Happy Birthday Mr Punch

February 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

Wife-beater, baby basher … for 350 Punch has been meting out random violence; here we say happy birthday

On a spring day in 1662, Samuel Pepys went to Covent Garden. After paying his bills, the indefatigable diarist repaired to an alehouse and thence to the square outside St Paul’s Church, “to see an Italian puppet play that is within the rayles there, which is very pretty, the best that I ever saw”. That show was the first recorded appearance of an Italian immigrant who has since become a national icon. In the 350 years since Pepys applauded him, the puppet formerly known as “Pulcinella” (swiftly anglicised to “Punchinello” then “Punch”) has made his way up from the gutter, from rowdy 18th-century agricultural fairs and adult street entertainment into the heart of the Victorian family and beyond. Impressive social climbing for a wife-beating baby-bashing adulterer, who regularly clobbers policemen and foreigners and, to this day, has a highly inappropriate way with a raw sausage.

Always a controversial figure, Mr Punch has inspired music, literature and an eminent satirical magazine; aroused the ire of moralists; and made thousands of children laugh. His popularity has declined since his 19th-century heyday, when his sinister squawking falsetto (produced by a mouth-held reed known in the trade as a “swazzle”) could be heard in fashionable drawing rooms and popular seaside towns around the country. But his hooked profile, sugarloaf hat and beady eye remain instantly recognisable. And he has travelled far and wide since one “Signor Bologna” brought him to newly relaxed post-Cromwell England: brandishing macaroni in the Mediterranean and pork products in northern Europe, his cousins include Polchinelle in France, Hans Wurst in Germany and Pickelhoering in Holland.

In Britain, Punch’s birthday will be marked both in the arthouse bastion of London’s Barbican Centre and on the streets of Covent Garden, Brighton, Morecambe and Weymouth, via a UK-wide party called the Big Grin. In high art, Punch and co have often shocked audiences. (Benjamin Britten reportedly walked out of Harrison Birtwistle’s frankly terrifying 1968 opera, the dissonant Punch and Judy). The Devil and Mister Punch (now at the Barbican) will be in touch with Punch’s dark side as it has been devised by Improbable, the influential leftfield company who made Shockheaded Peter into a deliciously macabre worldwide hit. Their new show describes two ageing vaudevillians who turn to puppetry despite loathing puppets. And reflects the ambivalence that many — including Improbable director and puppetmaker Julian Crouch — feel about this reed-voiced killer.

“I don’t know if I like him,” says Crouch, who constructed his first Punch puppet at the age of 8, and somewhat compulsively filled his Brooklyn apartment with hundreds of little homemade heads while creating this latest piece. “Guns aren’t violent, the people holding them are. And it’s the same with Punch. You put him on your hand and you want to jerk around and look at things: he has a very sharp focus, like a bird. To me, Punch always feels absolutely in the present. When he’s nosy, he’s nosy. When he’s happy, he’s happy. When he’s unhappy, he hits someone and then they’re dead or gone. It’s always manslaughter with Punch. He doesn’t plan in advance.”

Moralists of all persuasions have not let the unrepentant villain off the hook so readily, objecting to his extreme violence — in part a hangover from his days as an adult fairground entertainer. Punch didn’t go into the family business until the 19th century, when his puppeteers moved with the industrialised times, hopping on trains to burgeoning seaside resorts to monetise the Victorian invention of childhood and amuse newly leisured families. One outraged petitioner famously got short shrift from Charles Dickens: the novelist defended the Mr Punch as “quite harmless and an outrageous joke which no one in existence would think of regarding as an incentive to any kind of action”: a cultural rubber stamp which has occasioned enduring gratitude in Punch’s “Professors” and “Bottlers”, as official Punch and Judy puppeteers and their crowd-coralling helpers are known.

Thanks to council fun days, local fêtes, enduring appeal and the devotion of the “Profs”, Punch has hung on in there as a live act, despite his politically incorrectness. More recently, the vintage nostalgia boom has been kind to Old Red Nose, as he’s affectionately known by the College of Punch and Judy Professors. Glyn Edwards is currently the oldest living person to have performed Punch and Judy on the seafront. His own The Original World Famous Punch and Judy Show is based in Brighton, where his parents were concert party entertainers in the 1930s and his daughter is also a “Prof”. Something of a Punch and Judy activist, he recently secured Heritage Lottery funding for the Big Grin, which will be held on May 12-13 and include a party at the Punch Tavern in Fleet Street and nationwide exhibitions and community events.

“Punch and the seaside and Victorian times are intertwined,” says Edwards, “But the character has moved on. Generations of showmen have moulded him.” Business, he says, “is not too good right now” but that’s “because bankers have gone off with all the money.” There has been an upswing of interest, “because of jubilee year and because they study seaside holidays in national curriculum now, which is very different from the phase when teachers were terrified to have Punch and Judy in lessons”. Punch’s enemies, once quack doctors and “darkies”, change with the ire of the times: “A banker as top villain is popular now,” says Edwards. “But in World War II one famous performer replaced his villains with Hitler and Mussolini. Maggie Thatcher, the poll tax man and the traffic warden also caught on. I remember a JR puppet at the height of the Dallas thing. And people always have lots of fun with a health and safety officer, because you know Punch is completely against those rules.”

Edwards ascribes Punch’s violence towards his long-suffering wife, Judy, and to his many enemies, to his practical transformation from stringed marionette to glove puppet. For one operator in a booth, chucking puppets away is the only practical way for them to make a sharp exit. “Glove puppets can pick things up and whack people,” explains Edwards. “It’s what they’re good at.” Many of Punch’s iconic elements — such as his slapstick, borrowed from the pantomime — came late in his career. As for those sausages: “They’re a tribute to the definitive Regency clown Joseph Grimaldi,” says Edwards. “He was a forerunner of Chaplin, with his trademark actions of filching stuff, stuffing it down his trousers and having pell mell chases.”

Puppetry as a whole has never quite made it into official culture in the UK, unlike in Eastern Europe, where there are puppet theatres in most major towns and the puppet has an honourable record as a portable instrument of subversion during years of repression. Hits such as War Horse and Shockheaded Peter have helped to bring it into the fold. But Punch boasts a proudly dishonourable record. Since he arrived in Britain, he has showed how many ways there are to do it, riding the Industrial Revolution, outfacing the death of vaudeville, and sidling in to the current resurgence of live performance. It will be a good while yet before his detractors can sing “Rill toll de riddle doll/ There’s an end of ’im by goll.” But, in this birthday year, there will be many more opportunities to hear this ancient nutcracker-faced reprobate “dance and sing/ Like anything/ With music for my pretty poll.”

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