Norfolk's Mr Christmas: "losing the show last year felt like a bereavement'
- Credit: Archant
I am sitting with Norfolk’s Mr Christmas in one of the barns his father worked in as a 12-year-old boy full of dreams that one day, the funfair would come to Thursford.
Fast forward more than 100 years and John Cushing’s father George’s wish to bring colourful enchantment to Thursford has been more than granted.
John has created a winter wonderland in the fields of Norfolk, a magical village filled with the warmth and joy of childhood and nostalgia, barns that were once filled with cows now resounding to show tunes and carols, bagpipes and drums.
It’s October, but here it is perpetually Christmas: from where I sit, I can just spy the gigantic baubles that sparkle from the roof in front of Thursford’s huge stage and can hear the rehearsals for this year’s comeback show taking place.
“I may need to pop in and out,” John tells me, “do let me know if I’m not giving you my full attention, it’s just that I like to keep an eye on things…”
(For the record: John does give me his full attention – a hugely engaging, enthusiastic and charming interviewee, his recollections of almost 82 years of life in Thursford are as entertaining as the attraction he has masterminded)
Born in the winter of 1939 - he always celebrates his November birthday with cast and crew “and the most professional version of ‘Happy Birthday to you’ ever" - John arrived into the world within a stone’s throw of the Christmas world he has created.
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“My first memory is being pulled out of the house by my Mother because all the fields were on fire,” he says, “the Germans had dropped incendiary devices all around this area because it was so full of airfields. We sat under a tree and watched the flames.
“I remember that my Father, the next morning, watched as all our bombers were coming home and he was saying: ‘look at that one! He’s got the end of his tail off!’ ‘he’s only got three engines!’ ‘look at his wing!’. You could see the damage that had been done.”
The youngest of three sons to George and Minnie, John’s Norfolk pedigree is impressive.
Ancestors from Hingham were amongst some of the first Puritans to cross the Atlantic and the Cushing Homestead in Hingham, Massachusetts was built in 1678 which has been lived in for more than three centuries by descendants in the male line of the original builder.
His grandfather and father were both born in Thursford and he remembers living in Thursford Hall as “not very glamorous” with a distinct lack of electricity and running water: it was also a shadow of the building it had been before the First World War.
The Cushings lived in what had been the maids’ quarters in the remains of the Hall after most buildings had been destroyed by former owners due to the punitive costs of maintenance.
“One of my most vivid memories is my mother telling me she’d head this terrible banging going down the stairs and she’d been scared stiff: it was a rat caught in a trap that was trying to escape!” laughed John.
Steam and dreams of the fairground have been part of John’s life for as long as he can remember – his father had been swept away by the glamour and romance of steam-powered fairground rides as a 10-year-old and later helped to build roads in the Walsingham area using a steam roller he later bought.
The family moved to Laurel Farm, the future site of Thursford Steam Engine Museum and in turn the Christmas Spectacular, in 1947 and George began to build his internationally-acclaimed collection of steam tractors, rollers, ploughing engines, organs and fairground attractions.
John remembers the winter of 1947 which brought a freeze to post-war Britain, six weeks of snow which saw Thursford cut off from the rest of the world (the next time it happened was during a show and the guests spent the night in the seats being fed mince pies).
“The snow drifts were so high and deep but strangely I never remember feeling cold, I never remember any hardship although by today’s standards of course, it would be a different story,” says John.
“Anyone born during the war years would have experienced real hardship – and of course loss, too. But my overwhelming memories of childhood are wonderful.
“I still have the lantern that my Mother used to light at night, a paraffin lamp that when she turned it up, would light the whole room with a wonderful glow.”
Inspiration, I ask, for the future and John’s fairylight-lit magical winter village?
“Well, you never know…!” he laughs.
Keen to send his son to nearby Gresham’s School in Holt, his father sent him for private tutoring in Fulmodeston and he would cycle for lessons weekly (more of this, later).
A boarding pupil at Gresham’s – pupils who lived more than five miles away had to board unless they were brought to school each morning by a parent – John felt terribly homesick.
“I always wonder if that’s why so many people drop out of university so early on, because they miss their home so much,” he says, “if you’ve not been away before, it’s hard and it’s lonely.”
The future Thursford impresario enjoyed his first taste of showbusiness as a junior school pupil and organised his first production at the age of 11: aptly, a Christmas show.
A music teacher wrote a special tune – he breaks into song: “Hang up your stockings on Christmas eve and show Santa Claus that you really believe…” – and he designed the set.
John has since used the song that launched a billion sequins in his Thursford production, adding giant Christmas stockings in front of a giant fireplace which dropped down at the end of the song to reveal two dancers.
“The cast thought it was a bit naff,” he laughs, “but I do love a bit of nostalgia.”
Throughout his school career, John was involved in plays and productions and loved going to the cinema to watch musicals.
His first and last appearance as a performer on stage came as a 13-year-old at Gresham’s when he was in a Christmas performance in 1953.
“I can’t play any instruments, I can’t sing, I can’t read music but I do know what makes a good show. I knew straight away that I just loved being involved in productions,” he tells me, “I’m happier behind the scenes!”
After working his way up to Stage Manager at Gresham’s and producing the annual show for his school House Howson’s – it was hard work with few resources, but one moment made it all worthwhile.
“I can still hear it because I still wait for it every year,” John tells me, “the moment the show ends and the applause begins. Every time I hear it I feel emotional.”
John left Gresham’s – and showbusiness – behind in 1957.
“The assumption was always that we boys would join the family business – there was no chance we’d be going to university, it was just a given we’d work for my Father,” John explains.
Missing National Service, a standardised form of peacetime conscription, by just one month (both brothers served for two years) John went straight to work on the farm, harvesting sugar beet by hand.
“It was back-breaking work. There was an old chap on the farm, a steam roller driver, called Nelson and he said ‘John, there’s no future in this for you!’ because he saw just how much I hated it!” laughed John.
By this time, George Senior’s business interests had diversified and John went to work at one of the family’s laundries based at RAF Sculthorpe – he was there until 1964.
A further laundry in Fakenham would remain in the family for 46 years…meanwhile, back at Thursford, his father George’s collection of steam-powered machinery had grown and was attracting visitors.
A trust was set up and the steam collection became a charitable trust-endowed museum – John joined forces with his father in the 1970s and began to transform Thursford into a viable business after he took over the reins in 1977.
“My Father had run Thursford as a hobby – there were no toilets, no car park, no facilities so we started to add them as we needed money to keep the museum open,” he says.
“We realised that visitor numbers dropped dramatically in winter, so I decided to do something about it.”
Possibly the understatement of the year, I say.
“I love Christmas – the magic of Father Christmas, the beautiful story of Jesus and the wonder of Christmas Eve, my favourite night of the year,” John tells me.
“Every year my wife Barbara lights all the candles in the house, we eat Christmas dinner that evening and we stay up until 3am just enjoying the night.
“It’s always been special to me, so I think that’s where it all began.”
John invited the choir from King’s College Cambridge to sing in the barns at Christmastime in 1977 – it was a raging success.
Over successive years he invited more choirs, added more shows, and within a matter of years was seating 800 people a night over more than two weeks.
By 1982, Christmas had well and truly arrived at Thursford and showbusiness – a long time on John’s wish list to Santa Claus – had come to this otherwise quiet corner of Norfolk.
Under John’s leadership, the museum has grown into the world's largest collection of steam engines and organs with a transformed visitor experience including the addition of cafés, restaurant, bars, shopping village, pavilion and bed and breakfast at Holly Lodge.
But it’s the creation of the Thursford Christmas Spectacular and the enchanting Santa's Magical Journey fantasyland, that have captured the world’s attention: it is now Europe’s biggest Christmas show.
There are so many strings to John’s bow, so many things to be proud of – his family, his position as British American Committee Chairman for Royal Air Force Lakenheath, the success of his former laundry business in Fakenham, his father’s MBE, his own OBE awarded for his services to charity in the New Year’s honour list in 2019, regular visits to Thursford from royalty, the massive injection of cash the show delivers to Norfolk…I could write a book (one has already been written, in fairness, but I bet I could manage another).
As John pops out to check on rehearsals, wife Barbara who has been working nearby comes over and tells me how they met, at a wedding in Wiveton where it was love at first sight.
“We’ve been together for 40 years and at first it took a while to get used to the fact that I had to share John with Thursford and with Christmas,” she laughs.
“But what a lovely thing to be part of, to play a part in so many other people’s celebrations. I quickly got used to it and now working with my family and the Thursford family is such a privilege.”
John returns and we tackle the thorny subject of 2020.
The pandemic-forced closure of Thursford last year was, John says, “like a bereavement”.
“We all had our dark days. It felt as if the rug had been pulled out from under us and I would walk around wondering if it would ever come back,” he tells me.
“All I have known for decades is a year entirely dictated by the show from February to December. Suddenly my diary was empty, the place was like a ghost town, our Thursford staff were furloughed, it was devastating.”
But the Thursford team is used to diversification: after all, we are sitting in cow sheds in fields that were once filled with wheat, barley, oats and sugar beet and which is now a Christmas Fantasy Land.
Plans were made, the Enchanted Journey of Light was born, an indoor and outdoor procession past Santa’s workshop and through the North Pole delighted thousands.
This year, the full Thursford experience is back and ready to bring magic to thousands of people all over again – National Health Service staff have been given personal invites to attend some shows for free, the coaches will return, the audiences will once again be treated to a show that boasts more than 80 pieces of music in a show that costs millions to produce.
On November 9, the doors open. But not before John has his coffee and toast…
“A lot of people in showbusiness are superstitious and I am no exception,” John tells me, “there are several little things I do every year. After I’ve written the show, I go for a cycle ride to Fulmodeston and just look at everything I used to look at as a child.
“It hasn’t changed much and it just takes me back. On the first day of the show there’s another ritual which involves visiting a certain coffee shop to have a cup of coffee and maybe some toast.
“I do the same things every year. I think this year it will feel even more important.”
To this day, it is rare that perfectionist John misses a performance at Thursford. From the 80-plus shows that played to pre-Covid audiences in 2019, he missed around eight performances.
“It has to be something important to take me away,” he says, before adding with a wry glance, “you know, an invitation from Sandringham…or picking up a Lifetime Achievement award from the EDP.”
He laughs: “But seriously, to be successful in anything it has to be your life. You can’t just drop in and out, you have to live it and sleep it, eat it and drink it, 365 days a year. There’s no other option.”
Sons Charlie and George both went to university, Charlie for a business studies and tourism degree, George to study hospitality, and both are working for the business.
John categorically has no plans to retire or slow down – he can’t WAIT for that buzz he first felt as a child, the moment an audience applauds one of his productions.
“One of the most emotional times of my year is after the first show of the season ends. All the production team and the people who make this show come together are at the back of the hall waiting to hear the applause. We just howl together,” he says.
“For me, that sums up what showbusiness is all about. I want people to laugh, to feel warm inside, to cry, to feel it all within the space of three hours.
“Emotion is the alcohol of the soul.”
John is lavish with praise for all of those who have made his – and the six million plus audience members’ – dreams come true and admits that the show leaves little time for other hobbies, although he enjoys time spent in his and Barbara’s woodland garden which he designs and maintains himself.
“The best parts of lockdown were in the woods with Barbara enjoying a bottle of wine in front of a bonfire,” he says.
But there’s no other way he’d have it: “I love every single minute and I get to share it with wonderful people – my family, the cast and crew and our audience. I feel very, very lucky and very grateful.
"Would I change anything if I had my time again?
“My father always used to say that you need two lifetimes – one you can live and the other where you can put right all the mistakes you made in the first. But I really can’t complain. The show’s back, Thursford is back and we are ready. I can’t wait."
· Find out more about Thursford and book here: www.thursford.com