Style: The professor has his hands full: Punch and Judy will never be politically correct, but they'll always get laughs, writes John Windsor

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The Independent Online
Punch and Judy is a mystery play. Mystery number one: how can Bryan Clarke, the country's most acclaimed 'Punchman', put up his booth after a strip show at a stag night and not get torn to bits?

The secret lies in the warm-up. And in being hard as nails. 'If you're not stronger than the audience, you die,' he says. 'Me, I crucify them.'

Beer-swilling young bucks with ties undone and shirt-tails flapping give funny looks when Mr Clarke - Professor Jingles - unfurls his red-and-white striped canvas.

''What are you looking at?' he asks. 'Well, what does it look like? Do you want to put it up?'

He puts on a top hat. Very intimidating. 'They've drunk too much, then they're faced with this aggressive guy in a topper. You've got to frighten them.'

A few gags, then a couple of card tricks using a stooge from the audience. To a man tiptoeing off to the gents: 'Where are you going? I didn't give you permission to leave]'

Cor] Call this a stag night? By the time Professor Jingles says 'Right, you don't want this Punch and Judy show, do you?', they'll settle for anything. 'Oh, yes we do,' they chorus.

'Right. All chairs in a circle. Now, shout for Mr Punch to come out.'

It has taken 20 minutes to soften them up for a maximum 15 minutes' Punch and Judy. It is a bit like the mule trainer story beloved of management consultants. Mule trainer, having pole-axed mule: 'First, I had to get its attention.'

The fact is that Professor Jingles's adult Punch and Judy, with its knickers and willy jokes and bawled repetitions of 'Oh, yes he did]', could have been written specially for tipsy stag nights - if there were such things back in 1662, Mr Punch's official birth date. More to the point, stag night audiences are probably the nearest modern equivalent of the baying mobs of centuries past that attended hangings and egged on battling spouses - which is what Punch and Judy is all about.

Children adore violence, too, of course. (Be sure always to call it slapstick.) Which brings me to mystery number two: how does Punch and Judy - especially adult Punch and Judy - survive in the UN's Year of the Family?

Surprise, surprise: the secret lies in the warm-up. And in being hard as nails. Mr Clarke has been summoned before ideologically aware council vetting panels - Islington? Done that - which, but for the constraints of political correctness, would willingly have strung him up. 'Mr Punch violent?' You must be joking. 'It's Charlie Chaplin, Tom and Jerry. Slapstick comedy. It no more encourages violence than Goldilocks encourages squatting. Snow White was pretty awful, too.' You gotta be quick to outwit Professor Jingles.

He reserves his most vigorous

defence for the black minstrel puppet Jim Crow, a historic character he has revived. Last year, he appeared before a panel of worried anti-racists at the Concert Artistes' Association in London. Mr Clarke laid out all 14 Punch and Judy puppets, one by one.

'Here's Punch: he's Italian. Here's Judy: she's Irish. Here's a Chinaman who spins plates. Here's Jim Crow. That's a crocodile. Now, why should we take the black man out? That would be a racist act, wouldn't it?' After an hour and a half, they let him go.

'In the old days,' said Mr Clarke, 'Mr Punch used to cry 'Huzzah] Huzzah]' and stick a red-hot poker up the Devil's bum. But that doesn't help me to get my message across.'

Jim Crow won admirers at a gay club in King's Cross, disguised as Frank Bruno and pitted against a grunting white Bill Bash'em from Beccles. 'Oh, hello,' says Bash'em, unexpectedly camping it up, 'What a nice black face you've got.' Silly, but it brought the house down.

And not as silly, actually, as some other adult jokes. Mr Punch utters the familiar, 'Give us a kiss', to which Pretty Polly (another revived character) replies, 'Give us a piss?' Terrible. But it is authentic Punch- style humour and, coming from a children's puppet show before an audience of adults past the five-pint mark, it can cause collapse. So will 'That's the way to screw it]'

Today's street-wise kids shout 'Give 'er one, Mr Punch]' when Polly and her ample cleavage heave into view. But, unless they are hiding under the chairs at a stag night, or at a Labour or Conservative Club, Lions, Round Table, British Legion or that hotel in Yarmouth where they called for more for two hours, they will not hear Polly shout 'Ooh, heaven]' when Mr Punch takes her downstairs.

Which brings me to mystery number three: why does an audience of children always want to protect Mr Punch from the hangman - but is busting to betray him for giving Joey the clown's sausages to the crocodile? The hangman, still called Jack Ketch, says, 'You've knocked out all these people, so I'm going to hang you.' 'Oh, no, I didn't]' squawks Mr Punch, to which the children invariably echo, 'Oh, no, he didn't]' Mr Clarke is inclined to believe we carry hatred of the hangman in our blood.

As a petty criminal, however, Mr Punch has no chance. The kids are out to shop him. Joey asks, 'Did he give my sausages to the crocodile?' Without hesitation, the children chorus, 'Yes, he did]'

In this evolving drama, the crocodile replaced the Devil in the story in the 1860s, but most of today's Punchmen use both. The origins of the character of Mr Punch - truculent, raucous, and randy as a rooster - can be traced back 500 years to the Pulcinella of the Italian commedia dell' arte (making the show, together with mumming and pantomime, the only surviving popular theatre in this country). Punch and Judy's most celebrated historian, George Speaight, argues convincingly that the other 13 characters are English bred.

Another reliable source is Henry Mayhew's detailed interview with a Punch 'professor' in about 1850, which shows how the cast has adapted to English audiences: 'Some families where I performs will have it most sentimental . . . They won't have no ghost, no coffin, and no devil; and that's what I call spiling (spoiling) the performance entirely. It's the march of the hintellect wot's a doing all this - it is, sir.'

Mr Punch's official 1662 birthday, incidentally, is linked to entries in Pepys's diary recording puppet performances of 'Pollicinella' - finally abbreviated to 'Punch' - in Covent Garden, part of the restoration of the theatre following the return of Charles II in 1660.

On the exact spot beside St Paul's church, commemorated by a plaque, Professor Jingles will propose an annual toast to Mr Punch on Sunday 8 May as part of Covent Garden's May Fayre and Puppet Festival, staged by Alternative Arts. Glasses will be raised at 10.30am, following a procession with brass band starting at the church garden. Mr Punch will take his place in the pulpit for a special church service at 11.30, and between noon and 5.30 there will be an abundance of Punch and Judy shows, clowns, jugglers, Maypole dances, folk music and puppet workshops.

Mr Clarke has spent the past month making Punch and Judy puppets to sell there. He is as famous a puppet maker as performer, with customers in Europe, America, China and Japan. In a tiny shed beside his seaside cottage in Kessingland, Suffolk, he saws, routs and sands mechanically, but still chisels by hand. His favourite tool is a standard half-inch carpenter's chisel. A deep gash in his thumb is evidence that it is kept razor sharp.

Now aged 55, he anticipates that his puppet making will gradually overtake performing: but drinking Punch's toast will mark the start of yet another summer season when he will be on the go from 9am to 10pm, seven days a week. One of only four surviving beach performers, he won early acclaim as a professor, being hailed as 'Boy Wonder' at the age of 12. He remembers Max Miller at the Hackney Empire - one of Mr Punch's modern influences.

It was Professor Greeny of Norwich who first took to heart the inquisitive child who demanded to know: 'How do you make that squeaky voice?' and let him in on the secret. The 'swazzle', or 'call' as it is known by professionals, is a flat silver whistle lodged against the palate. Professor Jingles makes them. But did he show me one? Oh, no he didn't.

Bryan Clarke: 0502 741351.

'Punch & Judy: A History' by George Speaight, Studio Vista, London 1970.

'Conversations With Punch', by Geoff Felix (1994), pounds 7.95 inc p&p from Ray DaSilva, The Limes, Norwich Road, Marsham, Norfolk NR10 5PS - or from Covent Garden, 8 May.

(Photograph omitted)

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