Remembering: John Simpson

John Simpson (1942 – 2022)

White Light founder and former chairman John Simpson sadly passed away on 11 June 2022 after a short battle with cancer. White Light have released the following statement [sic]:

“Those of you who were lucky enough to know John, or work with him, will know what a brilliant person he was and how this is not only a huge loss to White Light but also the wider industry. John had a lifelong passion for theatre lighting and his co-founding of WL was both a pioneering and revolutionary move; forever changing the way the industry would operate. Not only did he have incredible foresight but, most importantly, he was warm, caring, approachable and had complete respect for all of those who worked with him; never believing in hierarchies. His attitude was embodied in how WL operates as a business, with its core values of being dependable, friendly, knowledgeable, adaptable, and customer-focused at the heart of the organisation. He was 79 years old and is survived by his partner Sue and three daughters Victoria, Laura and Emily.  

“John was born in 1942 in Devizes, Wiltshire. Later on the family moved to Chipstead, Surrey where his mother became very active in the local amateur dramatics society. All her children were encouraged to participate and John developed a quick obsession with the technical aspects of the theatre – in particular the lighting side. Although, back then, John never thought a career in the industry could be remotely viable and so actually went to work in the city, commuting in a bowler hat (something he openly admitted he hated). After a brief stint working on building sites, he would go on to become a specialist teacher in the 1960s, teaching English, Drama, Sociology and Mathematics in the Wolverhampton and Walsall area. During this time, the education authority decided to issue every single teacher with a tawse – a leather strap used to ‘discipline’ students – and part of their contract was that they had to enforce this. John being John refused to do anything of the sort and soon found himself leaving the profession. 

“Shortly after, he joined the Arts Council as a Trainee Administrator before being appointed to general manager at a range of different theatre venues, including Watford Palace Theatre, Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre and the Royal Court Theatre in London – which is where WL’s journey starts. 

“It was at the Royal Court where John would meet Chief Electrician Andy Phillips and Rory Dempster and the three soon saw a gap in the market for theatre shows that required additional lighting. As such, alongside Angela Fox and David Henderson, they formed White Light – a name based on Andy’s preferred lighting style (although there were rumours it was also linked to John being colourblind). Following this, John would then go out and max out his credit card (much to his mother’s dismay) in order to purchase the company’s first set of fixtures. 

“And whilst John’s mother may have disapproved of this initial spending, it would soon prove to be a sound investment. Based in a tiny office round the corner of Sloane Square, there was clearly a very obvious need for a company like WL as many shows would immediately draw on their services – with one of these being a production at the Royal Court Upstairs called The Rocky Horror Show. Only supposed to have a limited run, the show became an unexpected smash and was quickly transferred to the Kings Road Cinema, which John had to help convert into a theatre in less than a week! The show ran there for several years and has since toured globally, with WL still supplying the production to this very day. 

“Over the next fifty years, WL continued its work in the theatre industry, establishing itself as the leading supplier for West End and UK touring productions. The company also used its technical expertise to evolve into other areas, such as live events, broadcast, hospitality, education, live music and many more. John’s philosophy was ‘if you’re not moving forward, you’re just standing still’ and aided by a brilliant team around him, including Managing Director Bryan Raven who joined in 1987 and who John would mentor, the company grew and grew. Suddenly it went from a small office in Sloane Square to moving to a former old brewery site in Fulham in 1977 before settling in its current home in Wimbledon in 2001. Today, whilst theatre lighting still lies at the heart of the company, it is now industry leaders in many other fields – yet has maintained the passion and integrity that John ensured was part of the company’s DNA. 

“Outside of WL, John was known for his charity work, acting as Chair of Backup: The Technical Entertainment Charity, which provides financial support to industry technical professionals in times of hardship. Over the last two years of the pandemic he has been tireless in the support of the people in our industry who needed help – right up until a week before his untimely death.

“As we were writing this, we were trying to think of a way in which we could truly sum up the type of person John was. And that’s when we remembered his interview from our 50th Birthday Celebrations last year in which he was asked ‘what is your favourite memory of WL?’. You might (quite rightly) expect John to have picked a specific show or the first time WL worked internationally or even when we moved to SW19 as part of our continued expansion. But it was none of these. Instead, John’s response was: “My best memories are working with our colleagues and the collaboration, the effort, the passion, the fun… For me, it’s always been about people, rather than technology”. And we honestly believe that perfectly sums up the type of person that John Simpson was.  

“Thank you for the memories, John. And for being a great boss, a great leader and a great human being. You’ll be sadly missed by us all.”