The Society of Television Lighting and Design

News: Bill Lee 1921 ~ 2014

News: Bill Lee 1921 ~ 2014

It is with great sadness that we have to report that Bill Lee passed away last night.

He was a superb Lighting Director, a staunch supporter of the Society and a past Chairman of the STLD.

William Douglas Lee's funeral was held on Wednesday 26th February at Barham Crematorium, Nr. Canterbury, Kent, CT4 6QU

'It's so very sad to learn about the passing of Bill Lee. His name, and his tremendous talent, will , for me, always be associated with the definition of the word PROFESSIONAL.

His enthusiasm for creating a bespoke lighting design was totally consistent; no matter what  genre the content .

Bill earned the unquestionable respect, throughout his long and successful career, from Artiste's, Sparks , Management , Producers & Directors and every member of the innumerable Studio Crews he worked with.  Bill Lee also a great sense of humour.'

Royston Mayoh
Director (ex-Thames Television)

Here's Bill musing a few year's ago on his early days in ITV - A Second Channel

"If you think that the television job market is a tough one nowadays, just consider how much more difficult it was in early 1955. One broadcaster with a complete monopoly, whose single transmission covered a mere thirty-six per hour week.  It was of course the BBC, who later that year announced their plans to increase transmission hours to forty-nine per week.  Afternoon programs which commenced at 3.00pm were to be extended to 5.00pm (instead of 4.15) and evening programs were to start at 7.00pm (instead of 7.25).  The change was to take place on September 19th of that year.
On September 22nd. a new era began when Independent Television commenced transmission, offering an alternative program for the first time.  At last there were wider opportunities to obtain work in the industry. The first transmissions were in the London area, Associated Rediffusion had the weekday contract, ATV the weekends.

If ATV, led by Lew Grade, were very much the showbiz glamour outfit, we at Rediffusion were a rather motley crew, operating under the command of Captain Brownrigg late of the Royal Navy (motto-a happy ship is a well disciplined ship). 

No media courses in those far off days and our recruitment tended to be from those with some experience in film production, theatre journalism, radio or suchlike, plus a fair intake from the BBC. Just a mere sprinkling of really experienced Beeb folk and a number of junior staff who were suddenly promoted from being young assistants at the Beeb to quite senior positions at Rediffusion. 

Our training consisted of several weeks making pretend programs at The Granville, an
old variety theatre in Walham Green, also in a small adapted studio off High Street Kensington. We moved into our permanent home at Wembley as soon as the film studio conversion had been completed.   All of our video output was transmitted live apart from a couple of quiz shows which were to be recorded on telecine (sic) (with rather dire quality), No second chance or retakes. It went out as we shot it, absolutely on time. Regardless of the perils of boom shadows, camera shadows, badly exposed pictures, blown lights, miscuts, miscues, actors errors or whatever major or minor calamity occurred during the transmission period. I guess that our real training actually took place from the moment we commenced transmitting, one learns pretty rapidly in that sort of sink or swim situation.  
Surprisingly, in a remarkably short time we stopped being ultra cautious, becoming far more ambitious regardless of the difficulties involved. This was particularly true in drama where ambitious directors such as young Phillip Saville, Dick Lester and others, once given the opportunity, were boldly experimental, demanding increasingly complicated camera shots and lighting effects which were then assimilated into normal work patterns. Cameras were required to do the most elaborate tracking shots with tables, practicals, flowers etc. whipped into or out of the foreground by props as the camera passed by. Trapdoors, swinging flats, extra bits of set added, then dressed and perhaps later removed, any device to get the desired shot as a continuous part of the production.

The whole floor area was expected to kept completely clear of lighting equipment to allow for any form of camera movement, often very restricting for the lighting director (designated then as a Lighting Engineer and absorbed as part of the engineering section}.

Cameras were fitted with a four lens rotating turret and directors wanting the camera on a fairly wide angle lens for a complex tracking shot moving on into a close-up, would without compunction track to within two or three inches of the actors face, usually blocking any chance of getting light on the face?   Change the lens or shot?  "Certainly not - it's a lighting problem - not a director's problem!"       

The image orthicon cameras were capable of producing good black and white pictures, but only if carefully adjusted. The vision desk was crewed with two racks men controlling two cameras each, whilst a senior sat between them constantly selecting and  instructing them on matching the channels. Apart from variations in exposure, black level, gain etc., shading could be tricky and at times much of the day might be spent getting the video adjustments correct.  It was also not unknown for the electronics to malfunction. Somewhat embarrassing if it occurred during transmission.  The joke that a good engineer was one who knew which part of the camera casing to thump at such times may not have been entirely untrue? Known as "first line maintenance" I believe!

Our electrical department was staffed with very experienced production electricians for whom we had every reason to be grateful. I can only recall two suppliers of lighting equipment from those days, apart from the bulb makers.  Mole Richardson  were big time in film lighting, handling lamps, stands, scaffolding hoists etc., as well as hiring  out equipment. The other was Strand Electric whose main business had previously been theatrical lighting suppliers. They supplied us with dimmers, control gear (primitive by today's standard) and effect spots, including the ubiquitous pattern 23.

Strand Electric also held open meetings for both theatre and television folk three or four times a year. One met many colleagues from other companies for talks and discussion in congenial surroundings (food and drink provided). A great mix of engineers, including very senior ones, designers and lighting folk from theatre and TV. In many ways a forerunner of the STLD. 

Early O.B's were lit mainly with heavy cast iron lamps powered off film generators and clumsy, heavy connector boxes. No seven stone weakling need apply for a job to lug one of those 10K's up a ladder on scaffolding thirty feet high.  It was some time before camera equipment, lighting etc., was designed to be flexible enough for inserts to programs. Film inserts were normally used, a more costly process usually producing a pronounced shift in picture quality.

A brief word about the real pioneers of television in the early days - the actors and actresses. They had to provide the live performance regardless of the problems, tensions, strain and technical complexities of the production. Initially the majority came from the theatre where they were well experienced at busking through whatever crisis occurred during the run of a play.  Early on I lit "Frenzy", a play starring Swedish actress Mia Zeterling, during which she had to move from the main set through a French window to deliver some lines on the balcony outside. She arrived there to see the camera covers removed and a frantic engineer working on it. In complete control, she paused briefly, moved back into the main set, and approached the nearest camera to deliver her lines. Brilliant - it was as though the whole move had been part of the rehearsed program. Rather more dramatically at ABC later, during a live transmission they actually had an artist collapse and die about a third of the way through a play.  A tricky situation to say the least since the role was quite a major one. The other artistes had to maintain the story as best they could, no doubt with some rather hectic advice from the control room via the floor manager. Fortunately not an everyday occurrence although misplaced or forgotten lines, camera problems and suchlike was always a potential hazard.

Thee first months of transmission were incredibly exciting for all concerned.
We were all challenged, working long hours, learning new techniques and skills. Small groups in the canteen would animatedly discuss their latest trials and methods or details of a program they had watched the previous night.  Yes, we even watched transmitted television in those days - quite avidly in fact. We were also encouraged to plan meticulously, which allowed for ambitious techniques to be attempted. Complicated camera movements tended to become less fashionable since tape recording became the norm.  Ironic that shooting was much bolder when there was no retake safety net.

I've been parochial writing this and should stress that the standard we all sought to emulate in those early days was the quality of the best of the BBC output. They had experience from the earliest days of television transmission and at their best, great skill and talent within the organization."

Bill Lee - 15th Aug 2005

A full obituary will appear in the next issue of the STLD's magazine Set & Light.

Bill's credits go on and on ..... on the IMDb website

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