David Bishop’s career in television lighting has spanned two decades, from support roles with renowned TV lighting directors such as Bernie Davis and Mark Kenyon, to becoming one of the best-known and most in-demand lighting directors in UK broadcasting. He has worked on major televised events from the Queen’s Concerts to Children In Need, and on entertainment shows including the Royal Variety Performance and X Factor. In 2019, he took on responsibility for lighting the hugely popular Strictly Come Dancing. David is also deputy chair of the STLD. Aside from the lighting business, David and his wife Lara run a charity, CraftAidUK, for street children in Uganda.
When and where did your interest in lighting begin?
It started when I was 11 when my best friend’s dad needed help with a school play. He was the parent tasked with lighting a nativity performance called ‘Follow The Star’, which required more fixtures than the school had dimmers for. My friend Tim and I sat backstage and re-patched the dimmers throughout the performance. Shortly after that I left for my senior boarding school and – looking for something to fill my time outside of lessons – fell into looking after the lighting and sound for the school for the next five years.
When did you first realize that it might be a career option?
I had absolutely no idea there was a career in lighting until I was about 17. My School appointed a new head of music who pushed to stage a production of Jesus Christ Superstar – a departure from previous shows, which were only as adventurous as an annual Gilbert & Sullivan opera! He coerced a friend, who worked in BBC radio, to look after the complex sound needs of a full musical with an off-stage band. It was through chatting to him that I realized there was a real opportunity to work in lighting, and events in general.
How did your career develop from then?
I managed to arrange a week’s work experience at BBC Television Centre. I started in the CBBC (Children’s BBC) studio, met All Saints as part of the midweek National Lottery draw, watched how a weekly game show was recorded, and saw the pilot of a new comedy show. After that, I decided to study technical theatre at drama school after my A-levels.
In 1999, I was watching the BAFTA Film Awards show, lit by Mark Kenyon. At that point I’d never seen a moving light, and was intrigued as to how the flowing color changes on the set were created. I grabbed Mark’s name from the credits, wrote him a letter (yes, a real letter!) and addressed it c/o the BBC at Television Centre. Mark received it and invited me to see the setup at the BAFTA TV Awards.
Next I went to drama school. I did a foundation year in Stage Management & Technical Theatre at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, before transferring to RADA to specialise in lighting. Throughout this time, I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to shadow Mark Kenyon and his team, and gain a wide experience of entertainment and live event television.
What was your first job?
As (an extraordinarily bad!) moving light tech. I was soon given the chance to operate on shows – presumably to get me away from people who actually knew how to fix lights properly. The first full series I was given was Parkinson, a show which I still think of fondly and am proud to have been involved with from 2001 until Michael’s final show in 2007. I was lucky enough to work on some other incredible shows during this time. I was employed by both Bernie Davis and Mark Kenyon to look after the sections of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Concerts staged inside (and on top of) Buckingham Palace. I programmed for the Royal Variety Performance, Children In Need, Later with Jools Holland, Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, WWI Remembrance events at the Somme and Passchendaele, the BBC Proms, Festival of Remembrance, The Jump and many others.
Later, I was often asked to deputize as lighting director, which started a shift towards my current position – although I didn’t know it at the time. Bernie Davis began sharing the enormous workload of the BBC Proms with me, Oli Richards gave me opportunities to fill in for him, and I began working for a niche broadcaster on some of their bigger shows. One day I realized that most of my work was lighting my own shows.
The biggest change came in two stages – both equally terrifying for different reasons! In January 2019 we received news that Strictly Come Dancing’s new executive producer had decided to make significant changes, including to the lighting team. We’d all been involved with the show since its beginning, in one capacity or another, and as it was a show you throw your heart and soul into, not to mention a significant contract, we were all devastated.
I felt my choice was either to walk away and give up working on something I loved in the hope of eventually becoming a full-time LD, or agree to work on the show with the next LD (should they want me to) and be forever seen as a programmer. Some good friends encouraged me to pitch for the show myself, and eventually I decided to try – despite my CV being significantly weaker than a lot of the more established LDs who’d told me they were going for it.
At the beginning of March, I was told I’d got it - which is when the next wave of terror hit! Trying to improve on the high standard set in previous years would be a real challenge. I’m extraordinarily grateful for the support of my team who delivered a better product than I could ever have hoped for, and for the trust that the wider Strictly team had in me.
Who have been your teachers, mentors and inspirational figures along the way?
There’s a question. I can honestly say everyone I’ve met through my professional life has taught me something – be it what to do, or what not to do! I feel incredibly lucky to have met so many different people who’ve helped me along the way. I can’t list everyone but some particularly stand out. Andrew Stevenson – the teacher at my senior school who directed most of our shows and encouraged me down the lighting path; Neil Fraser – now head of technical training at RADA, was head of lighting when I was there and never fails to support me. Mark Kenyon and Bernie Davis, who trained me in TV lighting for many years and who were instrumental in getting me my first jobs.
What career achievements have given you the biggest buzz and why?
There have been a few! Some that spring to mind include being one of four people on the roof of Buckingham Palace with Brian May when he opened the Queen’s Concerts with an electric guitar version of the National Anthem, which was quite a moment.
Working on the The Jump – four years in the snow of the Austrian Alps lighting celebrities tackling dangerous winter sports. I don’t think there’s ever been a show like it, in terms of content or the feeling of teamwork.
The WW1 Remembrance events were incredible to be part of, for so many reasons.
Working on the Royal Variety Performance was a big moment for me. Having trained in, and always loved, theater, it was a show I’d long wanted to be part of.
Strictly Come Dancing is a huge milestone in my career, both because of the major leg-up that it represents, and because it’s one of the absolute nicest places to work. The team is a dream, and it’s one of the very few TV shows these days which allows you the freedom to play with lighting and performance.
The Album Chart Show was the first time an LD booked me for a music show, which was a big leap of faith. The show itself was fantastic: four bands performing four tracks each at Koko, with some links chucked in for good measure. Probably as close to a proper gig as a TV show has ever been.
Is there anything you look back on as a low point or a failure?
We’ve all had our moments! I remember two distinctly bad ones as an operator. The first was in the early days of large moving light rigs on TV, and the early days of a new console. The LD had lit the audience with moving lights, and we’d left the focusing until the audience were sat in. After two hard days of programming a complicated music competition show, I set to work lighting the audience in a hurry before the recording. I created the focus, stored it as a library and went to merge the information through the show cuelist . . . and hit ‘replace’ instead of ‘merge’. The cuelist was very long and blocky and I hadn’t saved the showfile for hours. The desk locked out and there was nothing I could do for nearly half an hour – just as the presenter walked on to greet the audience. Fortunately, everyone was understanding, and the presenter entertained the audience until I was back up and running. Since then, I’ve made sure to save every 15 minutes . . .
The other was similar – and all down to an infamously troublesome console some years ago. Having been assured the issues were fixed, I spec’d it and the rental house invested heavily for a tour. Only a couple of days into rehearsals we realized the problems were not fixed at all and a very dodgy show was toured as there was no fix, and no time to swap platforms.
What causes you most frustration about the lighting business?
The uncertainty, and its love of schadenfreude. It takes a big mental leap to stop worrying about what and when your next job will be, and whether someone will be chosen over you for a show you’ve done. There’s no real answer to this, other than a bit of mental discipline – and making sure that your job doesn’t rule your life. My wife and I run a home for street children in Uganda (www.CraftAidUK.com) as a sideline, which really helps keep things in perspective, but it took me years to relax and just enjoy the work as it comes.
I also get very annoyed at the glee people show when something doesn’t go to plan – nine times out of ten, there’s a good reason and it was probably out of the lighting team’s control. We’ve all been there, so remember that and move on.
What advice would you give to those who would like to follow in your footsteps?
I’m often asked this and it’s a hard one to answer, but the industry is crying out for new blood, so the opportunities will present eventually. Stick at it, even though there aren’t any easy answers. Learn your technology, and be prepared to make tea and hang around until your time comes. I turned up to help for free for three years before I was employed. The business is a frequently bumpy road, but the highs very much outweigh the lows.
How do you think of yourself in terms of ‘art’ and ‘tech’? Do you consider yourself as an artist, despite the specific and high-tech medium you work in?
An interesting question, which I’m not sure how to answer! I think the job of LD is pretty unique – you need to be creative in the vision of what you want to see, and specify the equipment to do this based on a thorough understanding of the technology available to you. At the same time, you need to be a strong leader, ready to both instruct and take advice from your team.
What are the biggest challenges in lighting entertainment shows for television?
Budget and time, without a doubt – which, of course, are intrinsically linked. Friends from other areas of lighting and production are frequently amazed by the speed of television rehearsals. For example, each couple dance on Strictly is rehearsed just five times in a total of 30 minutes before it’s part of the dress rehearsal, then transmitted.
What are the most common pitfalls for designers when lighting for camera?
Starting your design with the ‘toys’. People/face lighting for camera is crucial, and I’ve seen many fall into the trap of creating a stunning moving light rig, only to spoil the overall look by compromising their keylight positions.
Not looking at the monitor is another trap, especially when lighting an event from front-of-house in a theatre or arena. It’s far too easy to ignore the TV and enjoy the light show first-hand - then you discover none of what you were doing was on camera, or it just didn’t work.
Finally, I’m a firm believer in including your vision engineering team in your requirements for a show. You can have the most lights anyone has ever had, and the best programmers alive, but if your cameras aren’t looked after properly, you may as well not have bothered.
Do you think you have a ‘style’ of lighting? If so, how would you describe it?
Again, that’s difficult as I work across so many different genres of production. I’d like to think I bring a little theater style to my work where appropriate, but you probably have to draw your own conclusions!
Can you tell me a David Bishop lighting design rule of thumb?
Always be sympathetic to the set design when you position fixtures. The lighting design should always seem part of the overall concept, rather than just fixtures for the sake of fixtures.
Successful show production depends on collaboration, with great communication. What techniques have you developed to help that process run as effectively as possible?
Be a human being and don’t hide behind emails when there’s an opportunity to talk face-to-face or by phone.
What traits do you admire most in the creatives you collaborate successfully with?
I’m always impressed by creatives who embrace other disciplines. I worked with a choreographer recently who just grabbed an idea and ran with it. Sometimes just understanding the concept of an idea, rather than the practicalities, lets you come up with new ideas which others more involved with the technology would avoid. The result was spectacular.
When you approach a new design, where do you get your inspiration?
I take inspiration from all sorts of things. I’ve been lucky enough to travel a lot, so the styles, colors and architecture from places I’ve been to help me come up with new ideas.
When designing, do you think in terms of specific lighting fixtures from the off, or do you think only in terms of the desired light effect/performance?
From the off, I take a sketch-book approach – often literally drawing on top of set design visuals or photos from recces. Fairly soon, I’ll know what fixture I want to use where, but I always have a second choice in mind.
Do you have ambitions to do other types of lighting design?
I’ve been lucky enough to work in most of areas of lighting and whilst I prefer working in TV and events/concerts, I’m unlikely to turn down any type of project. It’s working in new fields where you meet new people, new situations and new techniques to bring back to your regular work.
What would be your dream show to light?
An Olympic Games opening ceremony, I think. Something along the lines of Eurovision or the Super Bowl halftime show would also be great fun!
How do you keep up with developments in lighting technology? Do you read the press, or attend trade shows etc?
I find the press is useful, but there’s nothing like seeing a fixture. Trade shows are excellent for discovering new things and for making and maintaining contacts, but hands-on time with a fixture, either at the manufacturer or as part of a shoot-out at a rental house, is essential.
What are the main performance characteristics you look for in a luminaire?
My ideal fixture is quiet, color mixing, not too big physically and has a good-looking presence. There are so many units available now which do really impressive things, but if having 50 of them on sounds like the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, or if it’s a huge, ugly lump of black plastic, it’s unlikely to find a home in my rig.
How far is low power consumption a consideration for you in your specs?
Consideration for the environment is important for all of us these days, but it applies to attitudes and working practices as well as fixtures. You may a unit which uses half the power of another, but if you have a Genny op in the habit of firing up hours before the call time, or a programmer who leaves everything lamped on overnight by accident, you may as well not have bothered.
You recently used Vari-Lite LED-based VL2600 Profile fixtures. What did you think of them?
I thought the VL2600 profile performed very well indeed, and certainly have them on my list of suitable automated keylight fixtures.
What do you think of the current state of LED-based stage lighting on the market?
I think it’s improving almost day by day, and will soon be the default choice. The new laser sources are also an interesting development.