The figure who later became Mr. Punch made his first recorded appearance in England on this date in 1662, which is traditionally reckoned as Mr Punch’s UK birthday. The diarist Samuel Pepys observed a marionette show featuring an early version of the Punch character in Covent Garden in London. It was performed by Italian puppet showman Pietro Gimonde, a.k.a. “Signor Bologna.” Pepys described the event in his diary as “an Italian puppet play, that is within the rails there, which is very pretty.” The Punch and Judy show has roots in the 16th-century Italian commedia dell’arte.
The figure of Punch is derived from the Neapolitan stock character of Pulcinella, which was anglicized to Punchinello. Punch’s wife was originally called “Joan.”
In the British Punch and Judy show, Punch wears a brightly colored jester’s motley and sugarloaf hat with a tassel. He is a hunchback whose hooked nose almost meets his curved, jutting chin. He carries a stick (called a slapstick) as large as himself, which he uses upon most of the other characters in the show. He speaks in a distinctive squawking voice, produced by a gadget known as a swazzle or swatchel which the professor (puppeteer) holds in his mouth. This gives Punch a vocal quality as though he were speaking through a kazoo. Other characters do not use the swazzle, so the professor has to switch back and forth while still holding the device in his mouth.
In the early 18th century, the marionette theater starring Punch was at its height, with showman Martin Powell attracting large crowds to both his Punch’s Theatre at Covent Garden in London and earlier in provincial Bath. Powell has been credited with being largely responsible for the form taken by the drama of Punch and Judy.
Mr Punch was extremely popular in Paris and, by the end of the 18th century, he was also playing in Britain’s North American colonies, where even George Washington bought tickets for a show. However, marionette productions were expensive and cumbersome to mount and transport, presented in the back rooms of taverns, or in large tents at England’s yearly agricultural event. In the latter half of the 18th century, marionette companies began to give way to glove-puppet shows, performed from within a narrow, lightweight booth by one puppeteer, usually with an assistant, or “bottler,” to gather a crowd and collect money. These shows might travel through country towns or move from corner to corner along busy London streets, giving many performances in a single day. The character of Punch adapted to the new format, going from a marionette who said outrageous things to a more aggressive glove-puppet who could do outrageous—and often violent—things to the other characters. About this time, Punch’s wife’s name changed from Joan to Judy.
The mobile puppet booth of the late 18th and early 19th century Punch and Judy glove-puppet show was originally covered in checked bed ticking or other inexpensive cloth. Later Victorian booths were gaudier, particularly those used for Christmas parties and other indoor performances. In the 20th century, however, red-and-white-striped puppet booths became iconic features on the beaches of many English seaside and summer holiday resorts. Such striped cloth is the most common covering today.
A more substantial change came over time to the show’s target audience. The show was originally intended for adults, but it changed into primarily a children’s entertainment in the late Victorian era. Former members of the show’s cast ceased to be included, such as the Devil and Punch’s mistress “Pretty Polly,” when they came to be seen as inappropriate for young audiences. Modern British performances of Punch and Judy are no longer exclusively the traditional seaside children’s entertainments which they had become. They can now be seen at carnivals, festivals, birthday parties, and other celebratory occasions.
Here is a modern performance in Brighton:
Two manifestations of Punch and Judy are of particular interest to me. First is the use of Mr Punch as the central character in Punch magazine which first appeared in 1841 at the height of the Punch and Judy show’s popularity with adults. Mr Punch was, for decades, a central figure in the magazine’s cartoons lampooning social behavior.
Second is the movie, The Punch and Judy Man (1963) written by and starring Tony Hancock (https://www.bookofdaystales.com/tony-hancock/ ). The movie was Hancock’s second, and last, movie after The Rebel, and did not garner great reviews (as The Rebel had done) because audiences were used to Hancock as a cantankerous bachelor, and in The Punch and Judy Man he is married, although equally discontented. I have always ranked The Punch and Judy Man high on my list of favorite movies because of its social commentary and satire pertinent to English culture of the early 1960s.
Since the Punch and Judy show was, and still is, a fixture at English seaside resorts, a seaside recipe is in order. I always have at least one fish and chip dinner when I am on the South Coast and usually get cockles, whelks and/or mussels in vinegar as well as a snack. The days are long gone when I could get an Orange Maid ice lolly that I used to enjoy as a little boy, so now I usually settle for an ice cream – honeycomb if I can find it. Deviled whitebait with fresh tartare sauce is also a fav. Here’s a recipe for you to make it at home (if you can find whitebait – a collective term for the immature fry of fish, typically between 1 and 2 inches long, which can find more easily in Europe than elsewhere).
For the tartare sauce
300 gm mayonnaise
80 gm shallot, peeled and finely diced
60 gm capers, finely diced
60 gm cornichons, finely diced
25 gm parsley, finely chopped
25 gm tarragon, finely chopped
25 gm chervil, finely chopped
salt and white pepper
For the fish
1 kg fresh whitebait
250 gm plain white flour
1½ tbsp hot smoked paprika
1 tbsp cayenne pepper
3 tsp mustard powder
1 tsp salt
vegetable oil, for deep frying
1 or 2 lemons
Place all the sauce ingredients in a mixing bowl and stir until they are well combined. Place in an airtight container and refrigerate overnight.
Place the flour, paprika, cayenne, mustard powder and salt in a large, heavy brown paper bag. Add the whitebait, tightly roll the top of the bag, trapping some air inside, and shake vigorously to coat the fish with the flour mixture.
Heat the oil in a deep fryer to 180˚C/350˚F and fry the fish in batches until golden brown. Remove the fish from the oil when cooked and drain on wire racks.
Serve warm with lemon wedges and pots of tartare sauce for dipping. I like to serve some sliced wholewheat bread as well.