It’s Norfolk’s own home-produced Christmas gift to county and country, which was once again unwrapped this week.
The Thursford Christmas Spectacular, known the length and breadth of the country, generates estimated millions of pounds into the local economy, including West Norfolk, while giving pleasure to audiences in their thousands who are spellbound by its midwinter magic.
People climb aboard fleets of coaches from all parts of the country to make their annual pilgrimage to Thursford, which is located in the middle of a Norfolk field, a few miles from Fakenham.
Loyal show enthusiasts say Christmas only starts for them after they have been to see the show.
And every January, bulging postbags of mail arrive at the Thursford office containing hundreds of letters from the appreciative audiences singing the show’s praises.
And these audiences are in good company − the show has been seen by Royalty and celebrities.
While the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge travel from their West Norfolk base at Anmer Hall to experience the Thursford magic, their young son, Prince George, and toddler daughter, Princess Charlotte, love being taken to Santa’s Magical Journey To Christmas, located in a purpose-built building close to the Christmas Spectacular’s main auditorium.
Show founder and director, John Cushing, has cleverly devised a tried and tested formula, the appeal for which shows no signs of diminishing judging from the demand for tickets. Many of the performances are sold out, with limited tickets remaining for selected dates.
What began in December 1977 as a concert of Christmas music and carols performed by a group of Cambridge University students has developed and grown over the years into today’s three-hour tour-de-force as it celebrates, in colourful song and dance, all that is good about the festive season.
It’s a clever mix of the sacred and secular − one minute audiences are listening to traditional Christmas Carols being sung by a robed choir, the next we are watching scantily-clad show girls stepping out across the 100-foot wide stage in a high-kicking Tiller-girl style routine.
It is truly a stunning feast of visual treats, all deliberately scripted to be fast-paced as colourful images unfold thick and fast.
Unlike West End shows, Thursford Spectacular has no individual “stars”. The talented singers and dancers among the 130-strong cast of chorus and principals all contribute to the overall show and that’s how it has always been.
Although the show and its content changes every year, its basic formula, combining the sacred and the secular, remains the same.
This year’s show marks the start of Thursford’s fifth decade and it is now very much a family run affair.
John Cushing’s two twenty-something sons, Charlie and George, both now have managerial roles.
They are the third generation to be actively involved in, not only the Christmas show, but also the Steam and Road Engine Museum famously ly founded by John’s father, George.
So enthusiastic about preserving these relics of the past and putting them on show to the public in the Thursford Museum, George Cushing was still taking a keen interest in the Museum almost right up to his death at the age of 98.
For John Cushing standards of professionalism in the show are always high. If he becomes aware that a member of the cast are not pulling his or her weight they are soon made aware of it by John in no uncertain terms!
As soon as the curtain comes down on the final performance on December 23, John and his team of music and dance advisors, are already thinking about the next year’s show including taking note of comments made by audience members in their thank you letters.
He explained that this year has seen the installation of some spectacular new lighting on the extensive stage.
“We have also invested a lot into our lights display outside surrounding the auditorium and this will help create a magical effect,” he said.
Along with the music, song and dance are the fabulous costumes which have always been a trademark of the show.
The costumes are often sumptuous and create a sparkling spectacular effect, particularly with expertly choreographed formation dance routines.
This year is no exception − John says the budget for costumes is set at more than £200,000.
Each year John likes to keep a few surprises up his sleeve, so what can audiences expect in the 2017 show?
John says there will definitely be some surprises but is playing his cards close to his chest. “I’m not telling you,” he said.
For many years the show has broken previous records in the box office and 2017 is set to repeat this.
“We expect this year to be a record-breaking year and we have put in two extra shows to cope with demand for seats. As at the end of October 104,000 tickets had been sold,” he said.
John says he believes there are three main elements that contribute to making Thursford so special. These are the scale of the performances, the talented professional dancers and the contrast with its setting in the small village of Thursford.
He added that the Thursford show is totally unique. “There is no other show in the country like this and that is what makes it so special. People travel from nearly every county in the UK to Thursford to see the show,” he said.
For the show’s professional choreographer, Tracy IIiffe, this will be in her sixth year putting the dancers through their paces.
Tracy say that Thursford is the only entertainment place she knows where everything is done properly. “This is dotting the I’s and crossing every T and going above and beyond. The Irish routine is authentic as are the showgirl routines and you don’t get that anywhere else!”
Tracy promises a surprise for the 2017 audiences. “There is something we are doing in a scene that I think no one will have ever seen before,” she said.
She explained that the dancing girls are very committed to their roles in the Thursford show.
“One of the girls, Hannah, drove from Hungary to get here to take part and that’s pretty committed. Another girl, Sophie, finished a contract two days early and drove to Norfolk from Paris to appear in the show,” said Tracy.
Tracy says she starts planning the dance routines in her garden in June. “My neighbours have been watching me dance around my garden on my own with a trombone trying to make up patterns, they must think I’m a lunatic!”
John Cushing has the final word. How does he spent his own Christmas?
“Even though Christmas is on my mind almost every day of the year, I really look forward to spending my own personal Christmas with my wife and family in the traditional way,” he said.
The show opens today (Wednesday, November 8, 2017) and there are usually two performances at 2pm and 7pm daily.
Although some dates are now sold out, there are still tickets available by contacting the Thursford box office on 01328 878477 (9am to 4pm Monday to Friday). Tickets can also be bought online from the website at www.thursford.com