Theatrical designer Terry Parsons shares some panto secrets

PUBLISHED: 15:40 24 November 2016 | UPDATED: 15:40 24 November 2016

Terry Parsons loves designing vibrant sets

Terry Parsons loves designing vibrant sets


He’s behind you! And in a way that’s where you’ll find accomplished theatrical designer Terry Parsons, who shares some panto secrets with Sandra Smith

“When you walk into one of my shows you’re right in there from the word go. They are bright and kick start the pantomime feeling. I just love designing these sets!” For anyone who has yet to embrace the festive spirit, a chat with Terry Parsons is guaranteed to tap into a childlike enthusiasm for this great British institution which long ago became synonymous with Christmas.

Pantos may be awash with clichés and innuendo but, let’s face it, we’d be lost without an annual opportunity to indulge our appreciation of candy coloured costumes and ceaseless slapstick. And this year is no exception. When the Waterside Theatre’s production of Aladdin opens in Aylesbury on 9 December we will be treated not only to songs, humour and audience participation but a set created by one of our country’s most prominent and prolific theatrical designers.

“The starting point,” shares Terry, “is very practical. I work technically with a team of people and have the accurate dimensions of the theatre. I take the space and ensure you can fit in every scene, clinically splitting up the space into scenes. A pantomime usually has four sets plus front cloths. You first need to work out the practical side; then you can start on the artistic bits. It looks simple but takes a lot of working out.”

Initial dialogue between designer, writers and producers leads to a detailed synopsis and, although the end result looks effortless, Terry insists the process is a mathematical exercise. Drawings and detailed scale models are pored over in a three hour presentation. Surprisingly, however, this septuagenarian avoids modern technology.

“I am old school! Most young designers are adept on the screen, but I don’t do anything by computer. I’m not saying mine’s a better way, but I still give the most information. I draw in black and white then fill in the colours. I give myself three and a half months to create a set.”

Elsewhere in the county, other audiences will also benefit from Terry’s design skills. At Milton Keynes theatre a dazzling backdrop is guaranteed to encourage audiences heading for Dick Whittington to engage with the familiar storyline from the moment they step into the auditorium. The tale may, like other pantomimes, be familiar, nevertheless the freshness of the scenery breathes life and energy into every production.

Having crafted over 70 theatrical sets during his career, including West End and Broadway productions along with Stanley Baxter’s legendary pantomimes, Terry, a quietly spoken gentleman with a passion for the stage, channelled his career from an early age.

“I left my home in Cardiff at 17 and found my own way to get into Central Saint Martins on a theatre course and got a degree. It was all I ever wanted to do. In London I went to the theatre a lot and did amateur dramatics. At the end of the course you could apply to a competition for which you had to design two sets for two theatres. I chose the Duchess of Malfi designed for a conventional stage and also Chichester and I won. Then I began professionally at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, where one of my sons who is a tribute act has since performed.”

Sets are made at Nottingham’s Rocket Scenery. A double baton of timber at the foot of backdrops enable each canvas cloth to be rolled and stored with minimal damage. They are transported to the theatre a few days before the show’s opening, with two or three days allowed for assembly. There is a system allowing it all to click together. The main scene is self supporting with everything else either on wheels or flown on flybars - basic stagecraft using simple mechanics.

During the course of a pantomime a technician checks for wear and tear and, at the end of the run, the scenery is taken down to be stored in three vast, adjoining warehouses at the workshops known as “Terryland”.

Vibrant sets are complemented, of course, by equally dynamic costumes. A pantomime, after all, wouldn’t be the same without ostentatious, flamboyant – let’s not pull any punches, they are delightfully over the top – wigs and outfits which both reflect outrageous characters and form part of the visual entertainment expected at this time of the season. In fact, costumes go hand in hand with the scenery as this unassuming designer declares.

“I buy 90% of costume materials from the Indian area of Southall and Shepherds Bush market. I set off with a full book of designs, including colours. Sometimes you find what you want straight away. Costumes are high maintenance because they have such heavy wear. Characters have a head to toe design so the exaggerated wigs are tough, and hats have to sit properly. There are six people in the wardrobe department working all year round.

“Having begun designing pantomimes since the second year of my career I’ve been doing them now for 47 years. I only have one style – it’s very strong and graphic. Images should go to an audience’s eye but they should not know about the technical background. Sets look simple but take a lot of working out.”

Buckinghamshire’s panto lovers are in for the jolliest of treats this Christmas. The Milton Keynes production starring Samantha Womack and X Factor finalist Stacey Solomon promises to be lavish, spectacular and traditional whilst a magical and quirky aura fuels the Waterside Theatre’s Aladdin where Michelle Collins, Jasmin Walia and the town’s legendary funny man, Andy Collins, star. There are even murmurs of a real flying carpet during this fairy tale show which will generate treasured memories for all family members, whatever their age for thanks to Terry Parsons we will all be transported into colourful, fictional worlds for yet more unforgettable adventures.

The popularity of pantomime never wanes. Indeed it remains one of the highlights of Christmas. No wonder the celebrated designer has never lost his enthusiasm for this very British attraction.

Book your seats

Aladdin, Waterside Theatre Aylesbury, 9 - 31 December. Dick Whittington, Milton Keynes Theatre, 8 December – 15 January. Tickets for all performance are available from

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