Still pulling plenty of punches

Being a performer for 300 years means you have to adapt your act. But not necessarily your character, as John Morrish discovers from a Punch professor
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A man ran amok last week in a crowded shopping centre, battering his wife with a stick after she had accused him of neglecting their baby. Then he set about the police officer who came to arrest him.

Meanwhile, shoppers and their children looked on, laughing, as the maniac shrieked, over and over, "That's the way to do it!"

It was not Mr Punch's first offence: nor will it be his last. He's been at it for more than 300 years, and this holiday weekend will find him committing similar outrages on beaches and in parks around the country - and sometimes much worse.

Punch & Judy is a broad tradition. Mr Punch has been known to throw his baby out of the window, or into a sausage machine, before killing Judy and then stringing up the hangman who comes to put his adventures to an end. His antagonists have included a clown, a dog, a crocodile, a ghost, Hitler, Mrs Thatcher and the Devil.

Glyn Edwards, known professionally as "Professor Punchinello", is proud to call himself a "Punch anorak". He knows all the options. But the show he put on in Telford's shopping centre last week, helped by his wife Mary on a comedy tricycle, was carefully tailored for tiny children and their anxious parents: lots of knockabout fun, plenty of people hit with Punch's stick, but no one killed.

As one of several hundred Punch "professors" (the title is traditional, and self-awarded) in this country, Edwards makes a living on the border between tradition and popular appeal. "The kids still go for it," he insists. "It's not a heritage activity that they have to have explained to them. They just roll up and laugh their heads off."

While there is a traditional core of episode and characters, the way those elements are used has always been a decision for the individual performer, who might change them from show to show.

"It's an art-form like the blues," says Edwards. "You get your head around the chords and the riffs, then you realise `I'm in charge' and you start to improvise around the traditional themes. That's what keeps Mr Punch in tune with each generation."

In this vein, he has slyly introduced contemporary references. "I'm going to give you a big smack," says Judy. "A Big Mac?" says Punch, hopefully, as the children roar.

Nonetheless, these have not been easy years for Mr Punch. Assailed by civic busybodies of both the right (for "lowering the tone of the resort") and the left (for "failing to comply with council guidelines on the depiction of violence") he remains unwelcome in several towns. But Mr Punch has always had to adapt. "The Victorians were upset by the ghost and the devil because it offended their religiosity," says Edwards, who runs courses for performers and enthusiasts. "Hitting a woman with a stick, and doing some sort of harm to a baby, those are concerns that our society focuses upon." In his children's shows, he happily tones down those aspects. Mr Punch, he says, is a folk hero who is careful not to upset his people.

In particular Edwards has done away with any realistic violence to the baby. "The days when the Punch puppet would whack it around the side of the playboard [his stage] are probably gone," he says. So, too, has the hanging scene, on the grounds that it is meaningless to modern children.

At the same time, he defends other performers, many of them fellow members of the Punch & Judy College of Professors, who retain more of the traditional violence. "I think of it as closer to Tom & Jerry, where they are blown up one minute and back the next. The kids understand the convention: they are little wooden figures."

After all, Edwards points out, Punch's stick is actually a "slapstick", more of a noisy percussion instrument than a weapon. A performer for nearly 40 years, he likes to think of himself as Mr Punch's spin-doctor.

He pops up in this capacity in Nasty, Brutish and Short, a documentary on Radio 4 on Saturday, presented by the Spitting Image creator Roger Law, with Harry Enfield impersonating the hunch-backed wooden sociopath.

Edwards considers Mr Punch a "celebrity"', but is aware that many find him threatening, even sinister. He recounts Tony Hancock's difficulties during the making of his film The Punch & Judy Man, which he came to believe had been cursed by the Punch puppet: for the rest of his life he could not bear to be near one.

In fact, says Edwards, Hancock's trouble was that he couldn't master the voice, something achieved through the swazzle, a mysterious and ancient piece of technology, and many hours of practice. Terrifying, shrill, unreasonable, the voice is the irreducible core of Mr Punch, even more than the violence. "The thing that moves him into a different level is that voice," agrees Edwards. "We know that no human vocal cords could sound like that: he's from somewhere else, another dimension."

All that keeps Punch true to his historic essence, says Edwards, is the scorn of other performers. In America, some performers have done away with the stick, and made a gentler Punch apologise.

But that's going too far for Professor Punchinello. He doesn't mind topical jokes, and new characters, but Punch's nature must not change. And that's really very simple. "He's a national icon," says Edwards. "And he hits people with a stick."

Nasty, Brutish and Short is on Radio 4 on Sunday 29 August at 2.30pm