When I was a kid I was scared of Mr Punch – really properly scared. One of my cousins was similarly scared of clowns – to the extent that she would hardly dare to walk past a clown painting that hung on the wall of the upstairs landing at her parents’ house. Instead, she’d crouch low and dash past as quickly as she could. But, for me, the truly scary bogeyman figure of my childhood nightmares was Mr Punch. I’m not entirely sure why we cousins were scared of clowns (her) and Mr Punch (me) but I suspect it was probably because both of these things were grotesques. Grotesques are indeed properly scary – any decent horror movie will feature a grotesque in one form or another. (Not just horror films, mind – The Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang rivalled Mr Punch in the scary stakes…as did Witcheypoo in The Banana Splits Show…both scary grotesques par excellence).
However, even though I was scared of Mr Punch, I was also fascinated. Provided I could keep enough distance between myself and the Punch & Judy booth, I was riveted. (You’d always find me in the back row at a Punch & Judy Show!) As I grew older, the fear diminished and the fascination increased – to the extent that I am now a Punch & Judy aficionado. I’m even willing to sit in the front row these days…although I won’t elbow the kids out of the way to do so!!
Next week will mark the 350th anniversary of Mr Punch first being spotted in performance in London in a Punch & Judy Show in Covent Garden…and the Covent Garden piazza will be holding a ‘Big Grin 350th Birthday Party’ for the irascible puppet. In addition, the (London-based) V&A’s Museum of Childhood will hold a Mr Punch exhibition from 14 July – 9 December.
And, in the same spirit, I have decided to dedicate my latest blog to Mr Punch on the occasion of his 350th by detailing just a few of the remarkable and fascinating facts/history behind the (probably) longest running puppet show on earth. And so……..did you know that………
Punch & Judy (in its present-day form) is a fusion of Italian and British culture. Originally, the character of Punch has its roots in Pulcinella – a grotesque figure from the Italian Commedia Dell-Arte theatrical tradition.
Originally Judy was called Joan
Those who have seen Punch & Judy performances include Samuel Pepys, Charles Dickens, George Washington and every English monarch since Charles II (In fact, when Pepys wrote in his diary on 9 May 1662, that he enjoyed “an Italian puppet play…which is very pretty, the best that ever I saw…”, the show was part of the wedding celebrations for Charles II)
In Victorian times a live dog called Toby would perform tricks to entertain the crowds – leading to the Toby The Dog puppet that features in modern shows
The puppeteers who perform Punch & Judy shows are called “Professors”
The distinctive rasping, squeaking voice of Mr Punch is produced by the use of a ‘swazzle’ – a device made from metal and cotton according to a method passed on from Professor to Professor
Punch & Judy was originally intended for adults – it was the Victorians who reimagined it as primarily a children’s entertainment
The phrase “pleased as Punch” is derived from Punch & Judy
There is no set script for a Punch & Judy Show – only a series of vignettes that are traditionally included. This allows each generation to adapt the show to its own era – hence, some current Punch & Judy shows have introduced a topical villain called Mr Bonus The Banker…now if anyone deserves to go through Mr Punch’s sausage machine!!!……
Anyway, despite him being scary, choleric and violent…long live Mr Punch! Here’s to the next 350…and….(how can I not end with this?!)……that’s the way to do it!!!
(BTW equivalents of several of the puppets shown in the above images can be bought from professional puppet makers – visit the website of The Punch & Judy Fellowship for links: thepfj.com)