Simon Costin, Director of the Museum of British Folklore, on their collection of Punch and Judy Puppets
Mr Punch gets away with murder, literally. He has no redeeming qualities. He’s a grotesque anti-hero, which is why I love him.
I’ve been collecting Punch and Judy puppets for about 10 years. Initially I was not thinking they would form part of the museum’s collection but inevitably they have been woven into the collection and we’ve got around 50 of them now.
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The oldest set is probably from the 1920s, but Punch and Judy puppets are quite hard to accurately date, unless you know the provenance. I found one set in a suitcase at a car boot sale but they had no idea where it had come from – usually the best you can do is look at the fabrics and the way they’ve been constructed and the painting style.
The classic line up would be Punch, Judy and the baby. Then you’ve got the policeman, the judge (who Punch usually ends up hanging) and the crocodile with the string of sausages; we’ve got quite a few of those. There’s also a ghost and, depending on the story, a cast of peripheral characters.
We’ve got some sets of puppets from the 1960s and 1970s, which contain representations of African and Indian people – they probably would have been pretty derogatory to be honest – the role is unclear because most of the Punch and Judy texts we’ve got don’t include those characters. That’s how folk practice works, things are created in the moment because they have some resonance with the time and period that they’re working in.
The puppets are usually created by the puppeteer, the Punch and Judy operators, who call themselves Professors, they are predominantly men. Then you’ve got things like the development of the swazzle, which is a piece of vibrating metal used on the roof of the mouth or under the tongue to create the voices.
Often it will have a small piece of thread attached to a chain round the neck so that, should you swallow it, you can yank it out again. But the voices are all down to the individual operator, which is why it fits within folk tradition because it’s totally vernacular in its origin and has evolved over the years as part of a street performance tradition.
The first recorded instance of a Punch and Judy show in England was in Samuel Pepys’ Diaries on May 9 1662. Pepys went along several times to see it again. At this time Punch was a puppet with strings, based on Pulcinella, a character from the commedia dell’arte, an Italian street performance.
Punch and Judy first appeared in England, as far as we know, mostly in urban areas and then it leeched out across the country and at the seaside. It really became a big seaside entertainment in the 1950s and 1960s because at that time you had to start getting permits to perform in cities so it was much easier to just pitch up on the beach and disappear again with the booth, because it all packs down in suitcases.
If you look at most of the early etchings in things like the London Illustrated News, Punch was predominantly in the towns, and particularly popular in London.
“The violence came with Punch’s introduction to Britain where he became more and more deranged”
I think he’s just such an extraordinary invention, because Pulcinella was a much more charming character and had a way with the ladies. Punch is a serial killer basically and the violence came with the Brits. If you think about when Punch and Judy would have first appeared over here, we had things like bear baiting in the streets and life was far more evidently violent. People might say the same now, but the violence came with Punch’s introduction to Britain where he became more and more deranged.
You could see Punch as a kind of Lord of Misrule, who in the Tudor period would usually be a lowly peasant put in charge of festivities at the Lord’s house at Christmas time. This tradition had its origins in the Roman festival of Saturnalia, where the normal laws were overturned and the fool became a king for the day.
Yet Punch is hard to classify in terms of a social scale, because if you think about his costume, it is incredibly elaborate. Then you have this bizarre hump on the back and the chin that meets the nose. Again, this feature was derived from the Pulcinella character and his peculiar mask with its long, curved proboscis. The costume also has echoes of the Court Jester who are satirical figures, but very high ranking within court life.
Our aim is to establish a permanent museum for the entire collection and these puppets will certainly be displayed. What I’d really love to do is show them alongside something like the Susan Hiller installation, ‘An Entertainment’. Hiller is a fine artist who made an extraordinary video installation using giant wall projections around the Punch and Judy show, and it’s very disturbing in the way that the shows are. As a child I didn’t like them at all, I found them quite scary because they’re incredibly violent.
But I think people have always had a fascination with extreme forms of behaviour. Maybe there are even times when we want to hit people with a big stick? I think Punch and Judy acts as a kind of safety valve in many ways, allowing us to let off steam.
Simon Costin was speaking to Richard Moss.
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