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Monday, November 8, 1999 Published at 10:28 GMT


Puppet show faces knockout punch?

By BBC News Online's Jonathan Duffy

Poor old Mr Punch. For almost 300 years he has ably seen off all irritants with a few swipes of his ever-handy stick.

Glyn Edwards: "It's like blues guitar, every performer gives their own interpretation"
In these more enlightened times, though, the irascible puppet may finally have met his match.

Like the crocodile he palms off with a string of sausages, political correctness has started snapping at the heels of Mr Punch.

Last year Wiltshire County Council considered withdrawing a Punch and Judy book from its libraries. It feared that as a foul-tempered, anti-authoritarian misogynist who happily beats his wife and baby, Mr Punch failed to present a positive role model to children.

[ image: Punch and Judy immortalised as John Major and Tony Blair]
Punch and Judy immortalised as John Major and Tony Blair
However, in the end it decided to keep the book on its shelves.

Now Colchester Borough Council, in Essex, is considering whether to ban Punch and Judy shows on the basis they encourage domestic violence.

No decision has been taken yet, but that has not stopped a stream of enraged criticism from political foes.

One Tory MP called the plan "ridiculous". Roger Gale, MP for Thanet North, said it went "hand-in-glove - if that is the right expression for Punch and Judy - with a long line of politically correct revisionism, involving Noddy, Little Black Sambo and others".

But has either side considered a compromise that would see Mr Punch tone down his act?

The first step would be to help Mr Punch with his "communication skills" says Denise Knowles, marriage guidance counsellor for Relate.

[ image: Previous targets if 'political correctness']
Previous targets if 'political correctness'
"We would have to help him understand that he's being a huge big bully. We would help him to recognise the feelings that build towards a violent outbreak.

"Violent men say it just happens but that's not the case. There are situations and feelings that build up in an relationship."

It's not a long-term solution to domestic violence, but definitely a first step says Ms Knowles. In the meantime, Mrs Punch should make herself scarce, she says.

Purists would argue that Mr Punch shouldn't have to compromise his behaviour - after all he is only a puppet - but the storyline has evolved before.

In the classic Victorian rendition, Mr Punch would finish the show by killing Judy and the baby and then hanging the hangman, says Glyn Edwards, co-ordinator of the Punch and Judy College of Professors.

Mr Edwards, a puppeteer of 40 years experience, says he stopped the hanging practice when capital punishment was outlawed by Parliament in the 1960s.

But while the Punch and Judy story has changed with the times, he thinks a full-scale "new man" makeover for Mr Punch would be a fatal blow to the performance.

[ image: Enid Blyton's Noddy featured gollywogs and was a target of many local authorities]
Enid Blyton's Noddy featured gollywogs and was a target of many local authorities
And he argues that children do not approve of Mr Punch throwing his weight around, since when he shouts "That's the way to do it", they chorus "Oh no it isn't".

Bethan Marshall, an education lecturer at Kings College in London, agrees. "I actually dislike Punch because he's an irredeemable misogynist. But the point about Punch is that he's a cuckold and made to look a fool.

"(His violence is) a manifestation of his impotence. I think small children understand that. It's so stylised that it actually make the point more clearly than something like EastEnders."

A "modicum of political correctness" is desirable, she says. But children don't want to be wrapped in cotton wool.

"They enjoy books that are macabre and violent. Just look at Roald Dahl."

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