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Back to Stephen Brookes Column Index



Punch & Loony

By: Stephen Brookes MBE

An issue arose in Blackpool recently, that being one of the acceptability in our age of political correctness of the age old traditional seaside ‘kids’ show, Punch and Judy. Up here it seems that every three years or so, usually during the "silly season" someone tries to ban the shows. 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 1849 wrote:

"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 influence."

In order to prove that all this is nonsense however we have to examine the show itself.

Punch is basically slapstick humour. You see this type of humour in Laurel and Hardy, Tom and Jerry, in pantomime and certainly more violently 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? I think not 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 discussion afterwards.

The parents' job is to make sure they know the difference between being well behaved and naughty, The action is stylised slapstick and should be funny, not vicious. It's interesting that several unsuccessful attempts have been made to make the play ‘live’ with actors but this has always failed because it works best as a puppet show and only that. Punch's special voice 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 it is not reality. It is how you present the material.

Some PC people have argued that the show "normalises brutality". Not so. 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. Older kids watched hundreds of shows, and they were not brutalised.

It is interesting that two societies which 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.

Now, I am not saying that Punch is the most perfect thing since sliced bread. In fact he is only as good as the performer in front of you. Some are good, some are mediocre, some are truly dreadful. But they all understand that the secret of a good show is to have a sense of humour and a knowledge of its traditions.

Most showmen hold on to the memory of their own childhood experience. Many are driven by a passion for Punch because 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.

Stephen Brookes MBE
Copyright © - Stephen Brookes MBE 2002 - All rights reserved


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