Is Punch and Judy Too Violent for Modern Audiences?

In May, Barry Town Council made a decision to remove a Punch and Judy show from the entertainment line-up for their local festival on the basis that the show’s content was ‘too violent and contained inappropriate hitting’ and that ‘many concerns had been raised about the domestic violence which makes up part of its content.’ It seems that the decision made by Barry Council is not an isolated case, with Bodmin Town Council in Cornwall reportedly making a similar decision in 2004 on the basis of the show’s violence.  

So is Punch and Judy really too violent?  Are decisions to ban shows simply an overreaction on the part of over-zealous bureaucrats or are Mr Punch’s antics no longer relevant to modern audiences in the way they once were?  

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Punch and Judy has a rich heritage stretching back to at least the mid 17th century, with a puppet theatre performance featuring a Punch character recorded by the celebrated diarist Samuel Pepys, in England, May 1662.  Pepys was so delighted with the show he returned two weeks later, remarking in his diaries that “Thence to see an Italian puppet play that is within the rayles there, which is very pretty, the best that ever I saw, and a great resort of gallants.”   The popularity of Punch quickly grew and in October of the same year, a performance was held in Bologna in honour of King Charles II.  The king was enchanted with the show, rewarding ‘Signor Bologna, alias Pollicinella’ with a gold chain and medal, a gift worth £25 then, or about £3,000 today.  Punch had hit the big time.

It is clear that both public attitude and legislative control of violent behaviour has changed considerably over the centuries since Punch’s debut (and of course, that’s no bad thing.)  However, does that mean that such historical works are no longer suitable for contemporary audiences?  Should artists revise works to suit modern sensibilities and make them more fit for the current sociopolitical palette?

It does, however, seem unthinkable to suggest that anyone should cast red ink over the works of Shakespeare, for example.  Is it simply a lack of appreciation for Punch and Judy as an artform that leads its content to be considered more morally corrosive than Lady Macbeth’s murderous betrayal or Lago’s abusive treatment of Emilia?  Or is it that, unlike Shakespeare, Punch and Judy failed to reposition itself in the collective consciousness as a cultural staple for the educated classes?  That it remains too faithful to its origins as popular entertainment?  In short, that it is considered too crude?

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There is certainly the feeling among some practitioners that Mr Punch is often misunderstood and his role as a satirical figure is lost entirely on some people.  As Glyn Edwards, from the Punch and Judy College of Professors, points out:

Now, we know that Mr. Punch doesn’t lead a blameless existence but then again he is a clown and they aren’t noted for behaving like model citizens. Not on stage anyway. That’s kind of the whole point. They get away with throwing buckets of water over each other, smacking each other in the face with custard pies, falling off ladders, having exploding cars and all the rest of their bag of tricks… Thus Punch and Judy – inflicting as much actual harm on one another on the puppet stage as Jerry Mouse does on Tom Cat in the cartoons – are sent packing from Planet Barry for carrying slapsticks in the pursuit of slapstick comedy.

punch-and-judy-1880As an animator and director of folklore inspired films, I am all too aware of the debate that surrounds cartoon violence and the dismissive attitude toward art forms that are considered popular or ‘lowbrow’.  Works can be unfairly demonised to suit the current political vogue, often to contrary effect.  Glyn continues, “…they are trivializing the very real social ill they are campaigning about. When they run an anti-crime campaign will they ban Robin Hood for glamourising robbery? And to stamp out child neglect will Cinderella have to go?

This can be compounded when works are perceived as being entirely for a children’s audience, which is a general frustration shared across the worlds of puppetry and animation alike.  Rod Burnett, also from the Punch & Judy College of Professors, explains:

The Punch and Judy Show suffers from the misconception that it is a puppet show for children. There are many reasons for this but the main one is that it is a puppet show and therefore it must be for children. Of course it is, but it is also a street show and as such should appeal to everyone in the audience, children and adults alike.  A good show will do this.  Interestingly the complaints about the violence mostly come from adults who see the performance as being solely children’s entertainment. With this view, it will appear stupid and violent and will lack, in their view, the content of moral teaching which they believe children’s entertainment should contain. And so they are offended.

Perhaps for some puppetry practitioners, an erosion of Punch and Judy’s presence in our coastal towns and summer fetes would come as something of a relief, as the association of this most traditional form of puppet theatre with childrens’ entertainment may be burdensome to those who wish to break down those broader public misconceptions.

However, I would prefer to see this challenged through the work and agree with Rod;  “As with any performance the quality of the show will depend on the skill of the performer so there are good and bad performers.  In my opinion, a performer without the understanding of the black humour content will create a performance which will appear aggressive and violent.  A good performer knowing how to use humour on stage, has the ability to make the audience fall about with laughter at the crazy antics of the puppets.

Of course, there will always be those who do not get the joke, who do not see the satire or who hijack the themes inappropriately, but there is also surely some responsibility on practitioners to communicate the craft and context of the work to their audience.  Having celebrated his 350th birthday in 2012, what’s very clear is Mr Punch can still draw a crowd and, in the right hands, his antics can enchant and fascinate audiences today, as much as they did in the past.

By Emma Windsor.


About Glyn Edwards: ‘Prof.’ Glyn Edwards has worked hand in glove with Mr. Punch for over five decades.  He has written books, made a film, curated exhibitions, given lectures, and has been instrumental in educating and promoting the work worldwide.  He is Brighton’s Punch and Judy man and member of The Punch and Judy College of Professors.  Find out more about his work on his website: www.punch-and-judy.com

About Rod Burnett: Rod Burnett began working with Punch and Judy in the late 1970s.  In addition to being a Punch and Judy performer and member of the The Punch and Judy College of Professors, he also runs ‘Storybox Theatre’ a puppet theatre company that creates performances to delight and enthral children and adults.  Find out more about his work on his website: www.storyboxtheatre.co.uk

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One thought on “Is Punch and Judy Too Violent for Modern Audiences?

  1. I think you may have missed the pointy end, or are deliberately avoiding it. Isn’t the main objection to Punch that he beats his wife to death? I may be wrong, but I don’t think people have such a problem with violent slapstick in general – go ahead, bash the devil’s head in, bash the priest’s head in – but there is something that doesn’t seem OK anymore about mixing children, humour and wife-beating. I love the hilarious anarchic madness of Punch and Judy but I it’s no longer appropriate street entertainment for that one reason. Would hate to see it lost, don’t like the idea of diluting it, and can’t imagine it would really thrive as an adults only show. So don’t really know what should be done. But I think you skirted the domestic violence angle a little too widely.

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