They’re one of the country’s most famous married couples. You just need to spot his colourful jester outfit and the long tassle bobbing from his sugarloaf hat, and you know it’s Mr Punch and his wife Judy. But now, with the Covid restrictions, this familiar sideshow is under threat. Mr Punch may be swinging his final blow.
Punch and Judy’s red-striped puppet booth has been popping up in Weymouth, Dorset, since 1880. Mark Poulton first saw the mayhem caused by hooked-nosed Mr Punch and his giant baton in the 1970s when he was four years old. He was transfixed and decided that when he grew up he would become a professor, the title bestowed upon a booth operator. In his teens he taught himself the necessary skills — sewing, woodcarving, sign-writing and how to run a show. After an apprenticeship of 16 years, he graduated to professorship with his own Weymouth pitch. It is one of just a handful of independent shows still operating.
But this year, the swazzle he uses to create Mr Punch’s distinctive squeal has stayed in his pocket. For the first time in peacetime Britain there’s no Punch and Judy on Weymouth beach. Professor Poulton has turned to crowdfunding to raise the money for it to return next year.
Saving Punch and Judy might not have the same cultural cachet as rescuing a Rembrandt for the nation, but in a 2006 public poll the couple were voted one of ‘England’s icons’. In 2009, Professor Poulton and Mr Punch were presented to the Queen on her official visit to Weymouth. Despite being much loved by the British, though, Mr Punch’s origins aren’t in Victorian English entertainment but 16th-century Italian commedia dell’arte. Punch derives from the Neapolitan stock character Pulcinella. Samuel Pepys recorded the first Punch in Britain on 9 May 1662 — a date now celebrated as Punch’s birthday — having seen an Italian showman perform in Covent Garden.
Pepys’s Punch and Judy were marionettes, soon replaced by glove puppets to enable Punch to clobber harder. Some see this not as an amusing account of marital strife but a tale that trivialised domestic abuse. It’s undeniably the story of a stick-swinging husband who assaults his wife and dashes their baby to the floor, only to escape justice for his violent deeds. Punch’s signature cry as each thump falls is: ‘That’s the way to do it!’
Even in the Victorian era, the performance had its protestors. Charles Dickens wrote in its defence: ‘I regard it as quite harmless in its influence, and as an outrageous joke which no one would think of regarding as an incentive to any kind of action or as a model for any kind of conduct.’
For Poulton, his puppet troupe is a treasure to be saved. ‘Weymouth is one of the only places you can still have a traditional day at the beach, from riding donkeys to seeing the Punch and Judy show,’ he says. Luckily for him, many agree, and his crowdfunder has already raised nearly £4,000.