Punch and Judy at the Seaside

22 11 2021

Photo: Martin Scott Price

Although they have their origins in the Italian commedia dell’arte, Punch and Judy became a British institution during the eighteenth century. Featuring a selection of stock characters, including a policeman and a snapping crocodile, the show abandoned the marionettes for glove-puppets and follows the adventures of the pugnacious anti-hero Punch. Despite its anarchic energy, broad humour and generous helpings of violence, the Punch and Judy show is aimed at all of the family and is most often associated with performances at holiday resorts, with the performer, known as the professor, encased inside a booth and presenting the various characters. 

Martin Scott Price, who is both a magician and a Punch and Judy professor, has been enchanted by the form from an early age. ‘My first introduction to Punch & Judy and Magic was at the age of 5,’ he remembers, ‘I had been given by my cousin Linda her Punch & Judy Puppets, which I still have, and a Peter Pan box of Magic. So the inspiration was two fold: a magician and Punch and Judy Man.’

This early enthusiasm has certainly lasted throughout Price’s career: ‘I was doing Punch And Judy from my early teens,’ he says, ‘and despite the years flying by,  I am still young at heart and a very active performer. I have performed all my life and I am still doing shows!’ 

Punch and Judy has maintained its own culture and venues, existing outside of the theatre’s grant structures and touring networks, a pattern reflected in Price’s combination of  magic and puppetry, and performance activities. Employed at corporate events and by hotels as well as working outside in the booth, Price’s career expresses the versatility of Punch and Judy and its status as a popular folk performance art.

Price continues: ‘Starting out was not easy: having built my large outside booth at school when I was 14, I was told that I had better not take woodwork at school  as I was dreadful at it! Still, this booth remains my main booth for outside shows, so it has stood the test of time.’

Price’s interest in the form, however, goes beyond continued performance. ‘I have been a collector of Punch and Judy memorabilia from a young age and an avid collector of Pelham Puppets too,’ he continues. ‘My goal is to open a dedicated Punch and Judy Puppet Museum for families ‘ To this end, he is opening the Pelham Lodge Museum in Blackpool, the first dedicated to the medium and situated in one of the resorts that have presented Punch and Judy shows to generations of holiday-makers. 

‘Something that inspired me was when, as a very young child, I was taken to Happy Mount Park in Morecambe for the illuminations,’ he recalls. ‘In the park there were several displays of circus scenes -  very crude and basically home made -  where you stayed and watched every item move and it then repeated on an endless rotation.  The fascination even to this day makes me watch these automated displays, like those you find in good grottos at Christmas. This inspiration gave me the nucleus of the museum: plenty of movement to fascinate the young and old and the fun child element in all of us!’

‘My Punch And Judy shows have that same fun element in them.’ he continues. ‘There’s the most frightening crocodile you would not like to meet, almost biting the fingers of an unexpected child replacing the sausages that appeared to be accidentally dropped on the floor, a most funny part of the show. Despite being a Punch and Judy show it's the crocodile who steals the show and is the big star and is remembered as long as they can remember!’

‘Many children who have watched the show as a child years ago now bring their children to watch the show -  despite their parents saying:  you have booked Uncle Martin for your party? I thought he'd be dead by now!’

Gareth K Vile