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.
“It’s a show very much about audience participation. I think that’s a major secret of why it has survived,” said Styles, who has performed for the Beatles and for the late Princess Diana and her sons Princes William and Harry.
“For the children there is a lot of slapstick. Punch is like a mischievous child and I think kids identify themselves with him doing the same silly things.”
For adults, Styles added, the appeal of Punch is that of the eternal rebel who is forever falling foul of authority.
“When you’re just coming back to your car and the traffic warden is about to put the ticket on and you are saying, ‘No, I am going now!’ and he still says, ‘No, you are too late’, Punch would hit him, you would feel a lot better. The audience watching Punch deal with authority like that, that’s its appeal,” Styles said.
For a form of entertainment with roots in masked Italian theater of the 16th century (commedia del‘arte) and described as long ago as 1662 by English diarist Samuel Pepys, Punch and Judy has proven historically resilient but its future is less clear.
The number of booths has fallen sharply with the decline of the traditional British seaside resort as many Britons prefer to holiday abroad these days, though Punch and Judy shows can also be found in London and other big cities far from the sea.
“The generations coming up will take Mr Punch and will fit him to their society,” said Edwards.
“Professor” Styles was less confident.
“Will something suddenly come out of the woodwork, some aspect for some reason something is no longer acceptable? I don’t know what that thing might be but that could just about put a lid on it,” he said.
Writing by Michael Roddy; Editing by Gareth Jones