Punch and Judy: The eternal triangle of man, wife... and sausages

A Slice of Britain: It's been 350 years since the puppets first appeared here, but their troubled marriage is remarkably enduring

North London

A man beats his wife over the head with a big stick while a crowd of children look on, laughing. "You can't do that!" she screeches, flopping forwards. "Why?" he retorts, hitting her again. "Well," she pauses, "It's not politically correct."

Political correctness never was Mr Punch's forte. Nevertheless, the wife-beating, animal-goading, child-abusing sausage fanatic has remained popular for three and a half centuries – and now puppeteers are seeing a resurgence in the old seaside favourite.

On Wednesday it will be 350 years since the first record of the puppet performing in public, in Covent Garden, central London, in an entry in Samuel Pepys's diary. Then Punch's wife was called Joan, but now she is better known as Judy.

Punch and Judy puppeteers from around the world will gather in London this week to put on anniversary shows, culminating in several performances in Covent Garden at the weekend. Punch's origins in Europe go back further than Pepys's observations in 1662, to the character of Pulcinella in Neapolitan Commedia dell'arte earlier in the 17th century. When he came over to Britain, he dropped the Italian ending and became simply "Punch".

His birthday celebrations have already started. In a red-and-white-striped tent on stage at the Little Angel Theatre in Islington, north London, the first of two anniversary shows is in mid-stream. About 30 children – and almost as many parents – watch as PC Jellybottom fails to catch the recalcitrant Mr Punch. His bumbling makes the children giggle, but his words get belly laughs from the adults. "I'm just off to falsify some evidence," he says, retreating below stage.

James Arnott, 26, is the man inside the candy-striped puppet theatre. He has been performing Punch and Judy shows since he was 14. A full-time puppeteer, he is one of a new generation bringing the traditional shows to 21st-century Britain. Mr Arnott is secretary of the Punch and Judy Fellowship – a sort of Magic Circle for puppeteers of the warring couple – and says that this is a golden era for Punch and Judy. The fellowship's membership has increased by about one-third in the past decade and now has more than 180 members.

"People are performing more Punch and Judy shows than ever," he says, "but they've moved. It used to be that most shows were in beaches or squares, but now more and more people are asking for shows at children's parties and in theatres."

Though the places that Punch and Judy appear may be different – Mr Arnott has performed at a cattle auction, highbrow theatres and even a nudist camp – the shows have hardly changed since Mr Punch first arrived in Britain. He still has the same catchphrase: "That's the way to do it" (usually delivered while battering his wife with a stick). Not that you can always tell that's what he's saying. His strange voice – like a duck quacking and simultaneously blowing a raspberry – is made using a silver reed held in the back of the throat, called a swozzle.

Keeping a swozzle in place is harder than it looks. "You keep it right at the back of your throat and if you swallow it there's only one way it can come out," explains Mr Arnott. "I've swallowed it once and I'm very careful now. The old myth was that you had to swallow it three times before you're a proper Punch and Judy man."

Even the addition of contemporary touches – such as the dodgy policeman – is nothing new. "It's a successful formula and it hasn't changed," says Mr Arnott, sitting backstage next to his striped theatre. "Topical puppets have been introduced – such as Thatcher – but that's no different from when they used to have Napoleon."

Aside from the adult political satire, it has never been the most suitable of children's viewing. Punch's oversized nose was meant to denote sexual prowess – and the jokes are still quite risqué. "Shall I give him a small surprise or a big surprise?" asks Judy, adding in a voice that would be accompanied by a raised eyebrow, were hers not papier mâchéd in place: "I like a big one."

The wife beating, lewd jokes and baby-dropping were all a bit much for Middlesex County Council in 1947. It banned the shows from being used as school treats, saying they were "brutal and totally unfit for the innocent eyes and ears of children". Mr Punch fought back. That year at a performance in Leicester Square, 10 Punch figures beat up a puppet of the mayor of Willesden, the nominated fall guy for the debacle.

So, in an age of television, computers and advanced entertainment, why do people still want to watch a couple of puppets beat each other up? Emma Newton, 31, has brought her three-year-old son Albert. She says: "I suppose it's the timeless storyline between man, wife and, er, sausages. It's the eternal attraction of violence too."

Mr Arnott says: "A lot of successful children's entertainment hasn't changed at all. Look at pantomime – it's a multimillion-pound industry, but that's a Victorian format. Punch and Judy is just pantomime with puppets. Children like to hear funny noises, silly names and people falling over but not actually hurting themselves." That certainly seems to be the case here, as the gathered children scream "Sausages!" at the top of their lungs, warning Mr Punch as first a clown, then a monkey and finally a crocodile try to steal his string.

Michael Rosen, the children's author and television presenter, is in the audience with his two children Elsie, 11, and Emile, seven. He believes it is the real-life adult themes that have kept it popular. "It deals in its own fun way with all the stuff we get up to: scary stuff, funny stuff and sexy stuff. It's live and participatory and you can get people to join in. I always love the sausages routine."

The children certainly don't seem bothered by the violence. Molly O'Hanlon, six, is trying to decide which moment was her favourite. "I'm not sure," she muses. "Maybe the bit where he threw the baby on the floor."

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