Christmas comes early at Thursford

From a shoestring production in an old farm shed to a glitzy festive extraganza, Thursford Christmas Spectacular now attracts as many people as Glastonbury. ADAM LAZZRI reports.

For many people in Norfolk and thousands of others from across the country Christmas simply wouldn't be Christmas without the Thursford Christmas Spectacular.

It is now regarded as the biggest Christmas show in England, possibly Europe, with more than 130,000 people expected to flock to the tiny North Norfolk village of Thursford between now and the final performance December 23.

The crowds will be entertained by an ensemble cast of more than 120 people performing a variety of dance, song, comedy and magic.

The show, being staged for the 34th year, features 23 dancers, 56 singers, a 32-piece orchestra and 76 different pieces of music.

It has a budget of �3.5 million and will be performed twice a day for the 46-day run.

Such is the show's reputation and loyal following that about 80,000 tickets for this year's production were sold in the first week of last January.

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John Cushing, the show's director, producer and founder, and his team have been working on the show all year.

It has been a remarkable journey for Mr Cushing and associate director and general manager Geraldine Rye, who have been involved in the Thursford Christmas Spectacular from its humble beginnings.

It was staged for the first time in an old farm shed on a shoestring budget in 1977. There was a single performance featuring eight dancers from King's College, Cambridge, and an organist, to a crowd of about 530 people.

Now the show attracts as many people as the Glastonbury music festival.

Mr Cushing said: 'The show has just grown gradually each year and become massive. It was 10 years ago when we started getting more than 100,000 people coming to the show.

'We started to make it more professional, with more money spent on costumes and the cast and we get people from as far as Scotland, Devon, Swansea, Harrogate, all over the place coming to see it.

'It is amazing that we get all of these people coming to this barn in the middle of a field in what can seem like the middle of nowhere. Thursford must be one of the smallest villages in Norfolk and usually far away from vast amounts of people.'

He added: 'The sheer size of this show, and the number of people involved in it, make it unique.

'You simply can't see anything like this anywhere else and I think that is what draws so many thousands of people in from all over the country each year.'

The no-expenses-spared show sees more than �100,000 per week spent on cast wages. Fifteen people performing in this year's show have performed in the West End this year.

Mr Cushing said: 'We have some of the best performers in the country here.

'This year we have also got three dancers who have only just graduated. They auditioned for us the very next day after graduating and all got the job.

'It is very rare that this happens as most of the performers here are very experienced. But these three girls are exceptional and it is wonderful to give them their first commercial job the day after they graduated.'

More than 1,000 costumes have been made for the show and more than �30,000 can be spent on costumes for a single scene.

With 50 coach loads of people arriving at Thursford every day, the show is estimated to be worth �10 million a year to the Norfolk economy.

Miss Rye said: 'Three-quarters of the people who come to the show from elsewhere stay in Norfolk for a mini-break which brings business to hotels, restaurants and attractions in the area.

'People come here for the show and then fall in love with Norfolk and keep coming back each year. We always get people asking us for recommendations to attractions and places to visit.

'The people at Norwich Cathedral tell us they know when the Thursford Christmas Spectacular has started because they get a big increase in visitor numbers. Pensthorpe Nature Reserve, the wonderful Christmas Tree Festival in Fakenham and the Holt Christmas lights switch-on have a large amount of visitors from people who have come to our shows.'

Last year's show had some very special VIP guests.

Prince William and Kate Middleton attended one of the shows last December and this was their first public appearance together since they had become engaged.

Mr Cushing said: 'It was wonderful to have them here and they commented on how much they enjoyed the show.

'This was the fourth time that Prince William had been here and we'd love to have them back.

'We often have celebrities here like Amanda Holden and cast members from Coronation Street but they usually keep it a secret and just turn up.'

He added: 'I am immensely proud of what this show has become and all of the people who work with me in putting it together.

'We never set out a business plan for this to happen all those years ago and never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that it would become what it has.'

? Thursford Christmas Spectacular runs daily at 2pm and 7pm until December 23, �34-�24.50, an extra �2 on Saturdays and Sundays in December, 01328 878477