Here To Play
Byte the Gremlin
his wicked grin and beaky nose Mr. Punch is known round the world, making
him the most famous puppet character of all time. He has inspired opera, ballet
and punk rock and his likeness can be seen on goods ranging from Victorian
silverware to computer video games.
was first seen in England when Charles II, came to the throne after the rule
of Oliver Crornwell's Puritan followers. Gone were entertainment's dark days
when fun was held to be sinful and the theatres were shut down. The public
now had a taste for amusement and novelty. After the King's triumphant return
from exile in Europe came all manner of travelling showmen looking to make
a good profit from such a fun-starved nation. Among them was Pietro Gimonde
a puppet player from Italy known to his public as 'Signor Bologna'. The cast
of his show included a raucous, irreverent hunchback with a pot belly and
a wicked sense of humour. His was Pulcinelia - or, in the spell-as-you-please
manner of the day, Pollicinella, Polichinello and Punchinanello. Whatever
the spelling, though, in the mouths of his British audience he was called
Punchinello - and eventually plain Mr. Punch!
Here is Ed
Risby with a very rare and exclusive interview with Mr. Punch
Circa 1662 to 2002 Celtica Radio / Ed Risby & Mr. Punch
details on Mr. Punch
his first appearance in England he was a hit with the general public and nobility
alike. Mr. Punch so tickled the fancy of that prominent citizen Samuel Pepys
that he is mentioned a number of times in his celebrated diary. The first
of these was on May 9th, 1662, recording that he had been 'mighty pleased'
by an Italian puppet show near St. Paul's Church in London's Covent Garden,
and it is from this entry that Mr. Punch's 'birthday' is now traditionally
calculated by today's Punch and Judy community. It is quite feasible, of course,
that Pulcinella was in the country sorne tirne before that date but until
any written evidence of an earlier sighting comes to light it is Pepys who
will be popularly credited as 'the man who discovered Mr. Punch'.
that Pepys would recognise today's 'traditional' Punch and Judy Show anyway.
The performances he saw took place inside a small tent rather like the booth
of a fairground side show and Pulcinella was a marionette dancing while the
showrnan pulled his strings. The pugnacious little stick-wielding glove puppet
that we know as Mr. Punch, king of the castle in his own little gaily coloured
street corner stage, developed later - a survivor who rose triumphantly from
the ashes of disaster when the elaborately staged marionette performances
finally lost their appeal after a century or so and no longer drew the paying
has never lacked for friends. A short time after Pepys first noticed him he
had performed in front of the King himself. The first of a number of appearances
that he has made before royalty down the centuries. Sixteen monarchs have
reigned in Britain since Mr. Punch first cut a caper and the rascally old
entertainer has pleased princes and paupers throughout all that time. His
original wooden co-stars have long since gone to he replaced by fresh painted
faces but after three and a half centuries on the street Mr. Punch is still
a flourishing impressario.
heyday as a manic marionette was from the time of Charles II and Nell Gwyn
(another character plucked from the streets of Covent Garden to amuse the
King) to the long reign of George III a century later. During that hundred
years he travelled the length and breadth of the country, dancing to the tune
of the numerous showmen exhibiting this star turn who's irrepressible nature
and comic intrusions into their repertoire of puppet plays brought him nationwide
glory as a mirth maker.
the turn of a new century, though, the fairs were losing their popularity
and marionette shows were old hat. What had once pleased Great Grand Papa
and Mama was no longer a novelty. Like today's long running TV series that
outstay their welcome the ideas were no longer fresh. Something new was needed
- and Mr Punch rose to the challenge. Whoever was the first performer to take
this bold step we don't know, but it was an idea both breathtakingly simple
and born out of strict economic necessity. By cutting Mr Punch's strings and
making him a glove puppet, with a supporting cast of other glove puppets,
a cumbersome travelling marionette theatre needing some half a dozen of assistants
became, at a stroke, a one-puppeteer show in a theatre so simple it could
he pushed on a hand cart. The street Punch and Judy Show was born. And Mr
Punch was an overnight success once again.
new form gave him speed instead of grace, the superb comic timing that only
comes when one performer controls the entire cast and, above all, the glove
puppet's ability to pick things up and hold them. Looking around for something
to grab, Mr Punch seized on a traditional theatrical prop - the slapstick.
This is a device made from two pieces of wood which literally slap together
to produce an extra loud noise when striking an object (or person!) quite
gently. In the hands of clowns and their like it has a long and honourable
tradition lending it's name in modern times to an entire style of broad comedy.
Scaled down to puppet size it became Mr Punch's trademark as he laid about
one and all with anarchic vitality. The show was, indeed, a hit.
plot of this new performance varied, just as Punch the marionette had performed
in different plays, but within a few years one version of the show prevailed
to become the model for all Punch and Judy Shows from that day to this. To
some this may seem a shame for with just the one plot Punch is restricted
to forever repeating the same pattern. What it lost in diversity, however,
it gained in concentrated power and Mr Punch's tale of marital strife, of
kicking over the traces and of defeating the authorities sent to bring him
to justice (including defeating Old Nick himself) tapped a deep vein of popular
approval. Psychologists, historians and academics have speculated a great
deal on just what subconscious longings this squawking, hurnp backed, hook
nosed, stick wielding anarchist represents, as he cuts a comic swathe through
his universe, but from a performer's point of view the question of what Mr.
Punch stands for is a simpler one to answer. Mr Punch won't stand for anything!
the plot of a pantomime or well-known fairy tale, the bare story of the show
tells you nothing about the performance. The appeal of the Punch and Judy
Show lies in the skill of the performer: part story teller, part puppeteer,
part comedian, wholly an entertainer; and during the 1800's a succession of
rugged individuals made Mr Punch a familiar sight at street corners throughout
the land. In their hands they weaved a riotous knockabout spectacle, taking
in topical jokes, street satire, guest heroes and villains, musical interludes,
and novelty speciality acts - all paid for by collecting pennies from their
the railways brought travel to the masses and took town crowds to the seaside
Mr. Punch went too, making himself part of traditional beach fun along with
sand castles, paddling and donkey rides. He went indoors as well, for Victorian
nurseries thronged with the large families popular at that time, and Mr Punch
- suitably pruned of some of his grosser excesses - was deemed a colourfully
suitable entertainment for the young. This suited the performer's purse, for
Papa's pocket was more generous than that of street corner crowds and working
indoors was an improvement on braving Britains' uncertain. As a result Mr.
Punch, ever adept at surviving, improved his skills as a children's entertainer
and, as society moved into the complexities of the 20th Century he found in
their untutored behaviour the unsophisticated emotions of a simpler age.
so his kingdom today is mainly the young. Not that adults scorn Mr. Punch,
though, for a skilfully presented performance still mesmerises any who see
it. But part of its charm for those who have lost their childhood is the memories
it stirs of their more innocent days. You'll find Punch and Judy at children's
birthday parties, at Christmas jollifications and near the swings, roundabouts
and bouncy castles of village fetes and other local festivities. A few hardy
souls still busk the streets and shopping precincts and a few more keep golden
memories of seaside Punch and Judy shows alive on the Summer beaches. Occasionally,
too, Punch pokes his nose in at the door of hallowed cultural institutions,
bringing a whiff of the streets into the foyer of the National Theatre for
instance. A few performers have consciously bawdy shows geared for the non-family
audience, and a few puppeteers will try their hand at giving the tale of Punch
a deliberately modern slant. He has undergone many changes since his puppet-on-a-string
days as Pulcinella, and no-one can foretell in what guise he will emerge from
the 21st Century. What is certain, though, is the indestructable popular appeal
of the wooden headed anarchist who's antics are regarded as suitable entertainment
for children. He's heading into a new Millennium with all the energy intact
that has carried him from the 17th Century to today in a triumphal progress
worth boasting about. And boast about it he certainly does! Who wouldn't?
from a brief history of Punch and Judy
reading: George Speaight Punch & Judy: a history Studio Vista Ltd. 1970;
Michael Byrom Punch & Judy: its origin and evolution Shiva Publications
1972 (Revised edition: DaSilva Puppet Books 1988); Robert Leach The Punch
& Judy Show: history, tradition and meaning Batsford 1985