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How did Punch and Judy stay alive?

Punch and Judy show

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

Facing assault from political correctness, seaside decline and apathetic children, Punch and Judy has survived against the odds. As its practitioners gather in London for Mr Punch's birthday, how has this tradition survived?

In theory, Punch and Judy is out of date on so many levels.

It's associated with the English seaside which is struggling to compete with foreign climes. These are puppets in a PlayStation world. It's slapstick humour and the violence is not politically correct.

But it appears to be in very rude health. There are estimated to be between 100 and 150 Punch and Judy performers in England and although it's no longer a seaside staple, it's a form of entertainment that's flourishing at fetes, festivals and shopping centres.

"I think there are as many now as there has ever been," says Martin Reeve, who is studying a PhD in modern Punch and Judy. "In 1900 there were between 10 and 16 in London and there are probably more than that now."

More than 300 years after Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary the sighting of a precursor of Mr Punch, enthusiasts will flock to Covent Garden.

So how did Mr Punch overcome the odds and flourish in the 21st Century?

HE TOOK ON POLITICAL CORRECTNESS AND WON

Fifteen or 20 years ago, Punch and Judy was considered by many to be too violent for youngsters and the troubles of the long-suffering Judy to be an endorsement of domestic abuse.

And more recently, Bodmin Town Council was lambasted for reportedly banning Punch and Judy after a complaint from the Women's Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre, angry at "children... laughing at a man, woman and child whose only interaction with each other is based on violence''.

John Major and Tony Blair puppets
The term 'Punch and Judy politics' has become common parlance

But this is the era of the political correctness backlash, a wave of pro-common sense sentiment that Punch and Judy has benefited from.

Nowadays, many parents view it in rather the same way as they do cartoons, says Mark Poulton, a busking Punch and Judy "professor", the term puppeteers have had since the 19th Century.

"People know it's a creation, like when they see Tom and Jerry and they say 'Oh my God' and laugh about it.

PUNCH FACTS
Performers known as professors
Derived from Neapolitan Pulcinella
Based on commedia dell'arte
First recorded in England by Pepys
"If they were a real cat and mouse it would be different and it's the same with Punch and Judy. If they were real people acting it would be more like EastEnders."

The way Punch and Judy used to be depicted in the media, says Poulton, meant people wrongly had the impression that characters were "bludgeoned to death".

But as times change, so do sensitivities. The hangman character is rarely seen now, especially since capital punishment was abolished in the 1960s. One performer dropped it more recently, when Saddam Hussein was executed.

HE RODE THE WAVE OF ENGLISH PATRIOTISM

In recent years, the English have rediscovered their affection for the red cross of St George, the national day on 23 April, and for icons of Englishness.

Punch and Judy has been one of the things taken up at many festivals of Englishness, most recently at one in Nuneaton, and is now regarded as being as English as warm beer.

The rest of the UK has not embraced it with quite the same gusto, although there are some Punch and Judy shows in Wales.

How English it really is, however, is debatable, given that Mr Punch is thought to be derived from a 16th Century Neapolitan character called Pulcinella.

France and Germany have their own versions but only the English Mr Punch wears the red and yellow motley common to the English court jester.

IT'S DEEP

Poulton sees a resemblance between Punch's clan and another dysfunctional family, The Simpsons.

He throws in the odd innuendo in his act and adds some modern references to appeal to adults. People shouldn't try too hard to look for meanings, he says, but it's clear that many people have tried to read more into the Punch and Judy narrative.

Mark Poulton with Punch
Punch and Judy puppeteers are known as professors

In the 60s and 70s, many were drawn to its anarchic content and one observer recently wrote that Punch was fighting against all forms of repression - marriage, the church and the law.

Academics have also interpreted a castration complex on the part of Punch as he struggles with the crocodile and the hangman's noose.

"My feeling is that it happens at a time when children are trying to work out what they should and what they shouldn't do, what's right and wrong," says Reeve.

"Punch is a character who just does what's wrong and the children enjoy that. It's a release for them. From four years old, they're told you mustn't do that and mustn't do that so they just respond to this."

PARENTAL NOSTALGIA

Punch and Judy was seen in the city streets long before it became associated with the seaside.

But it has become a strong part of a nation's collective childhood memory, which means adults are keen to evoke those recollections through the experience of their children.

Reeve thinks it has been nostalgic for parents to take their children to Punch and Judy since about 1800, when the first generation to witness it as a really popular pastime grew up.

BETTER PERFORMERS

"What's happened is that standards have grown, partly because they see each other's shows a lot more now and partly because the people doing it are trained puppeteers and they're interested in it in a different way and they want to be professionals.

Punch and Judy show
Adults want their children to sample nostalgia

"Therefore they're trying to say something different with it and they're not repeating what used to happen.

"The standard of performance is a lot better and the quality of the puppets and the booths is generally really good these days. Some are setting standards and others say 'I must get my act together'."

Youngsters could be fostering this interest in puppeteering because it is now included on the school national curriculum.

Interestingly, says Reeve, in a world of PlayStations and hi-tech children's games, many youngsters can't fathom how the puppets work.


Send us your comments using the form below.

I have a sense of humour, however I don't find Punch and Judy funny or enjoyable. That domestic abuse can be trivialised like this is terrible. If domestic abuse was minimal or non-existent then yes, the jokes may be funny. But in the UK two women every week are killed by their partners. Making domestic abuse and misogyny acceptable entertainment will not affect all children's ideas of relationships, but it will condition some to think it's normal when daddy hits mummy. I don't want everything to be politically correct but we should be more careful about the messages we send to children about serious issues like this. Just because something is a tradition doesn't make it OK.
Sabre, London

My father, George Melly, was a keen "professor" when I was young and had a beautiful P&J set. I've done my best to recreate the experience for my own children with a home-made set and puppets and, like my father's version, the baby thrown from the window, the bludgeoning and the hangman are all present and correct.
Tom Melly, London, UK

I like traditional Punch & Judy shows, and am glad they're still there to be enjoyed. However, please don't offer your readers a simple contrast between "political correctness" and "common sense". "Common sense" has been a longstanding excuse for excluding many groups from being respected in our society. We can be "politically correct" - ie respect people who aren't like us - and still enjoy ourselves with historical legacies like this.
Jeremy Bateman, Lancaster, UK

My four-year-old loves Punch and Judy and, even at her young age, she knows it's only pretend. She knows the same of Tom and Jerry, Road Runner and the Coyote etc so is more sensible than those that want to ban anything that is likely to offend anyone else.
John, Leicester

Back in the 1970s I found a set of puppets in a cupboard at school, and found an appreciative audience in old folks' homes and fundraising events. I enjoyed my brief time as a professor and would love the opportunity to do it again!
Megan, Cheshire UK

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