FIRST PUPPET SHOW
by WALTER WILKINSON

[Author Walter Wilkinson wrote a series of Punch related travelogues starting with The Peep Show and progressing via Lancashire and Yorkshire to Puppets Through America. The following delightful example of his writing appeared in 1944, in Paul MacPharlin's Puppetry Yearbook.]

Thirty or forty years ago it was common to see an ambulatory Punch and Judy performing in the English streets. Or you would see the showmen pushing the show on a truck before them, walking round the richer part of the town, squawking loudly with the Punch "voice", and hoping to be invited into some garden to give a show to a large family of children and the governess. I saw my first performance one day when coming home to lunch from morning school.

Crossing the market place, lost in some childish imagination, I found myself entangled in a small. loose crowd, and became aware of a queer strident voice piercing the air. Looking up I was astonished to see over the heads of the crowd a sort of gaudily painted frame with a little live man in it - a fantastic, rather terrifying little old man, about twelve inches high, who was bashing the gaudy frame with a thick, dirty stick which he hugged to his body.

Something stirred in my little diaphragm; excitement welled up in my inside and I let out a sudden hoot of delight and rapture that made the crowd turn and look at me. We all grinned together, and the crowd, which seemed to be of very tall men. turned its attention again to the gaudy figure in the painted frame.

I doubt if I knew that this was a Punch and Judy show. It must have been my first taste of costumed drama - the fantastic, highly coloured life of the stage. I fell for it at once.

Punch rent the air of the market place with ins piercing screech; this voice bubbled. icrrifyingly, on the lower notes and then ascended the scale into heartening shrieks. The figure moved about with astonishing and ex- hilarating speed; it made incomprehensible speeches with a fierce vitality, and at times, oh thrilling moments, he looked out of the frame directly at me with an intense sense of recognition in the large eyes looking over his hooked nose.

A dirty bundle, which passed for the baby, was bandied about between Punch and a very soiled Judy; a shabby doctor was stretched out, as dead as mutton, on the shelf, and an unwashed dog appeared, with a red. while and blue collar round its neck. The dog growled and showed its teeth, and seized the long nose of Punch, which was pretty terrifying as Punch began to get really fierce, and by now I was on a knife edge of utter terror and hysterical excitement.

The whole thing was a bit mysterious - what were these little beings, so very alive? What was the cropped head of a man doing between the figures? Why did they speak in the hoarse voice of a show barker? Why was I chained to the spot among this rough crowd?

Another dirty figure entered the frame, carrying an odd arrangement of wood and cord. and Punch began to tremble - very visibly: "Mr. Punch, you are about to suffer!" "I don't want any supper!" "Mr. Punch, you are going to be hanged by the neck until you are dead, dead, dead!" "I don't want any bread, bread, bread!" After some mysterious scuffling the dirty man got himself tied up to the top of the pole. The how or why of this was not very clear, but when Punch hauled the body down, stuffed it into a black box with happy gurgles, why, that was excellent! The box was only long enough to hold the body and the legs had to be folded over to get them in. I liked that - over went the legs with a flick, they were poked down with the stick, a bit of black velvet was thrown over the lot, and as Punch and a clown bobbed around the frame, carry- ing this elegant outfit to the tune of "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow," my heart was ready to burst with glorious satisfaction.

The odd figures disappeared behind the bottom edge of the frame, and so did the cropped hair of the man's head. The crowd broke up, and I was seized with a vague feeling that something splendid had passed out of the world. As the crowd dispersed I saw that the gaudy frame was at the top of a booth of striped curtains; the erection began to sway, the curtains bulged, parted, and there struggled out a coarse, red-faced man. He was joined by a thin, shifty-looking fellow, and the two of them tilted the booth, lowered it to a light hand-truck, and began to walk away.

I found myself hemmed in by a little crowd of boys. and we all walked after the men. I don't know how many times I was carried along by the knot of strange boys, or how far we walked, or how many performances I saw, but I do distinctly remember following the men as they drew their show into the yard of a public house, and the red-faced man turning round sharply, and saying fiercely,
" 'ere! You 'op off! There ain't going ter be no more-no more! That's pline English, ain't it?"
It was only then that I awoke to the stark reality of an ordinary afternoon, and realized that I had not been home to lunch, and that afternoon school was just about over.

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