Panto designer Terry Parsons: ‘I’ve always been in the right place at the right time’
Designer Terry Parsons is back where it all began, at Belgrade Theatre, five decades after getting his first job there. He tells Tim Bano how he’s thinking smaller after a career working on mega-musicals and entire portfolios of pantos
Five decades after he got his first job at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, Terry Parsons is returning to design the venue’s pantomime.
It’s something of a change in scale for the veteran designer. His career has included designing the entire portfolio of pantos for First Family Entertainment – one of the UK’s biggest panto producers until it was bought out by Qdos in 2017 – and mega-musicals such as Beauty and the Beast, Singin’ in the Rain, Grease and even the Danish production of Les Miserables.
“I’ve always tried desperately to keep my hand in small shows,” he explains, “because you can properly join in with the team, which I like.”
But now that he’s starting to ease up a bit – “I’m nearly 73 and the travel is absolutely shattering” – those big, blockbuster productions will start to take a back seat. “I’m going to pick and choose where I work, and I can tell you now the little ones will win.”
Hence his next job: Sleeping Beauty at the Belgrade to celebrate the theatre’s 60th anniversary. Parsons started his career at the venue after studying at Central Saint Martins. “I always boast about that – in those days you had to find your own way there, and as a 17-year-old living in Cardiff I don’t actually remember how I did it.”
Parsons doesn’t mean that metaphorically. With no internet, no Google maps and no online brochures, he literally struggled to find the Central building. “It’s bizarre to think of it in those terms,” he laughs.
When he graduated, Parsons won the prestigious Arts Council Bursary, as prestigious as the Linbury Prize today, and was offered the choice of three theatres that would give him a guaranteed job for a year. Following his nose, he chose the Belgrade “because they had a glamorous restaurant and I’d never seen that at a theatre before”.
Even though the bursary was seen as the gold standard in theatre design at the time, Parsons insists that young designers are of a much higher standard today than when he was a rookie. “There’s an awful lot of top-notch people I’ve met. I’ve seen some younger designers’ work and it’s much better than I was at their age.”
He’s aware that younger designers are having to work many more jobs at once, with more limited time constraints on any given production, in order to make ends meet. “I pride myself on being around a lot during productions, and I think you should be, but I can totally understand why youngsters have to rush around. The bottom line is: I’ve been well-paid all my life.”
Designers today are also, he reckons, “much more intelligent than in my day. I really do mean that. We had theatre gut instinct, but I’m not sure we were as bright. Design these days is so intelligent”.
Partly, he explains, that is down to leaps in technology both in terms of what can be done on stage, and in the process of creating designs. Parsons still does all of his technical drawings by hand, rather than on a computer, and even though it is the difference between three days and three weeks of drawing – “and I mean long, 12-hour days” – he doesn’t want to change now. “I can switch a computer on and I can read my email and there it stops.”
Even so, he says: “I don’t think I could have done the sort of work that people are doing now. Technically amazing things such as LED screens. They have taken over a bit, but it is a phenomenal visual level. We only dealt in wood and canvas.”
Parson’s mentions Bunny Christie’s design for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, saying it’s his favourite design of the past 10 years. “It’s a wonderful example of modern technique and design coming together and boosting the play. It’s easy to overwhelm the play with all that stuff. If you look at The X Factor, the last thing you look at it is the singer because it’s just flash.”
In the UK, panto is what Parsons is most associated with. But he’s spent most of the past quarter-century working abroad, particularly in Denmark. After the very first preview of his West End production of Grease in 1993 he received a message asking if he would meet a Danish man at the stage door. “He said he wanted to buy my drawings for Grease, and I said: ‘Well you can buy drawings but you have to buy me too.’”
That led to designs for Mary Poppins, Beauty and the Beast, and Les Miserables – the way the barricade came on and off stage was different from John Napier’s London design, apparently, and had to be personally approved by Cameron Mackintosh.
Parsons loves the variety of the work he is asked to do abroad, as well as the freedom in terms of money and imagination. “In Denmark there was never a budget. They just said no if they didn’t want it, and they never said no. The other great thing about the budgets is that it allows you to use the best people, because you’re only as good as the people you work with.”
For all of this Danish work, the costumes were made in England. “I don’t think there could have been better costume makers or hat makers or anything than the ones I was with for all those years.”
Recently he was asked to redesign a beloved Danish musical version of Treasure Island called Skatteoen, written more than 30 years ago and staged every year since. “In 2009, they decided to revamp it into a new production and I was asked to do it, so I’m going back later this year for yet another revival.”
Q&A: Terry Parsons
What was your first non-theatre job?
I only ever wanted to be a theatre designer from the age of 13, and I’ve never really done anything else.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Head of design at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
The teachers aren’t always right.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Ralph Koltai, head of theatre design at Central School of Art, London, from 1965 to 72.
What advice would you give a young designer?
See as much theatre as you possibly can.
If you hadn’t been a designer, what would you have been?
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Never tell anyone else about a job offer until you have signed the deal.
In the UK, on the other hand, Parsons became absorbed in the panto world, which he describes as a “factory”. With First Family Entertainment, “I would be left at home, then I would present it to whoever the director was, they would usually make one tiny change, hopefully they would go ‘wow’, then I’d go home and do the next one. I’m the first to admit it’s incredibly formulaic.”
During eight years with the company, he invented a system that allowed the sets to be reused in all of the 12 different theatres that were part of FFE’s rotation, each of which had stages and proscenium arches of different sizes. The central core – “the easy part” – was able to fit every stage, and then side sets were clipped on to match the dimensions of that particular theatre.
Parsons sees plenty of theatre – after we meet he is heading off to 42nd Street and The Inheritance the following week – and although he is famous for grand pantomime designs – one such design with Stanley Baxter has gone into Dundee’s new V&A Museum – the only panto he watches is the first night of the latest one he’s been working on.
In the case of Belgrade’s Sleeping Beauty, Parsons delivered the model for his design in April. Does he find it odd to be immersed in Christmas when the day itself is still nine months away? “Not really. What matters is that they open in time for me to have a good Christmas myself. Hopefully that will be the first week of December, and then that’s my job done. I’m a big family man, so Christmas is a big thing.”
For now, though, pantomime is not quite behind him. Back where he started 50 years ago, Parsons’ career has come full circle – a career that he’s convinced is charmed in some way. “I’ve always been in the right place at the right time – it’s true. I came out of college, started work four weeks later, and I have not ever stopped since.”
CV: Terry Parsons
Born: 1946, Cardiff
Training: Cardiff School of Art, 1964-65; theatre course at the Central School of Art and Design, London, 1965-68
• Mother Goose, Belgrade, Coventry (1970)
• Gigi, Leicester Haymarket (1980)
• Singin’ in the Rain, London Palladium (1983)
• Grease, Dominion (1993)
• Treasure Island, Folketeatret, Copenhagen (2009)
Agent: Stella Richards Management
Sleeping Beauty runs at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre until January 5