PUNCH AND JUDY, SWANAGE

On the beach at Swanage I was pleased to see the Punch and Judy show in the same place as it was when my daughter was little, so I stopped to watch it. Punch appeals to small children because he is very, very naughty and triumphs over everybody and comes out on top at the end. His little squeaky voice seals their connection with him.

There is no point in cleaning up his act. A nice Mr Punch would be as attractive as warm ice cream. The Swanage performance has most of the traditional elements: Judy leaves Punch in charge of the baby, baby won’t walk, Punch throws baby downstairs, beats Judy, fights the crocodile, nonsense with the sausages, and so on.

After the show I met Joe Burns, the Professor, (above) and told him how much I enjoyed his show and how I remembered his predecessor, Professor Pete. Joe took over from Pete six years ago after Pete had been on the beach for thirty years.  Today’s Mr Punch has a website, a Facebook page and a Twitter feed.

Professor Pete at Swanage, 1994.

There has been a show on this spot since 1906, though the town council banned it at first because it brought the wrong sort into Swanage. Joe is one of the last three beach performers in the country – there are more Professors who are hired to perform at parties. A Guardian article quoting Joe reported that audiences are getting as badly behaved as Punch and that some adults abuse his bottler and refuse to pay.

Margaret Lambert and Enid Marx had a  section on marionettes and glove puppets in English Popular Art (1951), reporting that Mr Punch had changed from one into the other, but they said nothing else about him. In The Unsophisticated Arts (also 1951) Barbara Jones wrote, “One glove puppet remains triumphantly traditional and can still be found at fairs and at the seaside: the Punch and Judy Show. The costumes are commedia del’arte via the English early nineteenth century theatre, and the whole script has hardly changed. Needless to say it is violent and much concerned with death and hanging. Punch and Judy also exhibit the determination of English pantomime to change sex – Punch squeals viciously in a high falsetto, his wife retains the puppet master’s natural bass.”

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