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At the Punch & Judy Festival

May 9, 2011
by the gentle author

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 – and yesterday I walked up to Covent Garden myself to meet the Punch & Judy “professors” gathering there, as they do every year at this time upon the leafy green behind the church.

After an early morning shower, 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.

With grateful thanks to the Punch & Judy Fellowship for making the introductions

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One Response leave one →
  1. Ros permalink
    May 9, 2011

    Magic! Another wonderful post – look at those colours and those faces, the ones of the puppets and the human ones. And the comments the puppeteers make are so marvellously eccentric and full of joy. I especially liked Mariake Batty’s comments, and the picture of Carmen Baggs with those gorgeous figures. All that and Pepys too!

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