Punch and Judy

Last Friday we took my grandson to the Bath & West Show at Shepton Mallet. As always it was a great day out. The farm animals were beautifully groomed for showing and our 4 year old Toby stroked a very old tortoise standing three feet high and a very young brown and white rat. He was equally interested in both. There were three performances of Punch and Judy performed by Tony James. We watched a Georgian version and there was a Victorian and Edwardian play later in the day. This started me thinking about the history of the Punch and Judy Show.

Punch & Judy There were travelling puppeteers in Elizabethan England and even Shakespeare mentions  puppets. There seem to have been marionettes (pulled by strings from above) and worked at puppet shows at markets and fairs around the country. One of the earliest records of the Italian puppet play featuring Mr Punch was by Samuel Pepys in 1662. He went to see a puppet show in Covent Garden and a fortnight later took his wife to see the same show. At that time Punch was called Punchinella and the show would have taken place in a tent. Punchinello was a character from the Italian Commedia dell’arte. The King also saw the show that year and it is recorded that in 1672 he allowed a puppet showman to perform at Charing Cross. These shows were for adults as much as for children.

In the early days Punch did not have his own show but provided entertainment between plays. It was not until the end of the 18th century that the story of Punch, his wife (who used to be called Joan) and the other characters evolved.

The tent and later portable booths were carried on carts from fair to fair by the puppeteers. Sometimes Punch would appear in the window of a wealthy home in a lovely Georgian square booked to perform by a wealthy family. Puppeteers were at their most active in Norwich which still boasts a tradition of Punch and Judy shows today.

In 18th century London the puppet show became fashionable entertainment for adults. By 1777 there were four puppet companies in the West End of London. By the end of the 18th century the glove puppet version of  Punch began to appear and shows in booths were seen on the streets of  London. It was at this time that Joan became Judy for reasons unknown.  Punch always had his amazing squeeky voice and conical hat. Directions for a 17th century play noted that Punchinello should speak in Punchinello’s voice. They seemed to have used a tin squeeker to make Punch’s voice. This was called a ‘pivetta’ but is now called a ‘swazzle’.

Of course Punch is the most terrible crook and hits his wife, baby and anyone else who seems to come near with his stick. Nearly all children brought up in the United Kingdom know some of the stories of Punch and his long suffering wife, Judy. Fancy it lasting all those years!


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