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Once commonplace at every seaside resort throughout the country, Punch & Judy shows have been entertaining audiences for many generations.
The show as we know it today has its origins traceable to the Commedia dell Arte street theatre of 16th Century Italy and most probably goes back even further than this. Commedia del Arte had many actors and players; each demanding high fees. It is thought that to keep costs down string puppets (marionettes) replaced the actors in the 17th Century.
The earliest recorded evidence we have of Punch in England is from the 17th Century Diarist Samuel Pepys. Who, while on a visit to Covent Garden, on 9th May 1662, 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.”
The Monarch of the day, King Charles II was also a regular visitor to Covent Garden, which was home to his mistress Nell Gwyn. It is thought the King enjoyed the puppet shows so much that a Royal Decree was passed, allowed Punch & Judy men to call themselves “Professor”. Although there is little truth behind this, to this day Punch & Judy performers refer to themselves as Professors.
Little is known of how or when Punch ceased to be a marionette and became the hand puppet we know him as today. But in the Victorian and Edwardian periods Punch & Judy shows could be seen in all major cities across Britain, always topical, the storyline mocked Politicians and the establishment of the day. Rather like the Spitting Image TV programme of the late 1980’s. Performers relied on donations from those watching the show to earn a living. The large audiences gave freely and the money was often collected in a bottle (collecting the money was, and still is, known as “Bottling”).
With the invention of George Stephenson’s steam engine, the Rocket, which revolutionised travel for all during the mid to late 19th Century. Wealthy members of society took day trips and holidays around Britain’s coastline. After the introduction of Bank Holidays in 1871, seaside day trips and holidays gradually became more affordable to the everyday family. These newly developing seaside resorts gave Punch & Judy men a lucrative opportunity.
Punch & Judy shows are a living social history, passed along the centuries by dedicated performers for the enjoyment of all ages. As they clearly represent part of our culture and history, they were named amongst the first 12 icons of England, alongside double decker buses, Sherlock Holmes and the bowler hat!
Britain should be proud of its Punch and Judy show. Many other European countries have their own variants on the show, but none as good or successful as ours.
Punch has been an excellent ambassador for us all, often representing Britain in many overseas festivals. Without him and his little show, life would be a little bit greyer. Punch is part of our national psyche But do not take our word for it, watch the children and ask them what they think about it!
In more recent times, the decline of the traditional seaside holiday has seen a dramatic fall in the number of Punch & Judy shows at the seaside. No longer can a performer rely on donations to make his living.
However the show still remains popular today, probably even more so than ever before, by being family entertainment at venues such as birthday parties, Fetes and shopping centres etc.
Punch & Judy shows have stayed popular down the centuries because they have been kept topical. In wartime, Punch would fight and beat Hitler. In more recent times, Tony Blair, has even made an appearance!
Mr Punch has been the inspiration to many. He has had an opera written for him and even the long running humorous magazine borrowed its name from Punch. Many authors, film makers and writers have utilised the characters of Punch & Judy shows. Perhaps the most famous being Tony Hancock's 1960's film, The Punch and Judy man.