On Sunday 8th May Jackie and I went to the May Fayre at St Paul’s Churchyard, Convent Garden. It’s extraordinary for one thing in particular – it’s the place for Punch and Judy.
Every year at the May Fayre, Mr Punch and his fellow puppets descend on “The Actor’s Church” in Covent Garden to celebrate this very strange, violent and utterly joyous artform. Why? Because it was here in 1662 at the May Fayre that diarist Samuel Pepys wrote of seeing the “little play” of Punch and Judy performed – the first time it is mentioned in English writing.
It’s a venerable tradition, and myths have grown up around it. One Punch and Judy man told me that Charles II was so struck by the skill of the puppeteers that he announced that all Punch and Judy men (and, more recently, women) should be known as “Professors”, a sobriquet that has continued to the present day. Whether it’s actually true is a matter of debate, but plenty of Professors will tell you it is.
St Paul’s Churchyard is a lovely place. When you step away from the big open space of Covent Garden, where performers play to tourists using the rear wall of the church as their backdrop (watched from the balcony of the Punch and Judy public house), you find that the churchyard itself is by contrast an intimate space – a grassed and tree-grown courtyard which stretches out from the church entrance.
Jackie and I arrived early, and the striped booths shone bright in the gorgeous sunshine. The place felt like a little village fete, and it was difficult to believe we were in the heart of London.
At 12 noon there was a church service of an eccentric nature. People poured into St Paul’s, many with puppets on their arms – one child wearing a Harry Potter cape carried a Punch on his hand among all the others; brightly coloured clothes abounded. We had stepped into the land of magic and strangeness. A marching jazz band burst in at the head of a procession, playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” brashly down the aisle, and a giant, stilted beefeater with a crow on his shoulder and painted clown face danced next to the pulpit with violent movements. And so the service began.
There was a children’s choir, and the vicar of Millwall Football Club gave a talk and got his choir to sing: the kids a little sheepish, singing slightly shyly. Was this London, really? This could have been any village church in the country on a Fete day. It was lovely.
Then, Mr Punch appeared in the pulpit, being asked questions by the vicar. It was a joyous moment and the audience laughed along. And afterwards, the Punch and Judy shows began.
Quite how the Church squares the murderous psychopath that is Mr Punch with a message of good will to all the people of the world is a strange question. Mr Punch is one of the most subversive, sinister and truly funny characters to ever come out of the theatrical tradition in England.
For that strange, heady mixture, I love him. The afternoon saw about 30 booths come alive with Mr Punch and friends, with numerous variations on the play. The first performance I watched was by respected puppeteer Geoff Felix, whose opening scene, featuring a pair of brutally violent and inept boxers was followed by an enigmatic staring puppet whose neck stretched out to phallic and hilarious proportions. Then on to the main act, and out came Mr Punch and his long-suffering wife Judy. Geoff Felix’s act was particularly rough and tumble, with Mr Punch bashing his victims’ heads in with great gusto, to the raucous laughter of the children.
It was the start of a series of shows that stretched on for the afternoon, with each Professor bringing his own take on the story. At times Punch was behind bars, at others he was about to be executed. Sometimes he rode a horse and at others he banged his head with hilarious effect, while his baby disappeared around the booth on the most unpredictable wanderings. Even Darth Vader made an appearance in one booth, while a French puppeteer clearly in love with the British Punch and Judy tradition had the British couple introduce the French Guignol and the story of Little Red Riding Hood.
But for all of these variants, the story I love best is the old one: the crazy, anarchic tale of the psychopath, Mr Punch, and his shrew of a wife who live in deeply comic passion together before coming to blows over their baby.
Punch kills. There’s no getting round it. He murders. It’s a transgression that is dealt with by different puppeteers with varying effect. Sometimes deeply sinister, sometimes careless, sometimes calculated, sometimes desperate, always funny – the first murder takes place. Then, one by one, with mounting ludicrousness, Punch kills every authority figure who comes to punish him, until finally he kills the devil himself.
At the end, Mr Punch is triumphant, announcing each time he kills a victim – that’s the way to do it! – Sometimes, he loudly counts the bodies he has piled up, like a macabre version of Sesame Street, while Joey the Clown moves the bodies around so that he can’t keep track of whom he’s killed. Sometimes, too, he is haunted by those he has murdered – but when he gets the measure of the ghost who comes to torment him, he even kills the ghost.
It is anarchy at work, and it upsets the moral order with a deeply subversive message. Though there are all those in power above him, Punch reigns supreme, the mischievous, murderous imp whom – bizarrely – children love.
And the fact is, the kids really do love him. Watching the seated children whom you might think would be a little too sophisticated for glove puppets, they were utterly transfixed. They got the humour, straight away, penetrating to the crazy core of the story, while, occasionally shocked parents looked on with apprehension at the scene.
The amoral anti-hero at the heart of Punch and Judy makes it a unique experience, and deeply addictive. It is pure, unadulterated anarchy.
Punch is my hero!