My Big Personality this week may be small in stature but she more than makes up for it in gung-ho determination. She is perfectly petite, bright-eyed and as youthful as one of Santa’s elves. But please don’t be fooled; this sharp-minded, dynamo of a woman has a story that starts in the Pirates of Penzance and crosses through several incarnations to the land of indoor beaches and Christmas Grottos.
Philippa Porritt was born in London and as an artistic girl she was always destined to follow a creative path through life. She studied stage design at Central St Martins in London where she honed her craft, creating costumes, props and sets for theatre. It was the eighties, the arts were booming and when Philippa graduated she found herself following the Fringe Theatre circuit, turning her ideas into theatre reality.
After a couple of years dodging about between much-loved, but very low-paid jobs, she decided it was time to get serious and applied for the position of Scenic Artist & Design Assistant at Perth Rep Theatre. It was 1987 and serious Perth luvvies will know that this fell under the reign of the formidable Artistic Director, Joan Knight.
“It was an amazing time to be in theatre in Scotland and Joan was one of the most respected Artistic Directors of her time. In fact, of any time. It was proper rep theatre and so we were turning around shows every two weeks and the set design, costumes and props were all done in-house. Joan’s plan for the season was so cleverly woven together so that although we were working full-on, at a constant pace, we didn’t have the crazy pressures of three or four big sets one after another. We always opened in September with a big set musical, and then came a more minimalist set, then Panto and so on.
I remember my first show. Clive Perry was the show director and Nigel Hook was the designer. We had painted all these rocks a bright blue and when we got into dress rehearsal Clive hated them. He just swished his hand through the air and said ‘Change them. I hate them.’ We were opening the next night and these were really, really big rocks! We had to pull an all-nighter, fuelled on coffee to get them repainted. We pulled it off though.”
It was during her time at Perth Rep that she met Ian Porritt, crew hand and son of Joan’s PA. He was a time-served luthier and had been accepted to study stagecraft at LAMDA in London. He was helping out building sets at Perth while he waited for this start and in true straight-from-a-script-style, it was boy-meets-girl-and-falls-hopelessly-in-love! She returned to London a year later to live with Ian while he studied at LAMDA and during this time the pair set up Red-i Design – “because we worked so hard we always looked tired!”
Red-i was based in London but Philippa worked between there and Scotland, picking up freelance design & prop / costume work with impressive clients such as Scottish Opera. Ian was working on big productions at Madame Tussauds and when Disneyland Paris opened he was there model making and building huge scenery sets from fibreglass. From the
outset of the business, she was the creative designer behind the ideas and Ian was the technical know-how who turned her ideas, and others, into reality.
“We’ve been together 27 years, in business 26 and married 25. If you’re a husband and wife team in a work environment I think you need to have defined roles. Otherwise it’ll be
a disaster! I mean we argue, we fall out but it’s never about elbowing in on each other’s territory. We’d have killed each other if we hadn’t been able to work that one out early on!”
Now in their late twenties, living in Camden and working across theatre design and production they started their family and had their two eldest girls, Olivia and Natasha,only two years apart.
“We knew we didn’t want to bring up kids in London. Ian had moved to Perth when he was 14 and he’s always considered it home. When he was offered the job as master carpenter at Perth Theatre it was a no-brainer; he had started there as a crew hand and to be invited back to run the department was just a dream position for him. We decided to pack up our life in London and moved here in 1993 when the girls were three and one.
To be fair, we were getting a decent amount of work in Scotland so it made good sense. We did a deal with the theatre and agreed that if Ian was to come back, we would be allowed to use their workshop for making props and bits of design for our Red-i clients. And we carried on like that for a while until Scottish Opera put in a huge order for a big fibreglass set and we decided to take the plunge so that we were both in Red-i full time again.
People don’t realise what that means; both parents self employed in one business, with two young girls, was a big deal. But you know, there were times when we didn’t have the
price of a pint of milk so I suppose we were resilient. We saw the opportunity and just went for it.”
Philippa and Ian worked tirelessly, picking up jobs across Scotland and the UK. They could offer a full package of design and build, with Philippa crossing over into costume design for bigger shows and small rep theatres. Jess came along in 1997 and with three girls under seven they were one big, happy, busy family. Then a series of events came into play and it was to change the shape of their business forever.
“So, Ian was working on a job at a theatre where the Singing Kettle was playing. Cilla lost one of her giant teapot earrings and was distraught. She had had them specially made and it was apparently irreplaceable. Ian took ownership of the remaining earring, made a hollowcast, painted it up and that night Cilla went on stage with her matching pair! Arty couldn’t believe it because they’d been looking for someone to do merchandise for ages and so we started a line of Singing Kettle earrings, badges and other bits.
Then, on the back of this, we were asked to do a Singing Kettle Christmas Grotto in Frasers in Glasgow. It was huge; it was made out of fibreglass and dressed in the full red and gold regalia. The kids loved it. It was brilliant.”
Now, you may be forgiven for thinking that this was the leap…But not quite. The following summer they were approached by someone who had been passed their name by Scottish Opera. This guy wanted to install kiddie rides into shopping centres but he wanted to drop the tacky, cheesy image and do something that was beautiful. With Red-i on board, Philippa designed his scenic backdrop and Ian figured out exactly how the whole thing would go together. They called it the "Play Island".
“It was so different for us but we really enjoyed it. Anyway, later that year he called us to say he’d offered a shopping centre a free Grotto if they let him run his Play Island in their mall and could we help him. It was really interesting actually because we came up with this little log cabin and it was so tasteful, entirely different to anything that had been done before. We really liked it.
And then we got a call to say that Scottish Opera had been awarded a millennium grant and their scenic construction was all going in-house and that was us. It was one door shutting and another opening. We could see this opportunity to diversify and we grabbed it. We approached a load of shopping centres about doing grottos and that Christmas we got our first contract to do a Christmas Pudding Grotto in Falkirk!
The pudding came from the same mould as the Signing Kettle grotto had. We have adapted it so many times over the years. It’s been a giant snowman, a teddy and a penguin. But in its first incarnation as Falkirk’s Christmas Pudding it was wonderful, because it made me look at shopping centres in a different light. They’re basically the same as theatre, just a
different environment. The biggest difference is that in theatre you are trying to create a vision out of blackness, and so to make something invisible, you paint it black and it disappears. Shopping centres are the polar opposite every thing has to be white. It took us a while to remember that – Ian still forgets and it’s been 17 years!”
After installing the Grotto at Falkirk, Philippa spoke to Phil Chapman, the manager there and asked if she could spruce up his tired old decorations. He said yes and before you could say Animated Husky Dogs and Fake Snow, they were in the Christmas installation market.
“At the time there were two or three big companies on the UK Christmas scene and they were so full of importance that they didn’t even look at jobs that were £20K a year or under. We could see that this portion of the market was grossly underserved and Red-i was able to bring real value and an incredible level of detail and professionalism to what many would consider small jobs. But the thing about the world of shopping centres is that everyone talks to everyone. And as managers of little centres moved around, looking for promotion, they became managers of bigger centres. And we were part of the team they relied on. It was fantastic; we were
working as far afield as Hastings and you know, we were really good at it.
It was incredibly hard work; cash flow is dismal and it was a bit like theatre in that if you weren’t doing five or six shows at once you weren’t making money. Here you needed a mass of contracts but they all came off at the same time. So for 6 weeks a year we just worked, flat out. Come install time we would be working eighteen hour days, seven days a
week. The kids would sometimes board at school during this period because it’s the only way we could plough through it all – they of course loved it but it was really tough. That said, I do love Christmas. It starts in March for us but it never gets old! I love the design, the preening, the grottos and the glitter and sparkle. It’s wonderful.”
Around this time they began to do Summer, Easter and Hallowe’en displays, widening their role in the Shopping Centre market. They designed the original Parent and Baby Room for St John’s Shopping Centre in Perth. This was followed by a storytelling garden, big hearts at Valentines and a tellytubby Easter display as they patiently bided their time waiting for
the Christmas Grotto and decorations contract to come up.
“We got there eventually! It was a big deal for me to do the grotto in our home town. Apart from the fact that I really wanted to do it, to make it special and decorate our city, it was a great job for us. We could invest a little extra time, budget and effort because there was no travel time, no accommodation costs and less hassle all round. This was a win win for us and for the centre. We’ve been doing it now for about 10 years although like shopping centres all over the land, the crash of 2008 hammered into the budget and made a big difference to how we worked.”
The Crash, is something Philippa refers to often. For their business it wasn’t gradual, it didn’t creep up from London and start to infiltrate budgets one by one. It was a brutal slashing of funds and the first thing to go was the frills – and Christmas Decorations fit very neatly into the frills category. The two big companies we talked about earlier went to the wall within a couple of seasons and in order to maintain some damage limitation their suppliers stepped into the gap and started to provide decorations and install directly to Shopping Centres.
“It was awful. They were very corporate, huge faceless organisations where everything was about cost cutting and nothing was about design or quality. It was just a case of get
them in and that’ll be a box ticked. We didn’t lose contracts as such, but the budgets were slashed to a point that some became impossible for us to service.
As well as this, the promotional space that had once been given to big, gorgeous grottos and interactive displays was turned into all year round commercial lets. It forced centres to downsize and big trees and grottos with all the animation and scenery that people had loved so much became a thing of the past. Thankfully, we’d already started to spread our workload into Easter and Summer and so we were saved the nightmare that some of our competitors had to endure. If all your eggs were in the Christmas market, you were going bust.”
Instead Red-i put their heads down and started to look at bringing added value to other areas. They knew that if they could make their hard-worked clients’ lives a little easier that they would remain high on the list of must-keep suppliers. One of their big attractions at the time was an interactive Pirate Ship and it was during a conversation with a shopping centre manager that they decided to take a step into installed and managed events.
“She was talking about the nightmare she had finding staff for the Pirate Ship and without thinking turned to us and said ‘surely you guys can staff this - why don’t you do the whole thing for me?’. She wanted us to design, install and manage the event and with barely a thought we agreed. We pulled on our theatre hat and contacted actors to give a really authentic experience for the kids. I made all the costumes and we invested in equipment to do photographs.”
They pushed Red-i’s core skill base of design and build and built up a programme of kids’ related events like their Indiana Jones themed Inca Temple or the huge Harry Potter installation at Braehead where they installed ballpits and dress up and other interactive elements. The opportunity for Red-i to do well was right there for the taking and once again, they grabbed hold tightly.
“It is hard work – managing so many casual staff is tricky. But when we decided to diversify and go down this route, suddenly it made sense again. There was business in it all. So, obviously we rolled the idea into managing Christmas Grottos and we now design, install, buy all the parcels, train all the elves, keep the photo paper stocked up and the magic dazzling right through December.
All three of our girls have been trained as elves! Of course they have! Olivia is in London now, working as an art teacher and Natasha is studying acting, but Jess is on her gap year so she’s working with us full time at the moment and it’s great. This part of the business is getting bigger and bigger and this year we’ve installed and managed six grottos and also put a Santa and Elves team into two others. And we’re doing an Ice-rink for the first time.”
An ice-rink? How do you get from Grottos to an Ice-Rink?
“Well, we installed a few Indoor Beaches this summer which were a huge hit, and one of the most popular ones was at Ocean Terminal in Edinburgh. There were 100 kids a day going through and so the team thought they’d like to replicate the concept of a stay and play event at Christmas. They wanted an Ice-Rink. We got researching and here we are. We also gave them an amazing parade this year with frozen mascots,jugglers and stiltwalkers and an amazing array of circus skills! It was really fantastic.”
I am properly impressed! Red-i has stared at huge downturns in its industries not once, but twice and yet remain a sought after business with a home in Perth’s Riverview Business
Park. They have been prepared to change, to adapt to difficult climates and to mould their business to suit.
“You have to be prepared to adapt. I think it’s vital that you always look for the next thing. You have to stay ahead of the curve. That’s what we did originally when we moved from theatre into Shopping Centres and from Christmas into summer and Easter. The move into managed grottos and summer events was almost inevitable. And you know, I’m really enjoying this side of it, I love it.”
She is sitting across from me on the window seat of Parklands Hotel lounge, sipping her second pot of peppermint tea. I am loathe to comment on a woman’s looks but she is, quite frankly, age-defying. Petite, bright-eyed and youthful was my opening description and I’ll stand by this. No-one would place her as the powerhouse behind a business that has been trading for 25 years. She has ploughed in both the creative and physical hard
work required and looks little over 35!
How does she juggle these big seasons of immense impact and keep her body and mind from going crazy?
“Well when I moved here in ‘87 I met Ian’s mum and I joined the "women’s league of health and beauty" with her. I've been badly asthmatic my whole life, life threatening at times in fact, and suddenly here was an exercise I could get into. It’s a combination of dance and pilates and yoga and they’ve been doing the same thing since the 1930s because it works.
Our teacher was this lady who’d been there for 37 years and when she decided to close her evening classes I decided to train up. I qualified last year and I’ve been teaching ever
since. I have a class at Julie Young’s studio on a Tuesday night which is really strange because all my girls danced there. I love it.”
The old adage if you want something done ask a busy person certainly seems to fit with Philippa. We chat about exercise past 40 and why our bodies just don’t want to move in the way we need them to anymore. She talks about the importance of engaging your core if you’re desk based like I am and then almost as though it were nothing, mentions she also teaches Nordic Walking.
“About five years ago my asthma started getting worse and it was just getting me down. The years of being on these drugs had brought on osteopenia which is the pre-cursor to
osteoporosis. My aunt recommended Nordic Walking because it helps build bone density and I gave it go. It was amazing – life changing in fact. I now teach and take guided walks across Kinnoull Hill. Between that and my Fitness League classes I feel better and fitter than I ever have. And my asthma is more contained than it has been in years.”
Picture me a bit stunned! How do you do it all?
“Oh I stop the classes between October and January – and we call in a dog walker for the season! Christmas is still our busiest time. Ian and I are trying to take things a little easier now so we both made choices that were just for us last year. I’m doing my teaching and he’s picking up his luthier hat which he hasn’t done for years. It’s been really nice actually.”
Mrs Philippa Porritt may have a name straight from one of the giant scenic story books she paints. She may look as though she could slip into an elf’s costume and blend neatly into
the grotto she builds. However, I would argue she is probably most suited to her role ahead of the curve, ready and waiting for all of life’s amazing opportunities.
We love that Philippa's photograph isn't Christmassy; this is largely becasue 'we're too busy to take photos! I've just realised I don't have one!"
If you'd like to find out more about her Nordic Walking, Tuesday nights teaching The League or indeed Christmas Grottos, then contact her via the Red-i Website here.
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