The United Kingdom laughed its way through 2008 with two of the country's biggest comedy acts touring the nation with their sketch comedy stage shows. Female duo French & Saunders and comedian Steve Coogan showed England, Scotland, and Wales what comedy is made of with their shows Still Alive and Steve Coogan is Alan Partridge and Other Less Successful Characters, respectively.

Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, comedy partners for nearly 30 years, have had monumental television success with The Vicar of Dibley, Absolutely Fabulous, and six French & Saunders series. Not having toured in eight years, the pair decided to end their partnership with a new stage show, Still Alive. The show toured throughout the UK before a residency at London's Royal Drury Lane Theatre, ending the 30-year collaboration on a high note.

Steve Coogan, whose most successful character is Alan Partridge, a vulgar television chat show host seen in I'm Alan Partridge and Knowing Me, Knowing You…with Alan Partridge, has been away from the stage for a while. He decided to return to the spotlight after a 10-year hiatus, with a new show celebrating all the characters drawn from his standup and TV career.

What both shows had in common was Willie Williams' expertise in lighting and video design. Having created visually stunning and innovative designs for major concert tours and theatrical performances, comedy is a somewhat new direction for Williams. With an impeccable knack for timing, he created a visual environment that supported the comedic timings of sketch and standup comedy, most of which had originally been performed on television. Talking to Williams gave great insight into his design process.

LD: Can you describe your involvement in both Steve Coogan is… and Still Alive?

Willie Williams: My first step into the world of live comedy came a couple of years ago when I was asked to design a touring version of the UK TV comedy show Little Britain. It is a sketch-based show that scenically needed to get from place to place every couple of minutes, so it would have been financially impossible to tour that amount of scenery, not to mention the catastrophe in the wings. Consequently, video seemed the obvious way to go to set the scene, in tandem with smaller, more manageable props to enhance each state. As with the worlds of dance or music, all the performers in a particular field know one another and see each other's shows, so I have recently found myself doing a lot of work in comedy, which I confess to enjoying enormously. My one-liner is that, after 20 years of being at tech rehearsals and trying not to laugh, suddenly it's expected of us.

Given that I was able to provide an all-in-one package of video and lighting and that this kind of equipment has come down in price, it has become an affordable option for a show of this size to tour a simple video system. Creating the video material remains the most expensive part, but again, I now have a regular team of animators that I work with, so I am able to find the most appropriate people for each task. We work out of my studio which keeps overheads down, and ultimately, a client can spend as much or as little as they want on video content, depending on style, quality, and budget available.

LD: Can you describe the design process for both shows?

WW: With both Coogan and F&S, the design discussions revolved mainly around the video content. Aside from a few special effects, the performers had the confidence to assume I would light them appropriately, so the video scenery was the focus. As with a rock show, I would make storyboards and sample video clips to present to the performers for discussion, negotiation, and eventual approval. One of the unexpected great joys of working with these people has been to realize that, because they are from TV, they are naturally visual people, as opposed to working with musicians who are not necessarily required to think visually about the material they produce.

…Remembering that this is comedy, it is possible to take a slightly “broader stroke” approach. One of my favorite requests was from Jennifer Saunders, who asked that, whenever possible, “Could the lighting be funny?” Joking apart, this really gave me pause for thought and prompted some new ways of thinking for Alex Murphy [lighting associate] and me. It turns out that, as with all other forms of comedy, making lighting funny is all about surprises and, of course, especially about the timing…The “White Room” set was the most surreal of the live show — “weirdly bright” was how French & Saunders described what they wanted.

LD: How did the role of video differ between the two shows?

WW: With F&S, much of the video functioned simply as scenery, whereas with Coogan, a great deal of the comedy revolved around the visuals. There were a total of 180 video cues in the show, an enormous number of which were visual jokes. Some were highly interactive, including a techno-glove video controller with which Coogan's Alan Partridge character would look through onscreen images or play arcade games like shooting on-screen zombies. All of these effects were mocked up with the timings done in the edit. It took a great deal of time to get right and required Coogan to be very in tune with the video, but eventually, we were able to make it look convincing. Some of Coogan's visual requests were hilariously specific: “I want a video piece of a dog in a Nazi uniform waving his left paw and saying, ‘Let's hear it for Pauline Calf,’” or “I need a picture of five naked people playing Twister in a living room, with a 1970s Amstrad hi-fi clearly visible in the background.” Some of that was quite challenging, but there wasn't one that ultimately we couldn't find or make.

LD: Did you redesign Still Alive when it went from touring the UK to the West End?

WW: The main difference between the F&S tour and the run at Drury Lane was our ability to find better frontlight positions than would be feasible on a one-night tour schedule. Another upside was that the stage at Drury Lane is absolutely vast. It was home to Miss Saigon and Lord of the Rings, so you can imagine there's plenty of room upstage of the iron. This meant we were able to rear-project the video scenery on the backdrop, rather than the usual front shot from the advance truss. This made a huge difference, particularly with regard to being able to silhouette the performers and taking care of light spill.

LD: When working with comedy acts, do you find that the script changes and evolves as the tour progresses, or does the show remain largely the same from opening night?

WW: There is a huge amount of change to the script as a comedy show evolves, but fortunately, I come from the world of rock ‘n’ roll where you are lucky to get a set list by the time the performers walk on stage, so I am used to surprises. Comedy is trickier though, as the show is run like a theatre show with called cues, so everything does need to be nailed down, hopefully, by the time we get out of tech. On this point, the difference between Coogan and F&S was vast. I came to realize that this is the difference between a double act, where one needs to know what the other is doing, and Coogan, which was essentially a solo act with a support cast which required less discipline.

Also, the Coogan show didn't have a director — or rather, it was self-directed — which made it much harder to stabilize the script. With a personality-based show, including a rock show, the role of director carries a different emphasis to straight theatre because ultimately, the cast is in charge. The director's job becomes one of steering and giving feedback and advice, rather than direction per se. However, the structure of having a director still makes a huge difference to the progress of a developing show, and in many ways, this is where the Coogan show came unstuck. Every day during two weeks of tech rehearsals, the script changed continuously — vast swathes of new material appearing daily — to the point where actually teching the onstage action became something of an afterthought.

LD: How did your design accommodate the ever-changing script?

WW: French and Saunders settled down quite quickly, again aided by the fact that there are two of them, whereas with Coogan, I ultimately needed to take a slightly broader approach to the lighting, as the stage craft was far less consistent. For example, in a touring theatre show, I normally try to keep the use of front-of-house followspots to a minimum, as their positions will change from venue to venue, which can create unwanted bounce onto the rear screen. With Coogan, I ended up using the front spots pretty much the whole time, and ultimately the show went from two to four front spots, simply to keep everybody lit wherever they might choose to stand.

LD: The shows looked fantastic and were hysterical. What kind of feedback have you received from the performers themselves?

WW: Working with video backdrops is still a novelty for many of these performers, so largely, they have been delighted with the process. Their input has generally been positive and composed of good ideas but with a huge amount of room for the creativity of my team. Ben Elton, stand-up comic and director of We Will Rock You, commented to me that, in theatre, the images become “another voice” and in the right hands, can become like another personality in the piece. It certainly has its own character, to the point where it might even become awkward. David Walliams of Little Britain came to see the French & Saunders show and saw me afterwards. “I knew you must have done this,” he said laughing. “I was looking at that falling snow in the school scene and thought, ‘I'm sure we paid for that.’”




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