Film and TV
Leonard Insull pages
About every three years or so, usually during the "silly
season" someone tries to ban Punch and Judy. There is nothing new in
this but the newspapers and media run with it because people thrive on
conflict and controversy. Why is it nonsense, why is it nothing new and why
is it cause for concern?
It is cause for concern because some people in a misguided attempt to protect
children, might in fact be robbing them of the
chance to enjoy our national puppet. Punch has been here for over three
hundred and forty years and is part of our culture. It is nothing new because
people have been trying to ban it since Dickens, who in reply to a letter in
"In my opinion the street Punch is one of those extravagant reliefs from
the realities of life which would lose its hold upon the people if it were
made moral and instructive. I regard it as quite harmless in its
In order to prove that all this is nonsense however we have to examine the
Punch is basically slapstick humour. The stick he holds is especially
constructed to make a thwacking sound without causing damage. It is where the
term originated. You see this type of humour in Laurel and Hardy, Tom and
Jerry, in pantomime and even in today's computer games. The show which has
its origins in the 'commedia dell'arte' is rooted
in conflict which is at the basis of all drama - be it a conflict of ideas or
of the more physical type. A fight draws a crowd. Has anyone seen a boxing
match or wrestling? Who can fail to be delighted when Kermit gets one in the
chops from Miss Piggie? The further he hurtles
through the air, the more they laugh. It was only natural for Mr Punch in
about 1740 to do what all glove puppets do best, pick up a stick and fight -
just like puppet knights in the earliest known puppet show illustration.
Does this damage children? The answer is no and for
the following reasons:
They know the difference between a puppet show and real life. If
it isn't obvious enough then point to the theatre and scenery and have a
They know the difference between being well behaved and naughty, that is the
parents' job remember?
The action is stylised slapstick and should be funny, not vicious. It's
interesting that several unsuccessful attempts have been made to do the play
with actors and they have always failed. It is because it works best as a
puppet show and only that, and Punch's special voice further removes him from
the realistic. If Sylvester the Cat took Tweetie
Pie and toasted him over the fire on a crumpet fork to make a Tweetie Burger it would be comic, but take a real
budgerigar, someone's pet and burn it alive, it would be disgusting. So it is
how you present the material.
Some people have argued that the show "normalises
brutality". Not so. Now if the child is brought up in a household where
a real mum is hit by a real dad, that is normalising
brutality. We would be right to object. But if you look at the children of Punchmen and women who must have watched hundreds of
shows, they are just the same as any kid. I know of one Punchman
who never once smacked his children but the show was gloriously violent. They
grew up well. It is interesting that the only two societies that really
succeeded in suppressing their national puppet characters (Nazi Germany and
Stalinist Russia) did so against a background of unimaginable brutality. As Kasperal and Petrushka became
more sanitised, so things got worse for the people. It was the free and
independent spirit the characters represented that
the regimes feared most. People from America who don't understand our
traditions and have no memories of British childhood have also tried to
censor the show - yet they still give their children real guns to play with.
Today's parents, grandparents and great grandparents all saw Punch and it did
them no harm.
Show me the child that has been damaged by Punch and I will show you the
hundreds that have been damaged by politics and religion. It's a sad state of
affairs that instead of concentrating on the broad problems of society,
people focus on a detail. It's a bit like banning wine gums because some
people have a drink problem.
One could also argue that by showing children some of the darker
things in abstract form it helps them to come to terms with the world around
them. This is the function of fairy tales and I would point the reader in the
direction of the Brothers Grimm. The sanitised fluffy world of Teletubbies and Magic Pixies is fine for under - fours
but the six year olds and upwards reared on computer games, 'The Simpsons'
and possibly 'South Park' want something with guts.
So am I saying that Punch is the most perfect thing since sliced bread? No.
He is only as good as the performer in front of you. Some are good, some are
mediocre, some are truly dreadful. Once in a while a
great Punchman arrives. They understand that the
secret of a good show is to have a sense of humour and a
knowledge of its traditions. But these, like truly great actors, are
few. So if you saw a show and didn't like it blame the showman, not Punch.
In recent years there have been moves among Punchmen
to raise standards and the formation of organisations and regular festivals
have helped this.
Most showmen hold on to the memory of their own childhood experience. Many
are driven by a passion for Punch because, believe
me, when a show goes well there is nothing like it. It is a remarkable
experience and one which the child will always remember. It is a precious
thing, too good to throw away - ask the kids.
( G.Felix - November 1999)
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