For more than 50 years, Linford Hudson shone the spotlight on the biggest stars at the Palladium. Now he is being honoured with a special recognition Olivier award. He tells Nick Clark about partying with Sammy Davis Jr, why Andrew Lloyd Webber was a ‘brilliant governor’ and why working the lamp is more than just a job
In February, Linford Hudson stood on the stage of the London Palladium and cried.
The 72-year-old was remembering his half-century working at the venue, where he became a fixture in its lighting booth and earned the nickname ‘Mr Followspot’. From there, high above the stage at the back of the auditorium, he lit a galaxy of stars from Frank Sinatra to Judy Garland, from Liza Minnelli to Josephine Baker.
Hudson first set foot through the ornate doors on Argyll Street in 1962 and left for good in 2014. “My teens, my 20s, my 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s I was here in this building,” he says in his strong Jamaican accent, painting a picture of a glorious age of the West End gone-by during an hour-long conversation that could have stretched to five. “I love it. There were brilliant times.”
Sat in a plush boardroom at the Palladium, looking dapper in a grey striped suit and leather cap, his gold chains clanking as he gesticulates, he says: “I stayed so long because I love it. I love this building. I cry every night, I still dream about the place. It’s my home, my life’s work.”
It’s rare that followspot operators are given major accolades, but on March 8 at the May Fair Hotel in London, Hudson was one of four recipients of a special recognition Olivier award, which recognises outstanding contributions to British theatre. “I’m a very emotional person and that award means so much to me. It shows all my hard work wasn’t in vain,” he says. The statuette now sits on his mantelpiece at home. Naturally, it is lit by four spotlights.
Lloyd Webber, his former boss at the Palladium, presented him with the award, and called Hudson “remarkable” in his speech. The lighting operator says: “It made me emotional when I found out Andrew Lloyd Webber was going to give me an award. He is the best governor in the world, the best I’ve met in showbusiness.”
The Palladium has left its mark on Hudson – he points to burns on his arms and hands from operating the old carbon arc lamps – and he has left his mark on the Palladium. Not just his years of painting, fixing, maintenance and cleaning, but when we walk through the foyer he points to a small nick out of one of the marble pillars, at about shoulder height. It remains from a colleague marking how tall Hudson was when he first came to work at the venue, aged just 15.
Leaving school in Jamaica at 12, Hudson had dreams of becoming a technician. More than that, he wanted to join his mother in London, and worked to save up for the fare. “She didn’t believe me when I wrote to say I would join her,” he says, and when he turned up on her South Norwood doorstep she fainted.
His mother introduced him to the Palladium – every week she would roar with laughter watching the popular variety show Sunday Night at the Palladium on ITV. When he spotted an advert for a pageboy job at the venue in the Evening Standard he applied.
As he quickly outgrew the role, Hudson became more interested in the technical side of theatre, but it was then he had his first experience of racial discrimination – from a senior member of the technical team, when Hudson wanted to transfer to work as an electrician. “He said: ‘No fucking nigger is coming on my fucking crew.’ I will never forget those words he said. That was the first time I’d really experienced that sort of thing.”
But another senior member of the technical team, Peter King, took Hudson under his wing and trained him on the lights. “He was a special guy. That gave me a lot of strength and made me determined to master the job. And I did.”
He talks reverentially about some other members of the technical team from his early days – name-checking Bill Platt, Ronnie Harris and Dave Grimley – who had been at the Palladium from before the Second World War. “When they were passing away, they said: ‘Take care of the old place, Linford, stay here.’ So I promised them I would stay for as long as I can. When they died, I cried like a baby. They were my people, like a family.”
The first show he lit, in 1963, was Swing Along starring Tony Hancock, and after that they came thick and fast. “In those days there would be two weeks per show. I learned the lamp in no time.” He was so good, in fact, that he ended up doing the job of two operators, and his powers, even in his eighth decade, are not diminished.
“I can pick you out on the stage with a pin spot in the pitch black. I was born to do the followspot. A lot of people try and fail. It takes a lot of finesse and feeling. I don’t use sights.” Beyond working at the Palladium, which involved 42 Royal Variety performances, his work also included working at the London 2012 Olympics and lighting Westminster Abbey for Princess Diana’s funeral. “I’ve been everywhere across Great Britain and then Ireland,” he says.
When asked if anything ever went wrong lighting the Palladium stage or beyond, he cuts the question off. “I don’t make mistakes, man. Never. Once I’m with that lamp, everything outside in the street, family problems, that’s gone.”
If the wider public would never have heard of him, the stars certainly knew Hudson, at least by reputation, and not just those from the UK. “Most of the American artists would come here, some knew me and some had heard of me, so they would send for me.”
He talks fondly of lighting Shirley Bassey, Josephine Baker and Shirley MacLaine, and how Bette Midler once flashed him coming off stage. Among the most challenging were Lee Evans at Wembley – “He’s there, then there, then gone. I loved it” – and ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev: “He would spring from one side of the stage to the other. Picking him up was hard. Wayne Sleep too, when he’s spinning around.”
Initially reluctant to name a favourite show – “I lit so many good ones, there were only about 10 I didn’t like” – he settles on Golden Boy starring Sammy Davis Jr, which came to the Palladium in 1968. It seems the choice was not just about the quality of the work but for the man himself. “He was a special guy, he put on parties for us. He spent his money.”
His eyes twinkle as he points to a doorway opposite from where we’re sitting – the Argyll Suite – “I could tell you some stories of what went on in there,” he laughs, “but I’m not going to.”
Hudson spent time with many of the stars. He talked about drinking tea with Frankie Vaughan in the star’s dressing room, of partying with Tom Jones, and a night out with Mick Jagger in the late 1970s – “the last time I really got drunk” – of putting on bets for Sid James and hanging out with Roy Castle. “They’ve all gone those guys, brilliant guys,” he says then adding: “It’s not like that now.”
So what makes a good followspot operator? “Concentration, finesse and feeling. My lamp is my baby, it becomes a part of me. That’s my living. Some guys think it’s just a job. But doing it and doing it properly are two different things,” he says. “You also have to know how to improvise.”
He left the Palladium on a downbeat note in 2014. Not only was it off the back of flop I Can’t Sing! – The X Factor Musical but the company didn’t do much to mark his life’s work spent in the theatre. It was not Lloyd Webber’s fault, he is quick to point out: “The governor is brilliant, we get along really well.”
Hudson continues to light shows. Most recently he worked at the London Coliseum on Porgy and Bess, and he continues to light the TV programme Live at the Apollo and some stand-up specials. “I won’t retire, unless I can’t walk anymore or I can’t see across the road. My eyes are still good. If you were standing in the dark, I’d pick you out.”
As we leave, we detour through the auditorium, behind the stage, the winding corridors he knows blindfolded. “This is the building I love. I was an electrician, a plumber, a cleaner, a carpenter for this building. My pride was keeping this place looking good, because when I first came here it was brilliant.”