I’ve always found Mr Punch pretty unsettling, if not a little scary. He does of course abuse his wife, in some performances he puts his baby into a sausage making machine. He’s a cop killer who conquers ghosts and beats the devil. Yet, he’s still a hero. Maybe one of the first anti heroes in popular culture?
So, in order to face my fear, I did a little research and popped off to Covent Garden in London to meet the puppet that conquers all. Only to stand alone with his professor (Mr Punch puppeteers are often called Professors. There’s also a ‘Bottler’ – someone who gathers up a crowd and collects money for the show, but there’s far fewer of these today.)
Each year in May, people travel to St Paul’s Church in London (also known as the Actor’s Church) to celebrate Mr Punch’s birthday. It actually marks the first recorded performance of a Punch and Judy type show in London as recorded by Samuel Pepys.
In his diary on May 9th, Pepys wrote –
Thence to see an Italian puppet play that is within the rayles there, which is very pretty, the best that ever I saw, and great resort of gallants.
From there, the story of punch evolved as a violent puppet show that entertained the masses. This year is the 40th anniversary of the Covent Garden May Fayre and Puppet Festival. Click on any of the images below for a slideshow.
Punch probably wins his fights with all in sundry as he is said to be a manifestation of the Lord of Misrule, an officer elected to lead the feast of fools at pagan Christmas time. He also has a past in the Pulcinella character from the Commedia Dell’arte.
He’s a hunchback who carries a massive stick and beats people to death with it. Hello children!
Many stories from the Punch repertoire are no longer performed as they are considered to be too much for young audiences. Jack Ketch the hangman rarely appears – he hangs Punch at some point in the play. Pretty Polly is also gone, she was Punch’s mistress. At some point in the evolution of Punch, Joan became Judy. The characters in the story arrive and leave in episodes, much like a street audience would come and go as they pleased. You can click on any image below to open another slideshow.
The story leaves a lot of flexibility for each professor to make it their own. At the May Fayre Puppet service in Covent Garden, there were more than twenty booths set up with shows at different times. I thought maybe kids would not engage – I was wrong.
When another clown character ‘Joey’ asks a crowd of children, sat cross-legged in front of a booth, to tell him when Mr Punch appears with his big hitting stick, they all gleefully shout, ‘It’s behind you!’.
Punch has also been interpreted to suit the times. He is after all, the inspiration for the satirical magazine. I saw one performer in a side street with the Prime Minister Mr Cameron as a puppet, feeding lots of other politicians to a crocodile. (slideshow)
One of the oddities of the May Fayre festival in Covent Garden close to Mr Punch’s anniversary, is that the puppet himself takes to pulpit and has been known to give a sermon. For this recent gathering, The Reverend Owen Beament interviewed Mr Punch who was with a professor also dressed as Punch on stilts. (Totally regular Sunday afternoon then).
It was quite funny and a bit weird. The pagan and the puppet and the church and a little mention of the election. The Superior Brass band played into the church and the pews carried children manipulating puppets of many sorts. A man at the front was dresses as a jester.
The priest said thanks for –
…the beauty of the arts, for drama, dance and music,
for the skill of the puppeteer and the humour of the clown.
The local youth choir chivvied up proceedings, surprisingly they first sang ‘Bring me Sunshine’ – I was surprised no one danced like Morecambe and Wise in the aisles. (slideshow)
Everyone also sang Happy Birthday to Mr Punch – he seemed to be quite pleased about this. Finally the professors in the pews came to the front of the church to have their puppets blessed and then all paraded back out into the gardens singing ‘Lord of the Dance’. (slideshow)
I was feeling less uneasy about Mr Punch by that point. He seemed funny, a jester and a cad. Back out in the bright sunshine, I thought things would be considerably less weird. The brass band played a tight set and then a May Pole dance began. (slideshow)
I visited the various booths to see the puppet shows and little pieces of an ancient England were showing through. There was a green man here, professors of all kinds, clowns on stilts and plenty of puppets recreating acts of violence. (slideshow – clickety-click to see)
In the warm May sunshine, it’s harder to find Mr Punch so frightening. But at his core, he appears to be a smiling killer with a rictus grin. I wouldn’t like to meet in him Covent Garden at night. But we laughed and the band played on. That’s the way to do it.
*If you like the photos, there’s more on my flickr account here because I am a shutterbug with poor impulse control. Enjoy!