During August bank holiday weekend, my partner and I decided to spend some time at the seaside and take in the quintessentially British splendours of Weymouth for a break.
No sooner had we stepped foot on the promenade , we could hear the familiar strains of a Punch and Judy show squeaking, squawking and rattling away on the sands.. much to the delight of the children sitting below the mobile stripy canvas. As I looked around at the surrounding audience, it became most apparent that even after over three centuries in existence, Mr Punch is still keeping thousands of people happy within its traditional realms ( not bad going in an age of instant , fast-moving electronic entertainments). Weymouth is one of the few seaside resorts left which displays a perennial summertime Punch and Judy slot in its original form.
On May the 9th this year, the Punch and Judy show made its first appearance in Covent Garden. The marionette, as chronicled meticulously by diarist Samuel Pepys, was of Italian origin and had initially been named ‘Punchinello’. His long-suffering , but famously bombastic wife was originally named Joan, not Judy and between them they brought laughter, fun, booing and shouting back into the lives of the public after the comparatively grim countenance days of Oliver Cromwell.
Following the unmitigated delights of Samuel Pepys reviews..(“ the Italian puppet play.. the best I ever saw”), Mr Punch rapidly grew in popularity to enjoy stardom that only few could have imagined in the early days. Charles II took his mistress Nell Gwyn to see the show being performed within London’s cobble streets and within the historical setting of Bath, a permanent Mr Punch tent was erected as a permanent fixture for all visitors to enjoy.
During his various reincarnations, passing down through 16 monarchs ( including fans George iii and Queen Victoria), Mr Punch progressed from being pulled up and down on strings, to becoming a puppet on a stick and eventually becoming a glove puppet in 1800.. along with the change of name for Joan to Judy.
With the new ease of transportation, Mr Punch became an ambassador for Britain , being wheeled out to ex pat colonies in Australia, South Africa and Hong Kong; an impresario who could just about perform anywhere, even leading to a magazine publication entitled ‘Punch’ ( which continued to poke fun at the establishment for a further 160 years).
Some extra characters also evolved over time.. Beadle the policeman remains to this day, as do the baby and the crocodile. The original introduction of The Devil in the 1700’s soon vanished with lack of popularity and too much negative controversy. However, with a wealth of domestic violence, child abuse, animal cruelty and general crimes against humanity, it’s a wonder the tradition continued at all. Right back as far as Charles Dickens, the show has had its fair share of critics; mainly During the later advent of the seaside holiday, shows became toned down to fit in with children’s entertainments- donkey rides, sandcastles and paddling.
In modern times, Mr Punch seems to still attract negative press, despite the significant diluting of his antics. In 1999 , Colchester Borough council took a stand against the show and Devon County Council band the show from appearing on its beaches .
Despite nanny state stylie attempts at banning and curbing the tradition of The Punch and Judy show in latter years, a huge national event took place throughout regions of the UK during May this year to celebrate a magnificent 350 year success since the advent of the Punchinello shows. Events were held in Covent Garden,, Brighton, Weymouth,Falmouth and Bristol plus an exhibition at the V&A museum in London, al supported by the English Heritage Lottery Fund.
So for those cynical critics of Mr Punch, perhaps Charles Dickens should be given the last word on the matter:
“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”…. That is indeed , the way to do it!
Tess Egerton © 2012