How did Mr Punch enter your life?

You don't take up Punch, Punch takes up you. In 1993 I invited Peter Battey to put on a Punch and Judy show at my daughter Rebecca's sixth birthday party. We joke that he never left. He's been doing it professionally for 15 or 20 years. Then, four years ago, Peter was getting more bookings so he suggested that I take it up. We erected a booth in the kitchen and hung the bathroom mirror on the door so I could learn the various skills through the winter.

Why the mirror?

When you're putting on a show you can see the audience through the backdrop and react accordingly. The mirror lets you see how it looks to people watching. Working all the puppets and doing the voices is a bit like driving a car: at first it's difficult coping with steering, gears and indicators but as you get better it becomes second nature. The manual skills become automatic so you can concentrate on things like reacting to and working your audience.

How do you get the funny voice?

You put a swazzle in your mouth and talk through it. It's a bit like a reed in a musical instrument. You have to move it over to talk in different voices for the other characters. The trick is to do this without swallowing it.

Wise decision. So, how does Punch fit into your day?

I'm up between 7.30 and 8am to feed the children. In addition to Rebecca, 12, we now have Martin who is two. While Peter and I are loading the car Rebecca will be dressing her brother. We have a lockup at Clacton-on-Sea but we don't leave the puppets or props there. We carry spare clothes for when Martin falls into the sea. We all set off at about nine and it takes us about an hour to get there. I set up my booth on the west beach.

Ah yes, the booth...

It's great! About three foot square and seven foot high and made of the traditional red-and-white-striped canvas. It has to be well secured or otherwise you have a box kite. There are a number of shows but if it is quiet I'll walk Mr Punch up and down the beach to create a bit of interest. You can start with an audience of 10 and it will have grown by the end of the show. Rebecca does the bottling for me. After our performances we linger and talk to the deck chair lady and the stall holders before making our way home.

What's bottling?

It's the term for collecting money. We have a sign up to say that the cost is 40p per child and some children queue up with the right money after the show. Increasingly there are mums who dump their children without money and tell them to sit there and watch the show. There have been occasions when old people get indignant and remark that when they were small it only cost a penny.

That's gratitude for you. Bet the kids love it though...

Yeah, it's one of the few occasions that children get to see live theatre. They can shout something out and you can respond to it. They take it very seriously. You come out after the show and they will tell you what's been happening. There is no upper age limit. We have done performances in retirement homes and for 50- and 100-year-olds. Samuel Pepys records seeing a Punch and Judy show in 1662 and it will still be going in another 300 years' time.

But has your show moved with the times?

Punch has always evolved and always will. Early shows were aimed at adults and provided a satirical commentary on the news of the day. Modern children don't like seeing Punch hitting Judy or the baby so I don't. But everyone likes him hitting the policeman. When I started four years ago I used Peter's stories but now it has changed. You try something and get a good reaction and it stays in for a while. There is somebody who does a feminist version called Judy and Punch.

Right on, sister! Do you have an axe to grind?

Not at all, and I'm not in it for the money, that's for sure! We do private functions and other performances in places like village fetes, Newmarket races or in shopping or garden centres but I never lose sight of the fact that I decided to do Punch so we could have all these nice days on the beach. In summer we lead a lazy sort of life together.

PETER CROSS

Punch & Judy Fellowship (tel: 01438 880376).

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