The show that packs a darn good Punch!
News in Action raises the curtain on one of history's more enduring characters (May 1993)

n a changing world the traditional Punch and Judy show is as popular now as it was 200 years ago - one of the great British institutions like fish and chips, afternoon tea and cricket on the village green.

Old fashioned it may be, but even in this high-tech age today's youngsters thoroughly enjoy Mr Punch's violent battles with the devil, hangman, crocodile and long suffering wife, Judy.

Despite its obvious chauvinism and glorification of violence in the form of wife murder and baby bashing, there is still enough charm for us to laugh at it. However, the contemporary puppet show is far more light-hearted than it was in the 18th century. Played to adult audiences, it had a deeper meaning than its slapstick humour. The perfect medium for audience participation, originally Punch and Judy was the story of the common man, who suffered the indignities and troubles of all men to emerge triumphant through brute force and guile. Despite the passage of time, Mr Punch has never really changed his image. Hunchbacked, hook nosed with a squeaky voice; he remains humorous, subversive, aggressive figure, offering not only great entertainment, but an eternal challenge to conventional morality and respectability. This is perhaps the secret of his enduring universal appeal.

So how did this mysterious folk play become part of our own traditional culture? Who is Punch and where did he come from?

The character of Punch is believed to have originated in India and was spread by gypsies, who took it into Europe, and many countries as far afield as Russia, Turkey and Thailand have similar grotesque characters.


During the Dark and Middle ages after the collapse ot Roman civilisalion in the 5th century AD, some form of folk drama continued to exist throughout the continent, performed by wandering jugglers, acrobats, minstrels and gypsy showmen of all kinds.

Later between the 10th and 13th centuries, drama was expressed in religious cycles of miracle plays that swept across medieval Europe.

By the end of the 15th century however, new ideas were in the air and it was at this moment in time there appeared in Italy the impromptu form of drama known as the Commedia dell'Arte.

Small troupes of actors and actresses known as Zanni, sometimes attached to a court and sometimes travelling from place to place, performed popular plays with stock characters, which were recreated for each performance with an improvised dialogue.

One character undoubtedly provided the inspiration for Punch -Pulcinella, a comic servant who at first wore a floppy white tunic, conical hot and black half mask.

Soon these companies of players travelled beyond Italy, taking their lively comedies to France, Spain,
Holland, Germany and England Although never a leading character, by the middle of the 17th century Pulcinella was established in France as Polichinelle, stooge to a quack doctor. In due course the French Polichinelle returned to Italy, where sometimes he was portrayed as a hunchback in a tall round hat. But as well as being played by live actors, he was also seen as a marionette and a glove puppet.

Although a version of Punch came from Italy a similar version earlier existed in Britain derived from the medieval mystery plays. Punch's name is usually thought to be either a contraction of the Italian Pulcinella, or from Punchinello, the English version of the French marionette.

Britain had a strong tradition of puppet theatre, mainly of stringed marionettes. The other type of puppet - the glove puppet while not having the grace of the marionette, has a vigour ideally suited to the robust story of Punch and Judy.

An Italian glove puppet version of Polichinelle first made its appearance in London's Covent Garden Square in 1662, performed by showman Pietro Gimonde from Bologna, who was known as 'Signor Bologna'. How the Londoners loved the show and before the year was over it had been performed before the king.

Other Italian puppeteers soon followed and Punchinello was rapidly established. After the Great Fire of London in 1666, puppet shows were all the rage at great London fairs, particularly Bartholomew at Smithfield, Southwark, Tottenham Court and the MayFair, quickly spreading to pleasuregardens, race meetings, sea-sides and out on to the streets.

The Victorian era was the heyday of the itinerant puppeteer, who was often of Romany origin. In those, two showmen presented the entertainment. One worked the puppets whilst the other acted as a link, talking to the puppets and the audience and then passing round a hat.

Today the puppeteer does all the work, assisted by a silent 'bottler'. As it's a one man show, only two hand puppets can appear at a given time. Punch, operated by the right hand, is a constant figure while the left hand is used to introduce character after character, each in turn defeated by Punch's anarchic vigour. Gradually a regular order of incidents grew up, new characters appeared and over the years, an accepted drama was adopted by all puppet showmen. To this day it remains substantially unaltered.

Punch's high squeakiy voice is created by a 'swazzle' or 'call', and small 2 sided elliptical instrument with a piece of tape inside it, which when the showman speaks through it, produces Punch's shrill tones.

The art of Punch and Judy with the secrets of its presentation for the most part were handed down from father to son among a few families of puppeteers, frequently of gypsy extraction. Naturally each showman had his own version, adding topical references and jokes. During the last war one famous Punch and Judy man, Percy Press, a Londoner born in 1902, dressed his Mr Punch in army uniform, while the devil looked exactly like Hitler.

North Wales has long been famous for its Punch and Judy shows, presented by members of the Codman family for many years at Llandudno and nearby Colwyn Bay until as recently as 1980.
Carrying carrying on the tradition in the area is Rhos-on~Sea based Chris Somerville, a modern puppeteer who has been involved with Punch and Judy for more than 30 years. A lively Yorkshireman, he takes his show out to community centres, church halls, caravan sites, fetes and into childrens homes for parties, entertaining youngsters usually aged between 4. and 8.

"Audiences are much younger than they were 10 years ago, but far more sophisticated due to the influences of playgroups and television," comments Chris Somerville, who like his predecessors, makes all his own puppets. He finds that children get so involved with other characters, and so much excitement is generated that he is careful to ensure that the laughter doesn't turn to hysteria.

"I am always conscious that they are a young audience and must not be frightened, so sometimes I exclude altogether or shorten the sequence with the ghost or devil" he says.


The modern Punch and Judy Show, although retaining much of its original elements, is no longer a form of morality play, with Punch the common man, overcoming the force of evil, Today it is played primarily for children at parties and seasides, although adults love it as well.

Chris Somerville believes there will always be a place for Punch and Judy:
"Despite censure of the church and civil authorities; Punch and Judy has survived the centuries", he says. "The age-old story still makes children laugh and doubtless will continue to do so with future generations."

Pen: Julie Richard-Williams
Pic: Huw Williams