Punch and Judy moves with the times to pull in crowds

Fri Sep 26, 2014 10:26am EDT
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By Stefan Wermuth

BRIGHTON England (Reuters) - Punch and Judy shows have been a fixture of British seaside resorts for centuries but they are having to adapt to changing social values to attract new audiences in an age of political correctness and digital entertainment.

Generations of Britons have flocked to puppet booths to watch the irascible, hook-nosed Mr Punch whack long-suffering wife Judy with his "slap stick", drop their baby repeatedly and tangle with a grumpy policeman, a crocodile and a hangman.

The anarchic humor remains as central as ever to the Punch and Judy experience, say the puppet-masters, traditionally known as "professors", but some elements have had to be toned down or are often omitted now.

"Today's public has a different point of view than an audience 100 years ago, so you have to take traditional themes and play them in a way that works for a contemporary audience," said Glyn Edwards, who performs shows in the southern English seaside town of Brighton.

One thing that has changed is treatment of the baby. In past ages, when families were large and child mortality high, people could more easily laugh at the scenes of slapstick cruelty, not least to relieve the pain of knowing kids died all the time.

"Today children are wrapped in cotton wool ... Anyone doing anything that might be understood as being harmful to a child is an incredibly sensitive area. You have to find a way of making Punch and Judy and their baby seen as clown comedy. They are not real people, they are clowns and a prop," said Edwards.

Judy has more of a say in today's shows, a bossy bureaucrat from the local council might take the place of the traditional 'beadle' character and the hanging scene - harking back to a time when criminals were publicly executed - is often omitted.

The interactiveness of a Punch and Judy show can come as an enjoyable surprise to kids used to passively watching their television or computer screen, said 'professor' John Styles.   Continued...

Punch and Judy "professor" Adrienne Press poses for a photograph at Forty Hall in Enfield, north London June 1, 2014. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth