Guest blog: Sound Designer David Collison Looks Back on His Singular Theatrical Life

Every so often something will jog my memory and I will say something like:

  • Did you know Liz Taylor once lent me her personal walkie-talkie?
  • Did I tell you how I once persuaded Lauren Bacall to remove her dress?
  • Did I tell you about the time I went to a bar with Rex Harrison and drank black velvets?
  • Have I told you that Peter Sellers bought me an expensive tape recorder?

Over the years, my long-suffering wife [Alison Neil] would often say, "Yes, that is very interesting, but I do wish you would write these stories down." And now I have.

Namedropping in the Wings is intended as a light-hearted memoir of how someone in his early twenties with no technical knowledge or training whatsoever became celebrated as a sound expert. It began when a very green 17-year-old got a job in a small London theatre where the artistic director was a young Peter Hall, the genius who went on to found the Royal Shakespeare Company and was later responsible for running The National Theatre. Peter liked using sound effects and I happened to be adept at dropping the needle in the right groove of the 78 rpm discs we used back in the 1950s. Consequently, I was in charge of the sound on many of his productions, including the groundbreaking premiere of Waiting for Godot.

David Collison

I continued to work for him on major West End shows, one of which was a comedy starring Peter Sellers. This called for a number of weird sound effects, so Peter and I created them ourselves using a borrowed tape recorder. The word got around and other directors began to ask me to create the noises they had in mind, hopefully coming up with something better. This saved them from the tedium of visiting one of the specialist sound companies to choose stock effects from their libraries.

My days became filled, especially once Sir Peter, as he would later become, moved to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Being allowed to be part of so many prestigious productions and mingle with leading theatre personalities was very exciting, but I was making no money. Producers objected to paying for what they deemed an unnecessary service, so the fees I was able to charge were very meager. In order to pay the bills, I took an evening job at a nightclub.

During this period I met the lighting designer Richard Pilbrow, who had just formed a company called Theatre Projects. We hit it off and I joined his company, moving my two tape recorders and disc turntable into his office in an old building just off Trafalgar Square.

Then, in 1962, everything changed. Surprisingly, I was asked to rescue the sound on a musical about to open. Apparently, nobody could hear a word. The art of amplifying the voices of performers was completely new to me but somehow I managed to improve the situation. This success led to a whole new career as the first person to be called a sound designer in the UK.

Making up the rules as I went along, I worked on such musicals as Fiddler on the Roof, Sweet Charity, Cabaret, A Little Night Music, and Mame. In 1972, I installed the first professional mixing desk for Stephen Sondheim's Company. In the same year, for Jesus Christ Superstar, I designed the biggest sound system ever installed in a British theatre.

Theatre Projects was by now a group of companies with the largest lighting and sound rental organisation in Europe, and we had a proper recording studio. Richard Pilbrow was co-producing musicals with Broadway legend Hal Prince and he also set up a consultancy company to work with architects on the design of new theatres. As part of that team, I specified sound systems for theatres and concert halls in the UK and several other countries, the most prestigious being The National Theatre of Great Britain. From my theatrical experience, I knew what was required and I now had the backing of an electronics expert who turned my ideas into technical specifications.

The book is filled with anecdotes about the leading directors, designers, producers and actors of the time. From more than fifty West End musicals and shows in Denmark, South Africa and America, including a spectacular revue in Las Vegas, there are stories of great triumphs and also of the disasters - about which there is always a good tale to tell.

By the way, did I mention that I once made a recording in Leslie Caron's bedroom?

Namedropping in the Wings is available as a paperback or eBook on Amazon.