Mr Punch celebrates 350 years of puppet anarchy

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Mr Punch, Fred Tickner, 1975 © V&A Images Mr Punch from the Happy Birthday Mr Punch! exhibition at V&A Museum of Childhood 14 July - 9 December
Image caption,
Mr Punch from the Happy Birthday Mr Punch! exhibition at V&A Museum of Childhood from 14 July - 9 December

He has survived political correctness and the PlayStation generation. Now Mr Punch is about to celebrate his 350th birthday. What's the reason for his longevity?

With his familiar cry of "That's the way to do it!", Mr Punch has come a long way since his first mention in the diary of Samuel Pepys.

Next week, the squawking red-nosed prince of slapstick turns 350, with a big party in London's Covent Garden piazza.

It was here that Pepys recorded, on 9 May 1662, that he enjoyed "an Italian puppet play that is within the rayles there, which is very pretty, the best that ever I saw..."

In Pepys' day, Mr Punch was a stringed marionette called Pulcinella, but he has evolved over the decades into the stick-wielding hand puppet now so familiar at summer fayres and seaside resorts.

"Mr Punch is often misunderstood and misrepresented," says Glyn Edwards, the master puppeteer who is organising the birthday celebrations. "He is a lord of misrule, he's not Jack the Ripper with a red nose."

Image caption,
Detail from first photograph showing a "Punch and Toby" puppet show dated 1860s. (From George Speaight Punch & Judy Collection)

With a £240,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund , Mr Edwards' performing arts charity PuppetLink Ltd is organising The Big Grin - a nationwide celebration of Punch and Judy's place in popular culture.

The main event in Covent Garden on 12-13 May will be a birthday party attended by Punch and Judy enthusiasts from around the world.

Meanwhile, the V&A Museum of Childhood has commissioned an exhibition of photographic portraits by Tom Hunter of contemporary Punch practitioners - known as "Professors" - pictured with their booths.

And Brighton Fishing Museum will open a permanent Punch and Judy display on the site where shows have been given since the 1830s.

So how has Mr Punch managed to make it into the 21st Century?

"Mr Punch has been seen by every monarch since Charles II," says Mr Edwards. "He's had to keep in tune with the social climate."

Comedy routines that would have been enjoyed by the Victorians - such as one involving a hangman getting hanged - have disappeared as public tastes have changed.

"It's a classic piece of gallows humour," says Mr Edwards, "but we don't do it any more because people don't understand it as a topical joke."

Image caption,
That's the way to do it! Glyn Edwards in action with Mr Punch, crocodile and a string of sausages

These days Mr Punch is more likely to have youth crime and the financial crisis on his agenda.

"When Judy refers to the baby as little Asbo it gets a laugh," says Mr Edwards, who has also introduced a new character called Mr Bonus the Banker.

He also has a health and safety officer - complete with a clipboard and hi-viz jacket - who ends up in Mr Punch's sausage machine.

While Punch and Judy have faced criticism that they are too violent for children - in 2004 a council in Cornwall banned a show following complaints that it promoted domestic violence - Mr Punch and friends look set to thrive in the new millennium.

"He's an English icon," says Mr Edwards. "I know from personal experience that there isn't a Punch and Judy act that's not booked over the Jubilee period. At times of national holidays, Mr Punch is regarded as someone who ought to be there."

The art of live puppetry in general has gained a high profile after the success of stage shows like War Horse and Avenue Q.

"We all live in Mr Punch's shadow and what a strange shadow it is," laughs Mervyn Millar, UK director of Handspring - the puppet company behind War Horse, which is soon to unveil a new show Crow based on the poems of Ted Hughes.

"As soon as I started working with puppets I made myself a Punch because there's something about his physiognomy and his spirit that is so compelling.

"It's delightful to see so much anarchic and socially irresponsible energy in a tiny little thing the size of a person's hand."

He adds: "It reminds us that puppetry can represent anything. It can be dangerous and exciting and satirical. It also reminds us that children will happily watch all that stuff if you don't tell them that they can't."

Image caption,
Jeff Achtem's show Swamp Juice puts the puppeteer in full view of the audience

While Punch and Judy professors tend to remain hidden within their booths, other puppeteers have turned that concept inside out.

Canadian Jeff Achtem, whose show Swamp Juice is currently at the Soho Theatre ahead of a UK tour, is a shadow puppeteer who makes a point of being visible to his audience.

The performer, who describes Swamp Juice as "Dr Seuss meets South Park with a 3D finale", didn't see his first Mr Punch show until he was in his early 20s.

'Kaleidoscope of influences'

"What interested me was that it was theatre in the streets that was challenging authority," he says with reference to Mr Punch's regular run-ins with the policeman and the devil.

"The magic of puppetry is that there's this indescribable phenomenon where the audience suspends disbeliefs and permits the puppets to be alive. The other lovely thing about puppets is that they tend to overact a lot."

Image caption,
Punch and Judy beach shows went into decline along with the traditional British seaside holiday, but Punch now pops up at all sorts of events

The 350th anniversary of Mr Punch is a reminder of the puppet's ancient roots, says Glyn Edwards.

"Mr Punch isn't just a Victorian construct. There are ancient sources that have been dragged into Punch and Judy.

"The idea of having a devil in the show is as old as English drama itself. The whole thing is a complicated kaleidoscope of influences."

As he makes final preparations for next week's birthday party, Mr Edwards admits that his favourite definition of Punch and Judy came from a bemused audience member.

The woman, having had the show explained to her by a Punch and Judy man, summed it up thus: "Oh, so it's English nonsense descended from Italian nonsense!"

The Big Grin 350th birthday events take place 12-13 May in Covent Garden Piazza, London. The Happy Birthday, Mr Punch exhibition at the V&A Museum of Childhood runs 14 July - 9 December. Other events around the country are listed on The Big Grin website.

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