How did Punch and Judy get to the seaside? And are they still there?
Punch and Judy ‘Professors’ (as they have been known since Victorian times) are shrewd entertainers. They go where the crowds are. When crowds flocked to the seaside, so did Punch and Judy but when the golden era of the Great British Seaside Holiday came to an end the massive crowds thinned and Mr. Punch moved on.
But times are indeed a-changin’ and this year The Big Grin project – by performing arts charity PuppetLink supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund – is helping Mr. Punch celebrate his 350th birthday around the UK at some of his old familiar sites.
Mr. Punch has moved with the times on a number of occasions during his long year career as a popular entertainer. He’s changed his appearance, his costume, his wife and his antics and has been many things from bawdy fairground rascal to genteel children’s entertainer.
It all began in 1662, when no less a witness than Samuel Pepys was strolling through the Piazza of Covent Garden in London. He was on his way back from an alehouse when he came across a travelling puppet show under the direction of ‘Signor Bologna’. Pepys was entranced and wrote about it in a diary entry of May 9th – a date now celebrated as Mr. Punch’s ‘official birthday’.
The puppet Pepys saw – freshly arrived in London after touring Europe – was a version of the Italian character Pulcinella. English tongues pronounced it as ‘Punchinello’ and then shortened it to Punch. The puppet was cheeky, squeaky and moved when the puppeteer pulled his strings from above. He became the talk of the town and was copied by English showmen who put him in their own puppet plays that performed in fairground booths up and down the country.
For the next hundred years or so Punch – soon joined by a quarrelsome wife Joan – were crowd pleasing favourites. Long gone were Punch’s stage clothes as an Italian peasant, now he wore the colourful garb of the English jester and had himself become as English as roast beef.
Then a change came over him and the world he knew. The old fashioned country fairs were losing ground. The industrial revolution had caused new towns and cities to spring up and people had flocked from the land to find work in the new-fangled factories. So the puppeteers changed Mr. Punch into a hand puppet and turned the show into a street entertainment, going out onto these crowded streets to collect money from passers-by in the little puppet stages we are still familiar with today.
From around 1800 Mr. Punch became a star all over again. This time with a wife called Judy, a dog called Toby and clutching a stick borrowed from the conventions of pantomime. The Punch and Judy Show was born.
And so to the seaside, for in the middle of the 19th century laws were passed giving the working masses holidays with pay. The invention of the railway and the rise of excursions to the seaside gave Punch and Judy showmen reason to follow the trippers and set up on the sand to entertain a captive audience.
Soon nearly every seaside resort of note had its own Punch & Judy show and sometimes even two or three of them. The puppet show became part and parcel of the seaside holiday experience along with donkey rides, bandstands, sandcastles, ice creams and paddling.
As well as this, the show was still performing on town streets corners, or touring to villages, or appearing in Music Halls as different showmen followed their own paths. It even moved indoors to become a children’s entertainment welcomed into genteel Victorian parlours. This exposure to all classes of society in all manner of public places – especially at the seaside – turned Mr. Punch away from his bawdier days in fairground tents and made him into an all-round family entertainer with his madcap little wooden world just a form of puppet pantomime full of knockabout nonsense and pell-mell fun.
Today Punch and Judy performers aren’t often found at the seaside. The huge crowds have gone and Mr. Punch long ago graduated from busker to paid attraction. There are still some resorts where Punch and Judy have never left and there are also some ‘Professors’ who will perform on beaches because there’s nothing quite like it. The public certainly hasn’t lost its appetite for the red nosed, squawking little slapstick comedian and his fellow cast, but more often than not you’ll find them at fetes, galas, carnivals, fun days, children’s parties, shopping malls or heritage attractions. Mind you, the vogue for staycations and a spot of low-tech chillaxing round the coast is tempting performers back again too. History may be repeating itself. And as Mr. Punch himself puts it “That’s the way to do it!”
‘Prof’ Glyn Edwards.
Mr. Punch celebrates his 350th birthday visit www.thebiggrin350.com for more information.