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December 2012 Meeting Report

John Savil on The Story of Punch and Judy

This was the traditional Christmas meeting where the members provided a varied buffet which was enjoyed after the speaker’s presentation. Continuing the tradition of this being more in keeping with the festive season we were delighted to have a very entertaining talk on the “The History of Punch and Judy” given by John Savil, who is a Sawston resident. Somewhat uniquely and hugely enjoyable was his demonstration of a real life performance of a Punch and Judy Show, shortened to an action packed 10 minutes, in which Mr Punch carried out countless acts of violence to a variety of people, including a baby and a crocodile.

The Punch and Judy show has roots in the 16th-century Italian Commedia del Arte. The figure of Punch derives from the Neaploitan character of Pulchinella and then anglicised to Punchinello then inevitably shortened to Punch. Punch's wife was originally called "Joan."

Mr. Punch made his first recorded appearance in England on 9 May 1662, which is traditionally reckoned as Punch's UK birthday. An early version of the Punch and Judy show was seen by Samuel Pepys at Covent Garden. It was performed by an Italian puppet showman, Pietro Gimonde a.k.a. "Signor Bologna." Pepys described the event in his diary as "an Italian puppet play… which is very pretty."

In the British Punch and Judy show, Punch wears a brightly coloured jester's hat with a tassel. He is a hunchback whose hooked nose almost meets his curved, jutting chin. He carries a stick (called a slapstick –hence slapstick comedy) as large as himself, which he freely uses upon most of the other characters in the show. He speaks in a distinctive squawking voice, produced by a contrivance known as a swazzle which the professor/narrator holds in his mouth, transmitting his gleeful cackle. This gives Punch a vocal quality as though he were speaking through a kazoo. So important is Punch's signature sound that it is a matter of some controversy within Punch and Judy circles as to whether a "non-swazzled" show can be considered a true Punch and Judy Show. Other characters do not use the swazzle, so the puppeteer has to alternate the voices while still holding the device in his mouth. An occupational hazard is the accidental swallowing of the swazzle!

In the early 18th century, the Punch and Judy show was at its height, with the puppeteer Martin Powell attracting sizable crowds at both Covent Garden and Bath. In 1721, a puppet theatre that ran for decades opened in Dublin. The cross-dressing actress Charlotte Charke ran the successful but short-lived Punch's Theatre in the Old Tennis Court at St. James's, Westminster, presenting adaptations of Shakespeare as well as plays by herself, her father Colley Cibber, and her friend Henry Fielding. Fielding eventually ran his own puppet theater under the pseudonym Madame de la Nash to avoid the censorship under the Theater Licensing Act of 1737.

Because these shows were cumbersome and rather costly to set up, in the latter half of the 18th century, marionette companies began to give way to glove-puppet shows, performed from within a narrow, lightweight booth by one puppeteer, usually with an assistant, or "bottler," to gather a crowd and collect money. These shows passed through country towns or along busy London streets, giving many performances in a single day. The character of Punch adapted to the new format, from a stringed comedian who might say outrageous things to a more aggressive glove-puppet who could do outrageous—and often violent—things to the other characters. About this time, Punch's wife's name changed from "Joan" to "Judy".

During the Victorian era, booths, particularly those used for Christmas parties and other indoor performances, were often rather gaudy but later evolved to red-and-white-striped cloth covered puppet booths which became iconic features on the beaches of many English seaside and summer holiday resorts. This is the most common covering today, wherever the show might be performed. The shows now, of course, are intended primarily for children. Some of the original characters, such as the Devil and Punch’s mistress Pretty Polly have tended to be phased out as inappropriate for young audiences.

The story varies, but some phrases have remained the same for decades. For example, Punch, after dispatching each of his foes, still squeaks his famous catchphrase: "That's the way to do it!" Modern British performances of Punch and Judy are no longer exclusively the traditional seaside children's entertainments. They can now be seen at carnivals, festivals, birthday parties, and other celebratory occasions. Our speaker, John Savil, also gives such performances.

Along with Punch and Judy, the cast of characters usually includes their baby, a hungry crocodile, a clown, an officious policeman, Joey the clown and the doctor. The devil and the hangman may still make their appearances but, if so, Punch will always get the better of them. Apart from Punch’s slapstick, the other main prop is a string of sausages which is always getting nicked by these various characters, many of whom suffering death by clubbing as a result.

Together with the varied Xmas buffet which followed this very entertaining talk and show, this made for a very pleasant and memorable final meeting for 2012.

Bruce Milner

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