Life and times of Punch and Judy

Maurice Heath, with Punch and Judy
Maurice Heath, with Punch and Judy

It was Festive Fun, accompanied by liquid punch, mince pies and shortbread biscuits, at the December Todmorden U3A general meeting with Mad Hatter Illuminations, aka Maurice Heath and Judy Heath, topping the bill.

Before putting on a Punch and Judy show they enlightened their audience with its history.

Maurice explained that it had its roots in ancient Greece, where mood in drama was represented by the two masks of comedy and tragedy. Archaelogical evidence has led to conjecture that actors travelled to take a lighter form of theatre beyond Athens. Mime was part of theatre and was taken back to Italy, where it flourished, after the Romans conquered Greece. It was here in Italy that came the beginnings of Punch and Judy as we know it. It travelled to France and from there to Britain.

Pulcinello and the other characters started as marionettes. For much of its history, it was an entertainment for adults, with political and economic commentary on the affairs of the day. Both show and audience were also very raucous. Transporting marionettes, and the cost of paying several people to operate them, led to the adoption of glove puppets in the latter half of the 18th century.

In the early 19th century Punch and Judy was very violent, with Judy being beaten and killed by Punch. This was when the show included characters since dropped, Pretty Polly, Punch’s mistress, the Judge and the hangman, Jack Ketch. He is named after the infamous executioner appointed by Charles II. Ketch bungled the beheadings of two aristocrats (commoners were hanged) leading to his name being used as a term for the hangman of the day as well as a character in Punch and Judy.

There was no one story and certainly no script until 1828 when a journalist, John Collier, wrote down the scenario as performed by Giovanni Piccini and was published with illustrations by Cruikshank. The show we see in Britain today derives from this. Judy became milder over time, the baby was a toddler in Victorian times, and was always “it”, with no gender ascribed. The dog, another common character, became a live one, providing a greater attraction. It was always a “Yorkie”, the right size. Scaramouche, one of the original characters, developed into a clown.

Later in the century, Mr Punch and co. moved into the towns with a show on almost every street corner, catering for people too poor to attend theatre. The next change came with the railways, Wakes Weeks, and holidays at the seaside to where Punch and Judy migrated.

Of necessity, the story changed to accommodate the presence of children and became what it is today. Much of the violence was removed leading to the departure of Pretty Polly – Punch couldn’t have a mistress in a children’s show - the Judge and Jack Ketch, among others. Only the policeman from the realm of law and order remained.

With a decline in audiences at the domestic seaside, he now preforms for children’s parties, in smaller and more portable booths.

Then U3A members were treated to a short performance, gleefully accepting Judy’s invitation to be six years old again. This led to many cries of “Oh no you weren’t!”, in response to Mr Punch’s protestations of how good he he had been. Peter Carrigan, U3A’s Speaker finder, moved the vote of thanks and presented the customary token.

This was followed by a quiz set by Myrna Beet, Denise Wilson, Anne and Colin Crane, and Mary Findon. Then, like all good children after an afternoon of fun and entertainment, members went home tired but happy.

December also saw U3A members enjoy Christmas Dinner at the Stubbing Wharf, Hebden Bridge, organised by Jean and John Pearson.

There are more details about Todmorden U3A, which has members in Todmorden, Hebden Bridge and Mytholmroyd, on website

The next meeting is on Thursday, January 15, 1.45pm for a 2pm start at Central Methodist Church, Bramsche Square, Todmorden, when Paulo Marini will talk about Aquaponics.