I didn’t know there was a BBC studio in Liverpool.
There was; it’s not there now. It took us months to clean the lamps as all the snow was plasticised on. It all blew into the lamps and melted, and it was a heck of a job…
Was there ever any major safety concerns in Red Dwarf?
No, you’re covered all the time. What you do in this business is sign a hazard assessment form, and the floor manager goes round, and the lighting people would sign a form, Mel would sign a form… there was never any accidents except for the lighting director falling in a lake. You would never compromise safety, you still don’t.
On this show Speed Sunday, they wanted to drive a F1 car into the studio, and we said no, no, no, no, no! You can take out the petrol and push it in, and in fact, when they get here they’re taken to a specialist firm and the tanks are drained to make sure there’s absolutely nothing in them. You can still do it, but you need special insurance and 85 fireman standing by, etc…
There was a Bobby Davro show where he was in stocks, and they toppled forward and he went straight down… he was ok, but he was taken to hospital to be checked over. We stopped the show.
There was an audience there?
Yep, cleared them all out. You have to be very careful.
Even with Craig wanting to do his own stunts?
John Leslie on Scavengers had to be protected from himself. There was a big high wall, 30 foot up in the studio, octagonal walkway, and he came up with this terrific idea that he would climb out and run along the top of it, and we said “No, John, you can’t” and he said “It’ll be alright!”. Far too brave for his own good…..Go and get a video of It’s a Knockout and see people falling off a tower onto 2 inches of sponge rubber, or the bungee thing, Health and Safety wouldn’t allow it now. You are sent on some courses, and you check things and answer questions and you’re told all the pitfalls…
Is that the famous Anthea Turner incident?
I was involved in it. I was there in the studio, it was an insert into a Saturday morning kid’s show…
What was the atmosphere like when it cut back?
Well, we were very worried, and the switchboard lit up, obviously, legal people and all that, one of those things, couldn’t believe it. I was the technical manager on that, at the studio, and Peter Hamilton was the director. What we really wanted to know at the time was “Is she ok?”. When you looked at the slo-mo, it actually singed her hair, he was that close.
How did it happen?
I don’t know, I can’t speak offically as I don’t know, but I read in the press that they cued Anthea to speak, and somebody else thought the cue was for the motorcyclist to do his stuff, as she was going to speak and then move to the side of the vehicle. Obviously, safety is very important, a television show is a television show, it’s not worth any body’s life or limb.
So there’s lots of other nonsense there (referring to list), and I think I did 6 series, but I’m not sure…
You did six series, I do know that. It must be quite disconcerting when the fans remember everything…
Yeah, I’d like to do it again, but you couldn’t do it, the way the television industry works now, I haven’t got a nine-week window to dedicate to that, and you’d lose so much work during that nine weeks, because it won’t stop, they’ll just get somebody else to do my job, somebody else could do Speed Sunday, and he’d be just as good as me.
When did the BBC start using freelancers?
In the mid 90’s, possibly even earlier, I don’t know, even freelance engineers now, you can actually sit next to a freelance engineer, which just didn’t happen.
Which way do you prefer working?
It’s different… I get more variety now and I’ve met more people. When I was staff, it’s very safe, but I only ever worked in Manchester. Well, I didn’t, I worked in London and at Granada, but basically based in Manchester at studio A, and you just got whatever work came to Manchester. If you didn’t get a lot of work, you could paint your house, cut your grass, it was dead safe, because you got a wage. Now, if I don’t work, I don’t earn, if you go on holiday, you don’t earn, but you meet a lot more people.
I mean, I’d never been to Teddington before, and I think it’s a great place, Teddington, now. They’re all good, in their own way; the BBC’s good because it’s technically dead easy, pertaining to lights. But this is my favourite place, definitely, because everybody says “Yes”, and wants to make it work. Everyone at Teddington wants it to be a success; there are no people who come here just for the money. If you say “Can you come in at 6 o’clock in the morning?”, they’ll all be there at half five, to make sure it’s ready to go, which is brilliant. I’ve got a bloke who was going to go to France for the day, and I asked “Can you do this job in North London for me?” and he said “Yeah, ok”. His wife’ll kill him, but people do it. In the freelance world, you tend to look after each other; you ring each other up and say “Can you help me out?”
That’s lovely to hear that it’s not all cut-throat, commercialised…
Yes, I mean there are some people who I don’t phone up, because I’d never see the job again; but generally, no… you never undercut someone, never nick their job. In some of those jobs like Richard and Judy, I just stand in or whatever, you just go and do the job and go away again. People do that for me, which is nice.
John Pomphrey, there. What a nice guy!