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How do you go from a one-man show to being the UK’s top organiser of children’s parties? Anna Longmore finds that a love of entertaining is behind the success of Twizzle’s Peter Robertson
If you think you recognise Peter Robertson, you probably do. With a CV that includes 25 years playing lead roles in West End shows such as Les Miserables, West Side Story and Godspell, as well as TV dramas Bergerac and Take the High Road and numerous commercials, he is no stranger to the limelight. And although his job description has now changed, Robertson is still very much the showman. This might be one of the reasons why Twizzle, now the focus of his attentions, is the number one children’s party organiser in the UK.
From actor to party entertainer, Robertson’s calling has always been show business. At an early age, he started helping his father, the entertainer ‘Uncle Ken’, at parties and particularly remembers 1977, the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. ‘Most towns or villages had street parties so there was a big long table and I was driven there by my mum. I’d do a quick half an hour, maybe magic, some balloon modelling and Punch and Judy, then it would be on to the next town. I’d do four or five parties in a day,’ he recalls.
Robertson’s entertainer persona Mr Twizzle saw him through drama school and the inevitable arid spells as an actor but he finally switched his attentions to Twizzle (the company) in earnest 16 years ago, transforming a sideline into a fully fledged business. ‘The parties got into the press and the phone went mad. This was during Les Miserables,’ he recalls. ‘I’d do a party in the afternoon and the show in the evening and I couldn’t cope with the amount of work that was coming in so I started to subcontract people, and that’s how the Twizzle business agency came about. The parties started to get bigger and bigger and it sort of took over.’
The one-man band of yesteryear – with Robertson juggling the roles of entertainer, receptionist and finance director and limited to seven or eight parties a week – now entertains around 50,000 children each year across 2,000 events. And where a simple Punch and Judy show used to suffice, clients are now investing serious amounts in full floor shows. ‘Rather than a clown turning up, we’ll now have a full circus and a big top,’ laughs Robertson. He has just overseen a £20,000 party to celebrate a sixth birthday, complete with Cirque du Soleil-style acrobats and contortionists.
On the glamorous side of the business, Twizzle’s client list includes the likes of Mick Jagger, Claudia Schiffer and the Saudi royals (although confidentiality agreements prevent the discussion of specific details). He also does film premieres. ‘I will go and see a preview of the film before anyone else and make the party fit that,’ explains Robertson. ‘So for Peter Pan we had stunt actors sword-fighting before the film. At the party we invented a blue-screen system so it looked like the kids were flying and they made a DVD to take home. There was also a photo-imaging system so their faces could go on the poster.’
Twizzle’s bread-and-butter work is two-hour parties for children whose parents want to make their birthday that little bit extra special. Corporate events, he says, are a growing area, as the demand for family fun days rises and involving the kids becomes paramount.
‘It’s very important for companies to say “thank you” to their staff,’ explains Robertson. ‘It used to be that, at Christmas parties, the adults would go out to an amazing show or have a big corporate bash while kids’ parties would be a packet of crisps and a grotty grotto in the stationery cupboard. Now companies have realised that that’s not enough.’
Keeping children happy and engaged at such an event is absolutely key to its success, says Robertson. ‘The children don’t know each other, so my job is to ensure that we have a team that will make them feel confident, comfortable and relaxed so the parents can chat with their colleagues. That might be through a treasure hunt with half a dozen different things to do to get a goody bag – things that the parents might be able to do with them. There’s an assumption that “something for the kids” means that the adults won’t enjoy it but that’s not true.’
With his theatrical background, love of entertaining and a lifetime’s experience of working with children, Robertson himself is uniquely well-qualified to guess the whims and workings of the average child. His sideline in the somewhat alarming-sounding art of ‘baby wrangling’ – coaxing and cajoling children to perform to the requirements of producers for commercials and TV work – draws on this talent, and an understanding of children underpins all his work.
‘Baby wrangling is all about making kids enjoy it, thinking it’s a game,’ he explains. ‘You have to do a lot of prep, finding out about a child, what they like, what they don’t like, their eating and sleeping patterns.
‘It’s the same with the party. The more information you have, the better. So what worked last time? Why didn’t it work? What did you like? Not like?’
‘Watching Robertson in action is quite extraordinary,’ says father-of-three Robin Freeman, who has used Twizzle at fifth and sixth birthday parties for his children. ‘Not just anyone can walk in to a room of twenty five-year-olds and get them to do the same thing at the same time,’ he explains.
‘He’s like the Pied Piper. It’s a massive help for the parents, who are usually running around preparing the food.’
Indeed, Robertson’s enthusiasm and creative drive seem boundless and as he speaks, a quite overwhelming torrent of ideas pours out. He makes sure he’s up-to-date with the latest film releases and TV shows so he can predict the next big demand, and he’s constantly coming up with fresh ideas.
‘You have to know what’s new,’ he explains. ‘We talk to kids and find out what they’re into. I have a whole pile of ideas like a shopping list. Hairspray is the latest one, so we’ll do makeovers and have a Saturday Night Fever dance floor and roving photographers, or X Factor for smaller groups with a recording studio, stretch limos, a Twizzlette (a professional performer), a choreographer and a cameraman there too, so they really feel like popstars.’
Robertson knows what works, and what doesn’t. ‘For example, magic works well,’ he says. ‘But the older kids want to know how it’s done so we have a fantastic magician who does the tricks and then we have a workshop to show them how.’
And while parties based on reality TV shows are ever more popular, he avoids Big Brother-themed events – they’re ‘just not that fun’. Aside from the understanding of his market, 30 years in the business has taught Robertson that Twizzle’s success relies on a trusted network of entertainers and technicians. ‘It’s about getting the right team: people who will work well together and listen to what the client wants.
‘If, for example, the food is delayed by 20 minutes, our people will fill that time rather than sticking doggedly to the plan. Kids’ parties can be unpredictable, and our people will manage that.’
In addition, there are also security issues where contact with children is involved so all Twizzle’s performers undergo Criminal Records Bureau checks.
‘You’ve also got to have brilliant performers,’ he says. ‘There’s nothing worse than someone turning up who should have given up ten years ago. There are only a certain number of decent Father Christmases out there, otherwise it’s just some creepy guy in a beard.’
Despite its success, Twizzle is very much a small company – the three full-time staff work from an office in Robertson’s south-west London home and a peek into his garage reveals that it is bursting with Halloween paraphernalia.
Though he could quite easily sit back and let his performers do the work, Robertson has clearly not lost his zest for entertainment. ‘I perform a lot myself,’ he says. ‘People ask for me. It’s brilliant, fantastic.’
The showman in him, it seems, is still very much alive and kicking.
This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events magazine, Autumn 2007.