The man whose mind is always on Christmas

Richard Parr It is a large barn in the middle of a tiny Norfolk village but each year more than 100,000 people travel to Thursford to watch a £2.5m three-hour musical celebration of the Christmas season. We talk to the man behind one of the country’s biggest festive shows.

Richard Parr

John Cushing is the man behind a hugely successful Norfolk phenomenon - the Thursford Christmas Spectacular.

It's Christmas every day of the year for 69-year-old Mr Cushing who starts to plan another seasonal show as soon as the current one ends.

Thousands and thousands of people have come to love their annual pre-Christmas visit to Thursford, many of them claiming that it's the point when their festive season starts.

The 2008 show is now under way and entertaining hundreds of people in two daily performances with a record-breaking 130,000 tickets sold and only cancellations available.

And at a time when many people have the words “credit crunch” on their lips, it seems that they are happy to pay to celebrate Christmas with a visit to the show. People travel from all over the country and Mr Cushing believes they want to celebrate the festive season even if they have to cut down on other things.

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“We have had record-breaking ticket sales this year so it appears people still want to mark the festive season and spend a few hours away from the everyday talk of doom and gloom. I think our shows certainly help lift people's spirits. Most of them leave the auditorium with smiles on their faces and joy in their hearts,” said Mr Cushing.

For most people having to think 'Christmas' all through the year and listen to seasonal and sacred songs in mid-June would be too much to contend with. But not for the tireless Mr Cushing, who seems to thrive on planning his show from early January.

Such is his enthusiasm for his shows, that he has been known to rush back home from a trip to the beach when an idea for a scene or song comes into his mind.

These days the cost of staging the Christmas Spectacular is around £2.5m and the opening scene alone costs an amazing £30,000.

Over the years (the shows are now in their fourth decade) Mr Cushing has put a little corner of Norfolk - the tiny hamlet of Thursford - on the international entertainment map with his Christmas shows that have been seen by royalty and top-line entertainers including Ken Dodd and Roy Hudd.

In staging his shows each year Mr Cushing is a perfectionist and goes to great lengths to ensure that each set piece, each musical number and each scene is just as he planned it and he will not rest until he is completely happy with the whole production. He has been known to insist that a particular scene or song is rehearsed again and again if he is not completely happy with it.

The extensive storage facilities at Thursford house the wonderful costumes which are designed by the costume designer and then made up by seamstresses.

Company secretary Geraldine Rye, who has been involved with the productions right from the early days, says that thousands of pounds are spent on costumes to create the look they are after for a particular scene.

“For instance, we spend hundreds of pounds on tights for the girl dancers,” she said.

Never one to rest on his laurels, Mr Cushing is always open to new ideas and this year he has rung the changes with the introduction of more comedy - something people are reacting well to.

Working alongside professional musical and choreography advisors, Mr Cushing always strives for the highest quality and the attention to detail is amazing, but more of that later.

To learn something about the origins of the Thursford Christmas Spectacular it is necessary to go back to the mid-70s when it all began with a Sunday afternoon concert by a group of choristers from Cambridge and this was repeated for a few years until it gradually developed into a Christmas variety show.

Mr Cushing is a straightforward but friendly man with a warm smile on a face that belies he's nearly 70. He admits that he is not musically trained but reckons that he can produce a good musical!

He and his wife Barbara have two teenage sons, George and Charlie, and a nice touch in the show is when a screen comes down across the stage showing scenes of the family enjoying the festive season. The smiling face of his late father George, who started it all, is also shown.

In those far-off days Mr Cushing worked at the Thursford Collection museum with his father, who died in 2003 just days before his 99th birthday.

He was also the boss of the Fakenham Laundry company which he sold a few years ago to give him more time to devote to the Thursford shows.

George Cushing built up a fascinating collection of steam agricultural and traction engines that had helped him in his work as a road builder. He was a shrewd man and managed to keep many of these engines and restore them to their former glory.

Many are now take pride of place within the museum which attracts thousand of visitors every summer.

As well as the exhibitions, including a rare gondolier roundabout built by Savages of King's Lynn and now in working order, visitors are entertained by organist Robert Wolf.

The engines restored by George Cushing now form one of the biggest collections in the world and his son is delighted that he has been able to house the final 25 of the machines inside his children's Christmas magical journey attraction, which he opened in 2007.

“It has always been my intention to restore the remaining engines and display them for the public to see and admire just like the other steam and road-traction engines that are already on display as part of the Thursford Collection,” he said.

Thursford has become known the length and breadth of the country for its Christmas shows the like of which you wouldn't find in the West End.

In each performance a cast of more than 100 dancers, singer and musicians combine in a dazzling show that lasts for three hours. One minute the audience is reduced to tears by the emotional singing of O Holy Night and the next they are laughing at a comic interlude.

The looks of the faces of the audience as they pour out of the auditorium says it all, with comments such as “great show”, “marvellous singing and dancing” and “it's the best yet” being heard over and over again.

Each January, along with sacks full of requests for tickets for that year's show, Mr Cushing receives piles of letters from people who are writing to thank him for once again putting on such a marvellous show.

“It really is amazing, people just seem to love the whole experience that the Thursford Christmas Spectacular offers them,” he said.

“From the moment they walk through the main entrance they are out to soak up the magic and take a little of it home with them.”

t This year's series of shows, which run until December 23, have now sold out but occasionally there will be cancellations. Contact 01328 878477 to check on returns. The same number should be called to book a place inside the Santa's Magical Journey attraction.