Linford Hudson: Why 'Mr Follow Spot' is top of the bill

When 'The Wizard of Oz' opens at the London Palladium tomorrow, one man will be casting the spotlight, as he's done for a galaxy of stars over 47 years. Andrew Johnson meets Linford Hudson
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The Independent Online

"I could find my way up here in the dark," Linford Hudson says as he leads me through the winding corridors, narrow staircases and velvet balcony seats high into the upper reaches of London's famous Palladium theatre.

Far below us, the stage is bathed in a purple light, and the hammering and banging of set builders echoes around the empty auditorium. The backstage bustle is reaching a peak ahead of the launch of Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest extravaganza, The Wizard of Oz, which starts its previews tomorrow. Panic-stricken assistants clutching clipboards appear and disappear, as they negotiate the warren of corridors, stepladders, props, workmen and piles of newly delivered polythene-wrapped show programmes.

Hudson isn't in a panic. His eyrie up in the gods is an oasis of calm and organisation. It is a small, glass-fronted room containing four spotlights, one chair and a music stand to hold the lighting cues. In here, the man known as Mr Follow Spot is looking forward to shining the lights on his 395th Palladium show.

Hudson has spent the best part of 50 years making sure the world's biggest stars enjoy their time in the spotlight.

Such is his expertise that he is known as the best in the business, the go-to guy. Not only has he worked at the Palladium since 1962, lighting 41 Royal Variety performances and anyone who is or was anyone in showbusiness, he also lit Princess Diana's funeral at Westminster Abbey and is in charge of the lights for the Live at the Apollo television series. He's also called in when Jack Dee or Jimmy or Alan Carr want to make a DVD. He has lit the Albert Hall, Wembley Stadium, and oversaw the first colour TV broadcasts from the Palladium. Not bad for a man who stepped off the boat from Jamaica at the age of 15 into the epicentre of the Swinging Sixties, swapping the single street lamp in Kingston for the glare of the West End.

Hudson is now 64, a widower with six children and nine grandchildren, and he has prepared a list of all 394 shows he has lit at the Palladium, which recently celebrated its 100th birthday. It is hand-written, complete with notes and the names of the principal performers. He's obviously, rightly, proud of having lived one of the more interesting lives in the theatre.

"I enjoy it enormously, man," he says in a thick Jamaican accent, grinning as if to emphasise the point. "When I come down with my lamp, I make it a part of me. It's my baby. This is my life; this is my work. I'm a spotlight operator. When I'm on the spot, everything else is out there. My woman problems, children problems, it's all out there. This is my job."

He runs through the working of a spot, swinging one of the contraptions round and flicking it on in one easy motion. Lo and behold, the head and shoulders of a worker on the stage are illuminated in the darkness. He flicks it off, shifts it, and someone else on the stage has a brief moment in the light.

He shows off the burns he received from the old "carbon arcs", when the bright, controlled light that is needed to pierce the yards of darkness to a pin point on the stage was provided by two rods of burning carbon, which needed replacing every half-hour – he was paid an extra 50p to buy milk to counteract the fumes. Now the electric spots have infrared target markers, but he claims that using them slows the operator down, with the risk of missing a cue.

"When someone like Judy Garland sings 'Over the Rainbow', as they finish you fade the light, and that takes finesse and feeling," he explains. "People don't do it properly. It's like Shirley Bassey singing 'Goldfinger', and she holds her hands up" – he sings here and lifts his arms to illustrate the singer's crescendo – "you have to open the iris to make sure her hands are in light, otherwise they'll be cut off in the darkness. You've got to be aware to react. Lee Evans, for example: he's there; he's here; he's there. So you've got to make sure you cover him."

Hudson's first Palladium show was in May 1963, a production called Swing Along starring Tony Hancock. The last was Sister Act, which began in 2009. Along the way he's done the lighting for Sammy Davis Junior, Frank Sinatra, Liza Minnelli, Tommy Cooper, Sarah Vaughan... the list goes on, a roll call of true showbiz legends such as Josephine Baker, Bette Davis and Ella Fitzgerald. And he has stories about most of them.

Downstairs in the Room of Heroes, with its old show posters and autographed publicity shots of the stars who have performed at the theatre (just outside is a signed poster for the Beatles' appearance at the 1963 Royal Command Performance), he points out each one.

"All these I've done. Lena Horne, Julie Andrews, Ginger Rogers, Carmen Miranda, Carrie Fisher. I've had a wonderful time. Frank [Sinatra] came in with his boys and gave me a big tip. Sammy did Golden Boy [in 1968] and what a wonderful time I had. I met all his bodyguards. We went to the Playboy Club in Park Lane. Sammy was very generous. He spent money like confetti. But he gave you a good time. He had parties in here for the crew. Golden Boy was a hit musical show. He was here four days a week. So when he was here it was fun. He was living in the Playboy Club. And after the show we'd hit the town.

"Harry Secombe was a brilliant person. Frankie Vaughan was a gentleman. I met a lot of different people, man. There's so many different people. Roy Castle never stopped smiling. I never met Judy Garland, but I met her daughters, Liza Minnelli and Lorna Luft. When Miss Minnelli was on stage, that was an experience. When she finished singing she was on her way to the hotel, but the audience wouldn't leave.

"I met some miserable people, too. like Charlie Drake and Tommy Steele. But Tommy Steele was a professional person. What he said was right. We were friends, but he was miserable."

Hudson started his career within two months of arriving in London. His parents had divorced and his mother had crossed the Atlantic with the wave of Jamaican immigrants on assisted passage in the 1950s, invited to the "mother country" to help fill the post-war labour shortage.

He followed her to South Norwood in 1962 and found she was a fan of Sunday Night at the Palladium, the variety show broadcast for television from the theatre. So when he spotted the advert for a pageboy, he knew it was for him.

"I saw all these ladies dancing around and I thought, that's what I want to do," he grins. "So I went down there, got pageboy, £4/10s-a-week wages, blue suit, buttons, two white gloves. My job was to show people to the boxes – there were 10 boxes then – and take the artist backstage. In the early days, people would dress up to come to the theatre. Imagine coming from a place like Jamaica, with one street light where I lived, into Piccadilly Circus. The Swinging Sixties, the beautiful Seventies. I couldn't believe it. I met some good people, they took me under their wings, and taught me. Good, genuine people."

Not all were good. He soon grew too big to be a pageboy, and the theatre's management asked him what he wanted to do. He said the spotlights, but the lighting manager said he didn't want "no nigger" on his team. He'd experienced racism on the streets – the police would often stop him as he approached the stage door to ask him where he thought he was going – but fortunately it was rarer in the theatre, and another manager stepped in.

"There was a guy called Peter King and he said, ' I'll have Linford. I'll teach him.' He took me up there and showed me what to do and in two days I learned it, and I said, 'You sit down and I'll do the show.' There was some racism in the theatre, but not much. It's a family. The show must go on."

Judy Garland's show in 1964 was one of the first he spotlit, so it is fitting that The Wizard of Oz – Garland starred in the 1939 film – should be his last. The show will run for two or three years and he says it's unlikely he'll do another one after that. After bringing up the subject of retiring, however, he changes his mind.

"I'm not going nowhere. I'm not going to retire. They'll carry me out on a stretcher. I've never missed a show. And I don't make mistakes. I've done so many wonderful shows. I enjoy them all because it gives me a good living and I'm part of the show.

"I've met some of the most wonderful people, the most talented artists: I've met Princess Margaret, Prince Charles and Diana. This is my base. This is my home. I've had a wonderful life, a charmed life in showbusiness. This is my business."

'The Wizard of Oz' previews at the London Palladium from tomorrow

Curriculum Vitae

1946 Born in Jamaica.

1951 Attends Greenwich Farm School in the capital, Kingston.

1952 Mother moves to South Norwood, London, after her split from Linford's father. She takes work in a dry cleaners.

Sept 1962 Linford moves to London to live with his mother. He first sees Sunday Night at the Palladium on which he will later work.

Oct 1962 Starts work as a pageboy at the London Palladium

1963 Lights his first show, Swing Along starring Tony Hancock in May.

1966 Lights the first of his 41 Royal Command Performances.

1969 Marries Winifred, an office worker, and moves to Croydon. The first of their six children, Leroy, is born.

1991 Their first granddaughter, Troy, a rapper, is born.

1996 Separates from Winifred, who then moves to Africa.

1997 Sets up the lights in Westminster Abbey for Princess Diana's funeral.

1998 Lit Andrew Lloyd Webber's 50th birthday party at the Royal Albert Hall.

1990 to 2009 Works on Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Oliver, The King and I, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Sound of Music and Sister Act.

2011 Lights The Wizard of Oz, starring Michael Crawford.