Last Punch and Judy 'professor' is left stranded

For more than 300 years, children have loved to jeer as a violent hook-nosed hunchback beats his wife and assaults a policeman. They then cheer as justice is done and the villain is gobbled up by a crocodile.

As Punch and his long-suffering wife Judy, once as common at the British seaside as piers and ice-cream, prepare to celebrate their 346th birthday on Friday, however, just one "professor" is continuing the tradition full time in the country's coastal resorts.

"Most people think of Punch and Judy at the seaside but I think I am the last professional puppeteer who still operates on the beach most days," said Mark Poulton, 36, who runs Poulton's Puppets from his home in Paignton, Devon, and is known as a "professor" in the language of travelling entertainers.

Hundreds of enthusiasts will meet to celebrate Mr Punch's birthday in London's Covent Garden next Sunday. The date of Punch's birthday, 9 May, is fixed from the first written record of the show in Samuel Pepys's diary for 1662.

While his squeaky tones may not be telling children "That's the way to do it" at the seaside, after murdering his wife, baby and policeman, the show is enjoying a revival at festivals, fetes and shopping centres. It is even being shown in primary schools as an example of Victorian entertainment and has been branded "an official icon of England" by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

The former Emmerdale actor Martin Reeve, 49, who is researching a PhD in modern Punch and Judy shows, said that despite the seafront decline, the number of performers had remained constant though the "landscape has changed". "Whereas it used to be a permanent fixture, now it's more part of a celebration and more consciously evoked," he said.

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