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That's the way to do it! Mr Punch is set to celebrate

By Western Daily Press  |  Posted: May 01, 2012

  • On St George's Day in Salisbury, main picture above, Punch and Judy entertain the crowds. Inset centre left: Victorians at the seaside lap up the entertainment. Centre right: refreshingly different, a Punch and Judy pub sign. Bottom: Swanage beach in the 1960s

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Known around the seaside towns of Britain, from Weymouth to Whitstable, Weston-super-Mare to Rhyl, perhaps the world's best known puppet is 350 years old. Yes, it's been that length of time since Mr Punch first appeared at Covent Garden, London. And he's still at it!

Samuel Pepys, the diarist who meticulously wrote what he saw with dates, came across a crowded street performance at Covent Garden on May 9, 1662. His diary reads: "There to see an Italian puppet play, best I ever saw."

The marionette that he saw that day was of Italian origin, a Punchinello, who took a bickering wife some time later called Joan.

Punchinello brought laughter, fun, booing and shouting back into the lives of people after the grim days of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. Mr Punch, the beaky-nosed rascal with a wicked grin, was on the way to stardom that few could have imagined.

Charles II took his mistress Nell Gwyn to see the show being performed in the London streets many times. Crowds in Bath watched Martin Powell perform, so much so that he no longer travelled around the country; his tent was a permanent fixture in the city for more than 30 years there.

George III was another fan, and Queen Victoria invited Mr Punch along to entertain her children on birthdays.

Indeed, the puppet has served 16 monarchs so far, and gone from being pulled up and down on strings to a puppet on a stick, from appearing in a film with the Cheam miser (aka Tony Hancock) to becoming a self-made impresario.

His first 100 years saw the entire length and breadth of Britain entertained by the mirth-maker at fairs. As a puppet on strings, the shows took up to six people to perform, and more than a few shillings in running costs. By 1800, as if by divine intervention, and literally overnight, Punch was transformed into a glove puppet. The two-handed, one-man show had arrived, with his wretched wife now named Judy.

The shows became ever more popular. People watching put money into a bottle passed round at the end, while the storylines kept up to date with the mocking of politicians and the establishment, a TV Spitting Image well ahead of its time.

By now the Punch and Judy show was becoming a living social history of the country. Exported around the then Empire, like an ambassador to the colonies, he took centre stage in Australia, South Africa and Hong Kong, an impresario who could just about perform anywhere, even leading to a magazine titled Punch, which continued in the tradition of poking fun at the establishment for more than 160 years.

The characters have evolved, some continuously so; others, like the Devil, have vanished in a continuing process of natural selection. Beadle the Policeman remains, as does Hangman Jack Ketch, and the Baby, of course, but who could have forecast the arrival of the Crocodile and the string of sausages? The characters have kept a whole generation of psychologists, historians and academics guessing, never mind what children think of the story lines. With all that marital strife, slapstick and crimes against humanity, it's no wonder that not all approved.

Right back to Charles Dickens, who refused to sign a petition for the banning of Mr Punch because it was thought to be the work of the Satan, the shows have had their critics, largely based around their suitability for children. Mr Punch recognised this, and with the advent of the sea-side holiday, he toned down the story to fit in with donkeys, sand castles and paddling, becoming one of the icons for England, alongside bowler hats, Sherlock Holmes and doubledecker buses.

The likeable rogue that he is, Mr Punch caused outrage to the now defunct Middlesex County Council in 1947. The council declared him "unfit for the innocent eyes of children" and "brutal for school treats".

The Mayor of Willesden, in the old county, was blamed by the puppeteers – or professors, as they were known – for objections so he was made into a puppet-like figure, stuffed into a coffin and marked with a nameplate titled "For Export".

Even the New York Daily News had a go, declaring "if the British sense of humor has sunk, then their Empire should dive below the western horizon of history!"

Colchester Borough Council took a stand against the show in 1999, and Devon County Council took out a ban on Punch and Judy shows on its beaches but failed to enforce the order. The Western Morning News sided with Mr Punch, asking readers if the council was too draconian and conservative. In the meantime, the Royal Mail issued six commemorative stamps depicting characters from the Punch and Judy story. And the Millennium Dome hosted a daily show for 12 months.

At Broadstairs, Kent, the council did get upset at puppets Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein being introduced to steal the sausages. You could steal the reputations of Blair and Bush, but not the sausages.

Today's performers, like Dan Bishop, of Dorset, Gary Wilson and Paul Wheeler, at Weston-super-Mare, and Pete Milsom, 30 years in Weymouth, continue the tradition, although not entirely on the beaches. Mr Punch and his repertoire are very much into birthday parties and other one-off booking.

Mark Poulton, a Punch and Judy "professor", also at Weymouth, said: "We have to work now on two levels, somewhere between the Simpsons and the Carry On films. We certainly aren't a dying breed, making a living off your wits and pushing yourself to attract an audience, and then there's the rain, but you have to overcome that; warmth and happiness helps."

Occasionally the professor will be assisted by a bottler, who introduces the performance and collects the money. The bottler might also play accompanying music or sound effects on a drum or guitar and engage in back-chat with the puppets.

At the St George's Day celebrations in Salisbury, Gary Nunn, of Lickerish Allsorts, gave a Punch and Judy show. There were as many adults as children watching. Gary said: "Our show works with the children and not at them. Punch and Judy has been a winner since 1662. Mr Punch is the people's hero, it's not just a puppet show, more a living piece of street theatre."

The Punch and Judy Fellowship and the Punch and Judy College have a worldwide membership, both dedicated to keeping the shows alive and successful. A huge national event for Mr Punch, the Big Grin 350th Birthday Party takes place this May in Covent Garden, Brighton, Weymouth, Falmouth and Bristol, plus an exhibition at the V&A Museum in London, all supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Australia, Japan, Italy and South Africa are holding similar events.

Mr Punch has made many appearances in "As pleased as...", plus the Prime Minister's, Ed Miliband's, Lord O'Donnell's and Boris Johnson's campaigns to "end Punch and Judy politics"; some hope. They should all have read Charles Dickens, who wrote: "In my opinion, street Punch is harmless in its influence, an outrageous joke, and no one would think of him as a model for any kind of conduct." Well, that's the way to do it!

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