Born in London, his full name was Michael Ernest Gazeley Northern. Son of Helen, and Major Ernest Northern, he was educated at Canford School, Dorset. Michael Northern's first exposure to cinema was at the opening of the Forum in Fulham Road.
In 1938 he was at a loss at what to do when he spotted an advertisement in The Stage, placed by the early fringe 'Q' theatre at Kew Bridge, for someone wanting to learn stage
management or scenic design or painting. His father paid the £100 for the apprenticeship and Michael Northern served with the fading legends Jack and Beatie de Leon. He also became acquainted with the designer Tanya Moseiwitsch.
Michael Northern moved to similar posts in the West End during the Second World War and also had small acting parts, once understudying for James Mason at the New Theatre. He became a stage manager for reviews but was called up by the RAF where he worked in entertainment units in Britain and India.
Working at the top of his widowed mother's house in Cheyne Row, Chelsea, London, he developed a model theatre in which he could mock up productions and try out different lighting. This type of model was taken up by other stage designers.
From 1946 to 1950 he was at the Royal Opera House working on sets for The Ring, Lohengrin, and also Salvador Dali's Salome.
In the 1950s he was at Stratford working on productions of Measure for Measure, The Tempest, Macbeth, Twelfth Night, Othello, Peter Brook's Titus and Tempest, Peter Hall's Cymberline, and John Gielgud's King Lear. By 1960 he had worked on 23 productions, 13 on lighting, at Stratford and he did not return.
He also worked on sets by Leslie Hurry at Covent Garden for The Queen of Spades, Billy Budd, Gloriana, and The Ring. He worked with Benjamin Britten's English Opera Group on
productions of the Turn of the Screw at Aldeburgh, Sadler's Wells, and La Fenice.
In the 1950s he met other designers for lunch at Rules restaurant in Covent Garden. This led to him founding the Association of Lighting Designers and the Society of British Theatre Designers with Joe Davis. Michael Northern became the chairman and then the president in 1995.
In 1969 he worked on Noël Coward's 70th. birthday gala. In 1977 he retired to the country to breed donkeys. In 1983 he came out of retirement for a few productions including Lend me a Tenor in 1986.
He was appointed MBE in 2001 for services to the theatre. He marked the award by funding a scholarship for a young trainee lighting designer. However, he died a few days before he was scheduled to collect his insignia from Buckingham Palace. Robert Camac, his partner for 52 years, survived him.