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Where did it all go?’ muses Penny Francis on the topic of political puppetry in a recent Animations Online (AO 14 – see archive).

Missing the Punchline

Political puppetry is far from dead says Glyn Edwards

Well, if this is the same Penny Francis who sat a few rows from the front chortling away during ‘Punch and Judy Epidode II: Attack of the Clowns‘ at its Little Angel preview show, the answer might well be ‘under your nose”. Osama blowing himself up in a comedy suicide bombing routine and Dubya and his little chum Tony being subjected to extraordinary rendition (that’s going through the sausage machine to you and me) were certainly intended to have Spitting Image-like political overtones. Maybe we (Martin Bridle, Josh Darcy and me) should have been less subtle.

Mr. Punch did feature in Penny’s article – but in such an out of touch way as to call attention to itself. Two decades of dealing with political correctness have seen Punch’s Profs in the full glare of the national media arguing the case for the world-turned-upside-down morality of their show. They’ve locked horns with local councils, they’ve argued their case in the press, on TV and on radio (including the Today programme). They’ve had an adjudication in their favour from the Press Complaints Commission, and a climb down from the Tate Gallery over intellectual copyright issues. It is no co-incidence that both Punch societies carry media pages on their websites. Out of date or inaccurate punditry no longer goes unchallenged.

Let’s start with the caption ‘From Renegade To Royal Approval’ which accompanied a picture of John Styles with Mr. Punch outside Buckingham Palace on the occasion of John’s receiving his MBE. Intended to suggest that Old Red Nose has been tamed by the Establishment, it ignores the fact that ‘Signor Bologna’ - the original ‘Punch’ puppeteer documented by Pepys - was himself summoned to Whitehall in 1662 to receive a medal from Charles II. Royal recognition has been part of Punch’s heritage from the outset and we Profs are proud that John has brought it full circle.

An anecdote about Percy Press 2 being escorted away in Russia for bringing out a Punch puppet in public is also incorrect – although Penny may be forgiven for not knowing this. I was with Percy when it happened and thus he never re-told the tale in my hearing. During an official guided tour round the gardens of the Palace of Petrodvorets in what was then called then Leningrad, he suddenly produced a primitive walkabout booth and started busking. None of our tour group was surprised when the security guards stopped him; the response would have been no different back home at any National Trust property or Royal Park. The incident was not specifically puppet-related (let alone Punch related).

Penny is no doubt right - quoting Henryk Jurkowski – in saying that “One of the greatest itinerant puppeteers of Europe, Matej Kopecky, has a gravestone marked with his name and the word ‘Beggar’” but to follow that with a sentence purporting to sum up the Punch tradition is a glaring non-sequitur. In the UK, the 21st century Punch Professor is as far removed from the itinerant performer of Dickens day as are Victorian street acrobats from the Cirque du Soleil. The street performers from the pages of Mayhew’s London would today find themselves embraced by the Arts Council’s Strategy on Street Arts and Carnival.

Mr. Punch is a puppet who performs in public spaces. Most of his audience is never likely to set foot in a theatre. His success lies in taking his particular theatre out to the public and here he meets politics on a daily basis. When Penny says that he “embodied a very English protest by the poorer classes against the increasing powers of the late 18th and early 19th century bourgeois class with its imposition of ‘middle-class morality’ “ she thinks it’s all over. However, the whole ‘Punch in the era of Political Correctness’ debate is a continuation of similar tensions in contemporary clothing. Punch has to stay attuned to what’s going on around him even if pundits don’t seem to. If Punch doesn’t know where society is setting the boundaries, he can’t caper about on them cocking a snook and may instead walk into a minefield. In the Blair years even his booth has become part of the armoury of impudence. The two Punch and Judy organisations recently agreed to declare the red stripe in their traditional red-and-white striped canvas booths to be a permanent symbol of the government red tape that increasingly draped itself round their activities.

A contemporary Punch performer needs to be informed by a sensitive understanding of gender and ethnic stereotyping, of cultural diversity, of child protection concerns, of social control, of censorship and of the accepted norms of social behaviour. A typical public space audience may contain grandparents who want to see the hanging scene, parents who may have concerns over slapstick knockabout, and children who can quote the dialogue from Little Britain. But this market place of social exchange is also a rich mine of new material for the tradition. Punch and Judy joking about relationship counselling, parenting classes and ASBOs works well on the street. So does comment about politicians who are less believable than Mr. Punch. The Policeman gets extra zip now that all offences are arrestable and the Doctor can peddle the New Age quackery allegedly popular with Cherie Blair. Not all Profs will choose to do this – but there are those performers who relish making contact with the considerable number of adults who will stay to watch a good public Punch and Judy Show.

We Profs respect our tradition and expect media comment about it – particularly in the puppetry publications – to rise above the level of superficial cliché and to make a serious attempt to engage with the subject. So, having persuaded ACE to put some money into refreshing the adult and political strand of the tradition (assisted by the Midlands Arts Centre) by commissioning Ken Campbell to write a new work, I would argue for its place in any article dealing with current political puppetry.

Had Penny attended the dynamics05 International Puppet Festival last Spring, she might also have seen the addition of a fresh topical character. Notorious at the time for his self-deluding attempts to win a seat in parliament, we included a puppet of Robert Kilroy-Silk. To help Penny spot the political connection we could have pointed out that it was the one talking through its backside.

Find out more about Prof. Glyn Edwards and Old Red Nose at
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