Shocked at Punch & Judy?

I watched a Punch and Judy show for the first time in about a decade last week and to be honest I was shocked.  Do you ever find that when you revisit your childhood memories they are not at all like you remember? These days I’m used to watching nice politically correct cartoons like the slightly trippy Waybuloo who float around in nah nah land or whatever it is. Then on a nice sunny day in the grand surroundings of the National Trust’s Wallington Hall in Northumberland I found myself in front of a Punch and Judy show watching a grotesque puppet batter a baby with a stick while screaming “that’s the way to do it!” I felt like I was sitting covering the magistrates court.

A full blown domestic then unfolds between Punch and his mrs as they knock seven bells out of one another.

But everyone seemed to love it – well to be honest my daughters (three and two) were a bit bemused. But the older children enjoyed the shouting and heckling and the adults were all laughing. And so far they don’t seem traumatised and have not been hammering each other with sticks.

Punch and Judy is 350 years old this year. Apparently this great British seaside tradition took off in 1662 when diarist Samuel Pepys sang the praises of an Italian puppet play being performed in Covent Garden, starring Punchinello and his wife Joan. It has continued ever since, being exported across the British Empire, despite the efforts of the odd council over the years to get it banned for being “unfit for the innocent eyes of children”.

Attitudes to childhood have changed so much in 350 years. Back in the 17th century when Punch came on the scene they will have been expected to perform a hard day’s work and there weren’t many light-hearted children’s tales about. The most famous book for children at the time is said to be “A Token for Children, being an Exact Account of the Conversion, Holy and Exemplary Lives, and Joyful Deaths, of several young Children”. Cheery.

As the kids get older I find it hard to draw the line between explaining reality and protecting their innocent view of the world. Out walking the other day we came across a squashed bee. “He’s OK”, I said ushering them on. “He’s just sleeping.” No mummy,” says my daughter with a sigh, “he’s dead”.

Who knows why Punch and Judy has endured so long. Maybe it’s adults keeping it alive as we don’t want to let go of our own childhood? Or is there something universal in the naughty, rebellious Punch, the domestic rants and the arm of the law, that people of all ages just understand


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