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Punch & Judy In Covent Garden

May 2, 2016
by the gentle author

One of my favourite annual events in London is the Punch & Judy Festival which is always held on the second Sunday in May at the churchyard of St Paul’s Covent Garden. Here I have supplemented my account with Henry Mayhew’s interview with a Punch & Judy man from the nineteenth century.

Carmen Baggs with figures made by her father

On 9th May 1662, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary “Thence to Covent Garden… to see an Italian puppet play that is within the rayles there, which is very pretty, the best that ever I saw, and a great resort of gallants …” It was the first record of a Punch & Judy show in London and, as a consequence, May 9th has become celebrated as Mr Punch’s birthday – when the all Punch & Judy “professors” gather each year upon the leafy green behind the church.

After an early morning shower on the day of my visit, the sun broke through to impart a lustre to the branches of may blossom growing in the churchyard, which create an elegant foliate surround to the freshly sprouting lawn, where the Punch & Judy booths were being assembled as the centrepiece of the Covent Garden May Fayre. As they set up their booths, the professors were constantly interrupted by the arrival of yet another member of their clan, and emotional greetings were exchanged as they reunited after another year on the road. Yet before long, a whole line of booths encircled the lawn and vibrant red stripes filled my vision whichever direction I chose to turn.

Peter Batty, a Punch & Judy professor of forty years, who has been coming here for thirty years, could not help feeling a touch of melancholy in the churchyard in spite of the beauty of the morn. “We go from one box to another,” he said, reaching up with the hand that was not holding Mr Punch to touch his booth protectively, and recalling those professors who will not be seen upon this green again. “I think of Joe Beeby, Percy Press – the first and the second, Hugh Cecil and Smoky the Clown,” he confided to me regretfully - “People keep getting old.”

Yet Peter works in partnership with his youthful wife, Mariake, and their fourteen year old son, Martin, who is just starting out with his own shows. “It’s such a lovely way of life, we’re really lucky when so many people have to do proper jobs, and it’s a brilliant way to bring up children.” she assured me, cradling Judy, while Martin nodded in agreement, holding the Policeman. “We play together and have a fantastic time  - it suits us very well and it’s completely stress free.” she declared. They were an appealing paradox, this contented family who had found happiness in performing Mr Punch and his bizarre drama of domestic violence.

“I was just a bored housewife,” recalled Mrs Back to Front, a lively Punch & Judy professor with her brightly coloured clothes reversed, “twenty-nine years ago, I had a six month old baby and a three year old son, and I was asked to do a puppet show for a fete at his school and I was converted to it. I came here to Covent Garden and I bought a set of Punch & Judy puppets, and I got a swozzle too and found I could use it straightaway.” Then, with a chuckle of satisfaction at the exuberant life she has invented for herself and batting her glittery eyelashes in pleasure, she announced – “My six month old baby is now Dizzy Lolly – she does magic and she’s very good with a monkey puppet too.”

My next encounter was with Geoff Felix, an experienced puppeteer with a background in film, television and theatre who has been doing Punch & Judy since 1982.“I was influenced by Joe Beeby,he explained, revealing his source of inspiration, “he saw a show in 1926, which the player learnt  from someone in the nineteenth century, and Joe kept it going. And that’s how the oral tradition has been preserved.” Geoff explained that the Punch & Judy characters we recognise today, both in appearance and in the story, are based upon those of Giovanni Piccini whose play was transcribed by John Payne Collier in 1828 and illustrated by George Cruikshank. Casting his eyes around at his peers, “It is the swozzle that unites us,” he whispered to me, as if it were a sacred bond, when referring to the metal instrument in the mouth used to make the shrill voice of Mr Punch - “it forces us to create shows based in action.”

Then, Alix Booth, a feisty Scotswoman in a top hat, who has been a Punch & Judy professor for thirty-seven years, told me, “When I was eleven, I inherited a set of paper mache figures. I started working with them and in the end I was doing small shows in Lanark. I still have the figures, over a hundred years old, and although I had to replace Mr Punch’s coat, his waistcoat and trousers are perfect. My figures are based on the Piccini book of 1828, they have their mouths turned down at the ends and huge staring eyes – nowadays Mr Punch is sometimes given a smile, but I prefer him with his mouth turned down, it’s more realistic.”

“I have learnt my craft, and I can keep a children’s party happy for an hour and a half without any trouble at all.” she informed me plainly. “But it was very much for adults originally –  entertainment for the Georgian man in the street and it’s full of laughs – it’s all in the timing.”

After my conversations with the professors, I was delighted to stand and enjoy the surreal quality of all the booths lined up like buses at a terminus when I have only ever seen them alone before – yet what was fascinating were the differences in spite of the common qualities. There were short fat ones and tall skinny ones, plain and fancy, with the height defined by the reach of each individual puppeteer. And while the red and white theatres standing under the great chestnut tree awaited their audiences, the professors enjoyed the quiet of the morning to catch up and swap stories.

“It has established a club, brought us all together and kept the tradition alive,” Alix asserted, turning impassioned in her enthusiasm, “And that’s so important, because every year new young performers come along and join us.” But then we were interrupted by the brass band heralding the arrival of Mr Punch and we realised that, as we had been talking, crowds of people had gathered. It was a perfect moment of early Summer in London, but for Punch & Judy professors it was the highlight of the year.

Professor David Wilde has the largest collection of Punch & Judy puppets – over six hundred.

Professor Geoffrey Felix, scenery based upon a design by Jesson and Mr Punch in the style of Piccini.

Professor James Arnott restores and repaints old figures.

Mrs Back To Front

Professor Alix Booth, thirty-seven years doing Punch & Judy professionally.

The Batty Family of Puppeteers, Mariake, Martin and Peter.

Professor Brian Baggs, also known as “Bagsie.”

Professor Paul Tuck  - “I’ve only been let out for today – I’m really a ladies’ hairdresser.”

Parade to celebrate the arrival of Mr Punch in Covent Garden.

“Ladies & Gentlemen, I’m now going to exhibit a performance worthy of your notice, and far superior to anythink you hever had an hopportunity of witnessing before”

HENRY MAYHEW’S PUNCH & JUDY MAN

Henry Mayhew set out to find a Punch & Judy man in Spitalfields for his interviews that were first published – appropriately enough – in Punch magazine before they were collected in three volumes as “London Labour & the London Poor” in 1851. As the Punchman that Mayhew spoke with explained, “The boys is the greatest nuisance we have to contend with, and many parts is swarming with boys, such as Vitechapel. Spitalfields, that’s the worst place for boys I ever come a-near, they’re like flies in Summer there, only much more thicker. They’ll throw one another’s caps into the frame and, do what we will, we can’t keep ‘em from poking their fingers through the baize and making holes to peep through. But the worst of all is, most of ‘em ain’t got a farthing to bless themselves with.”

Yet the City of London was not much better for Punch & Judy either -”People ‘as their heads all full of business there and them as is greedy arter the money ain’t no friend of Punch’s.” Then, as now, it was the West End that was the preferred location for street performers. “The best pitch of all in London is Leicester Sq, there’s all sorts of classes you see passing there.” confirmed the Punchman, “Then comes Regent St, the corner of Burlington St is uncommon good and there is a good publican there besides.” And I have no doubt that he was grateful of refreshment because, as this engaging testimony reveals, the life of a Punchman constituted thirsty and demanding work.

The performer of Punch that I saw was a short, dark, pleasant looking man, dressed in a very greasy and very shiny green shooting jacket. He was very communicative and took great delight in talking like Punch, with his call in his mouth, while some children were in the room, and who, hearing the well-known sound of Punch’s voice, looked all about for the figure.

“I am the proprietor of a Punch’s show,” he said. “I goes about with it myself, and performs inside the frame behind the green baize. I have a pardner what plays the music – the pipes and drum, him as you see’d with me. I have been five-and-twenty year now at the business. I wish I’d never seen it, though it’s been a money-making business – indeed the best of all, street hexibitions I may say. I am fifty years old. It’s a business that once you’ve got into it you can never get out. It’s a great annoyance being a public kerrackter, I can assure you, sir. Go where you will, it’s, ‘Punchy, Punchy!’ Something else might turn up, to be sure. We can’t say what the luck of the world is. I’m obliged to strive very hard – very hard indeed, sir, now, to get a living and at times, compelled to go short often. It’s the march of hintellect wot’s a doing all this, sir.

But I was a going to tell you about my first jining the business. The first time I ever went out with Punch was in the beginning of August, 1825. My dignity was being hurt at being hobligated to take to the streets for a living. I used to stand outside and patter to the figures. There was not much talk, to be sure, required then, and what little there was consisted merely in calling out the names of the figures as they came up and these my master prompted me from inside the frame. I know I could never have done it, if it hadn’t been for the spirits (a little drop of gin), as my master guv me in the morning. Yet the first time I ever made my appearance in public I collected as much as eight shillings, and my master said after the performance was over, ‘You’ll do!’

I kept on going with my master for two years and at the end of that time I had saved enough to start a show of my own. I bought the show off old Porsini, the man who first brought Punch into the streets of England. I’ve heard tell that old Porsini used to take very often as much as ten pounds a-day, and he used to sit down to his fowls and wine, and the very best of everything. But he never took care of a halfpenny he got. He didn’t study the world nor himself neither. At last, he reduced himself to want, and died in the St Giles’s Workhouse. He was past performing when I bought my show of him and werry poor. I gave him thirty-five shillings for the stand, figures and all. I bought it cheap, you see, for it was thrown on one side and of no use but such as myself.

The great difficulty in performing Punch consists in the speaking, which is done by a call or whistle in the mouth. Porsini brought the calls into this country with him from Italy and I larnt the use of mine from Porsini himself. I was six months in perfecting the use of it and now I’m reckoned one of the best speakers in the whole purfession. When I made my first appearance as a regular performer of Punch on my own account, I did feel uncommon narvous, to be sure, though I know’d the people couldn’t see me behind the baize, still I felt as if the eyes of the country were upon me. It was as much as ever I could do to get the words out, and keep the figures from shaking. The fust person who went out with me was my wife. She used to stand outside and keep the boys from peeping through the baize and she used to collect the money afterwards as well. She’s been dead these five years now.

Take one week or another, throughout the year, I should say I made then five pounds regular. You can see Punch has been good work, a money making business. Twenty years ago, I have often got eight shillings for one hexhibition  in the streets, and many times I’d perform eight or ten times in a day. We didn’t care much about work then, for we could get money fast enough. Arter performing in the streets of a day we used to attend private parties in the hevening. I have performed afore almost all the nobility.

There are altogether as many as sixteen Punch & Judy frames in England, and to each of these frames there are two men. We are all acquainted with one another, are all sociable together. If two of us happen to meet in one town, we jine and share the money. We all know one another, and can tell in what part of the country the others are. We have intelligence by letters from all parts. There’s a Punch I knows is either in the Isle of Man or on his way to it.”

Punch: What Toby, are you cross this morning?

Scaramouch: You have been beating and ill-using my poor dog, Mr Punch!

Judy: Here’s the child. Pretty dear! It knows its Papa. Take the child.

Punch: What is the matter with it? Poor thing! It has got the stomach ache, I dare say.

Punch: Get away, nasty baby.

Judy: I’ll teach you to drop my baby out the window!

Punch: How do you like my teaching, Judy, my pretty dear?

Punch: Stand still, can’t you, and let me get my foot up to the stirrup.

Punch: Oh Doctor! Doctor! I have been thrown, I have been killed.

Punch: Now Doctor, your turn to be physicked!

Blind Man: Pray Mr Punch, bestow your charity upon a blind man.

Jack Ketch: Mr Punch, you’re a very bad man.

Jack Ketch: Come out and be hanged!

Punch: Only shew me how and I will do it directly.

Punch: Here’s a stick to thump Old Nick!

Punch: Pray Mr Devil, let us be friends.

Punch: Huzza, huzza! The Devil’s dead!

Drawings by George Cruikshank, 1827, illustrating Giovanni Piccini’s “The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Punch & Judy.”

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6 Responses leave one →
  1. May 2, 2016

    Good that the old traditions are being carried on by those dedicated professors. I must admit that it was never a favourite of mine, I experienced too much domestic violence at home to appreciate it. Valerie

  2. May 2, 2016

    Fine story! Be happy and keep the tradition alive!

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  3. Peter Holford permalink
    May 2, 2016

    A great tradition and long may it continue. I love the comment “I prefer him with his mouth turned down, it’s more realistic.” The puppets are obviously more than inanimate objects to the ‘professors’!

  4. Carol Gilham permalink
    May 2, 2016

    Have you read the charming and funny description of watching a Punch and Judy show by Edmund Gosse in “Father and Son”? It is delightful.

  5. pauline taylor permalink
    May 2, 2016

    Wonderful. We once had a very foolish lady councillor here who tried to ban Punch and Judy. Can you believe it? One of my favourite films is the Punch and Judy Man with Tony Hancock and John Le Mesurier, many people miss the point of it I know, but we love it.

    Long Live Punch and Judy!!

  6. May 8, 2016

    Oh! Boy! What a delightful set of photographs and write up on my favorite puppets PUNCH AND JUDY after BURR TILLSTROM’S KOOKLA Fran AND OLLIE… ATK

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