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50 years on: designer Terry Parsons returns to the Belgrade Theatre

Posted on 1 November 2018

50 years after designing his first professional show at the Belgrade Theatre, Terry Parsons is back in Coventry to work on this year’s Christmas pantomime, Sleeping Beauty.

As a promising young designer, Terry kicked off his career at the Belgrade after training at the Central School of Art in London. As a student, he was awarded a prestigious Arts Council bursary – since developed into the renowned Linbury Prize – which secured him work at what was then a very different looking Belgrade.

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“The prize was to choose a job at one of three theatres – Birmingham REP, Bolton or the Belgrade. The main reason I chose this one was the restaurant!” he laughs. “What you have to understand is that in those days, it really was the beginning of new regional theatres, and it was so glamorous that they had a beautiful new restaurant. I remember it had pink tablecloths.”

Pink tablecloths aren’t the only thing that’s changed about the Belgrade over the last 50 years. In 1968, the theatre still had its own rep company, with actors living at the theatre and opening a new show every week.

“Socially it was amazing – your whole life was at the theatre. I was here for seven years and I met my ex-wife here – we had adjoining flats in what is now offices. And of course, we all lived in The Hole in the Wall across the road…

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“When I started it was still the weekly rep, and then it changed to fortnightly, but for me that meant I had to be designing the next thing while I was working all the time anyway. Plus the theatre itself was much smaller – all that backstage area didn’t exist then, so we were often working on the stage.

“Looking back now I don’t quite know how we made it all happen. A show would finish at say, nine, ten o’clock, and then we’d come downstairs and paint the backcloth until about two in the morning.”

After a brief stint assisting, Terry was handed an exciting opportunity when the theatre’s resident designer became ill and had to leave.

“I’d done a couple of shows and they said, ‘We quite liked those, we’re not going to advertise – would you like to be Head of Design?’ So I fell on my feet really.”

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So it was that he found himself designing the Belgrade’s 1968 production of Mother Goose, and the rest is history.

“The very first panto I worked on was by someone from outside the Belgrade, and then the following year I designed the costumes for Cinderella, but Mother Goose was the first time I’d designed a full panto, and for some reason I just took to it – I couldn’t really explain why. Over the seven years I was here, I did the panto every year, plus about another five shows a year I think.”

Since leaving the Belgrade, Terry has gone on to enjoy considerable renown as a panto designer, as well as working on a wide range of other productions both in the UK and overseas. Recent work includes a five-year, fourteen-panto contract for First Family Entertainment, recently taken over by Qdos.

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As you’d expect, over the years, his style has evolved and developed continuously, and in his own words, his designs for Sleeping Beauty are very “focused on detail”.

But more than anything, he’s glad to be back at the place where it all started to celebrate his 50th anniversary, as well as the Belgrade’s 60th.

“I actually wasn’t going to do another panto this year, but when this offer came through, I just thought it would make the anniversary so much more special. Most of my friends are the same people as then – just the other day I was speaking to my friend Roger who was the artistic director here when I started, and who is 82 now. So to be back at the same theatre is extraordinary.”

Terry Parsons

Don’t be caught napping – set your alarm for when the nation’s dreamiest panto comes to the Belgrade Theatre this Christmas. Sleeping Beauty runs 21 Nov – 5 Jan. Book your tickets now – it would be a nightmare to miss it.