The Weymouth Big Grin Maritime Mix
Sat August 4th & Sun Aug 5th 2012
A BIG thank you to Dr Martin Reeve for giving me permission to publish his report on Weymouth’s Big Grin here!
Dr Martin Reeve is an independent theatre researcher, documentary maker and actor. In 2010 he was awarded an AHRC funded PhD from Royal Holloway College, London University. The research topic was an ethnography of contemporary Punch and Judy performers. He was asked by the Punch and Judy College of Professors (who funded the documentation and of which he is an honorary member) to write a report on the Punch and Judy Festival at Weymouth, 4th and 5th August 2012.
The Big Grin on Weymouth Beach
The notion of ‘survival’ as something that has no real function in the present cultural context, misses the point that both nostalgia and self-conscious deployment of the past are, indeed, functional in the present (Joan Gross).
There is a scene at the beginning of Tony Hancock’s 1963 film, ‘The Punch and Judy Man’, in which Hancock looks out of the window and up at the sky. Any Punch performer would know what this means. Hancock’s face is troubled; there’s likely to be rain. On the morning of the 4th August 2012 and again the next day, I checked the BBC weather forecast and was told there would almost certainly be heavy showers, if not torrential rain, in Weymouth. I set out for the beach with a sense of apprehension. I was off to cover the Weymouth Punch and Judy Festival, part of a series of Punch-related events during 2012, the year of Punch’s 350th birthday. Needless to say on the second day I needed my sun hat. At the end of the first, I looked like a beetroot. The sun stayed out, bright and strong for most of the weekend; the rain stayed away, but not the crowds. Hancock’s instincts were more accurate than today’s technology. On another occasion when I’d visited Weymouth, the bottler had told me that if I looked along a particular street and saw clouds, it would definitely rain. One of the things that struck me forcefully at the festival was the triumph of the simple over the sophisticated; and that was something the weekend celebrated with verve and joy. The Punch and Judy booths on the beach played
David to the Goliath of the Olympic sailing event half a mile up the coast.
Six Punch and Judy performers, and their bottlers, amongst them arguably the best in the world, assembled on the beach next to a large wooden booth- Mark Poulton’s (Weymouth’s resident Punchman) and, before the crowds arrived, unpacked their equipment, put up their booths and arranged them like chicks in the protective shadow of a mother hen. They took it in turns to perform. The sun grew hotter as the day passed; the tide came in and went out and came in again; the crowds drifted along the promenade, some stayed to watch; the noise of the cheers from the Olympic arena ebbed and flowed; seagulls scavenged for dropped chips; ice creams were eaten, people dipped in the sea; helicopters buzzed overhead; sailing races took place far out in the bay; the crowds drifted back along the promenade and the shadows lengthened. The performers packed their bags and headed off. All the while there was banter and jollity, the renewing of old friendships, the forging of new ones; the laughter of adults and children; and, of course, cutting through it all, the cackle of Mr Punch.
It is fitting that Weymouth should have hosted this remarkable event. The show at Weymouth expresses what is archetypical, though perhaps nowadays paradoxically unique, about Punch and Judy in Britain. First of all, Weymouth is a beach resort, and for most people the show is very strongly associated with the beach (though these days not so often to be found there) and, as the Deputy Mayor Ray Banham pointed out to me, Weymouth is a traditional family resort-it still has donkey rides, there is little culture of teenage drunken rampaging, as in many other resorts, and it’s considered a safe place; families still come here for week-long holidays. For many people it still lodges in the family album of memories. Parents who came to Weymouth as children now bring their own children to Weymouth.
When you think of a British beach resort, you think of Weymouth. A long esplanade, imposing Victorian hotels, fish and chips, ice cream stalls, donkeys, pedalos and deck chairs. The front has been tarted up for the Olympics; the deck chairs have been painted with seaside images: shells, boats, seagulls, even Punch and the Crocodile. The sun turns them into an impromptu shadow puppet performance.
The longevity of the show distinguishes Weymouth, too. Mark Poulton, who has performed at the resort since 2005, is the most recent in a nearly unbroken succession of punchmen, and his is probably the last permanent show (at least during the summer season) on any beach anywhere in the country. He performs seven days a week, weather permitting, from late May to early September. Punch and Judy has been on the beach since 1880. The show at Weymouth paused only for the two World Wars. The role call goes like this: James Murray, Frank Edmonds, Bert Staddon, Guy Higgins and Mark Poulton.
The history of Weymouth as a resort predates even the coming of the railway, a development which prompted the growth of many other resorts and helped transform Punch and Judy into the beach show we are most familiar with today. Hired guns, the punchmen came with the crowds. George III popularised the town when took the sea waters, with their supposed health-giving properties, virtually moving his entire court there for several months of the year. A replica of his bathing hut sits on the promenade. His reign coincided with the emergence of the first Punch and Judy shows (as opposed to the first appearance of Punch, the character) in the late seventeen hundreds. There is a statue of the
King on top of a plinth on the promenade opposite Mark’s booth.
Weymouth’s relationship with the Punch and Judy show tells us much about how the show is situated within popular culture-always somewhere on the margins: encouraged as a marker of the traditional, the reassuring and the sustained, but not fully embraced in the fold of the legitimate. The show features in the town’s tourism publicity, but Mark has to pay for the right to perform there and he is paid nothing by the council. He earns his keep from ‘bottling’, passing the hat round. This makes life precarious for him, and it harks back to an earlier time. All of his predecessors had a similar arrangement, some even sub-let the pitch to make ends meet. This one-sided contract has seen the death of many shows on the beaches of Britain, as was attested to me by Brian and Alison Davey who were driven off the sands at Lyme Regis by a council which charged more than the puppeteers could afford.
The Weymouth Punch and Judy Festival is part of a much larger celebration marking the official 350th birthday of Mr Punch. Samuel Pepys had witnessed a show by Italian puppeteer Pietro Gimonde (aka Signor Bologna) on May 9th, 1662 in London’s Covent Garden. He mentioned it in his diary, describing it as ‘...very pretty, the best I ever saw, and a great resort of gallants’. The show was performed before King Charles II and Gimonde was rewarded with a gold chain and medal worth the then very large sum of £25. It is from May 9th 1662 that punchmen date Punch’s birth; his conception occurred at some unrecorded time. Since the mid 1970s there has been a one day festival, The May Fayre in Covent Garden on the Sunday nearest May 9th, in honour of Punch. The show that Pepys saw was in fact a marionette play and not the glove puppet show we know today, but it’s come to be a marker in the sand, something around which the tradition can congregate.
The Punch community has put a great deal of effort into commemorating this anniversary and several years of preparation have gone in making it happen. Foremost amongst these efforts was punchman Glyn Edwards’ success in securing Heritage Lottery funding for a series of events under the banner ‘The Big Grin’. The name itself was coined by another punchman, Clive Chandler, and it alludes to the nickname of a popular Scottish comedian, Billy Connolly, The Big Yin, whose iconoclastic and sometimes ribald humour is akin to that of the best Punch and Judy shows. Edwards has worked in collaboration with a number of other organisations including PuppetLink, the Punch and Judy Fellowship and The Punch and Judy College of Professors to shape and vitalise the Big Grin. The ability of performers to sustain the tradition through association, organisation and dissemination, says something about the contemporary nature of the traditional art form. Punch practitioners have always, of necessity, been adept self-publicists, and the Big Grin is publicity for the tradition on a grand scale. The Big Grin might be regarded as part of an even larger project of keeping the tradition going, which performers have been consciously engaged in for some decades, especially in the face of perceived attacks by those who have come to be labelled ‘politically correct’. Edwards once remarked to me that he wanted to see Punch survive into the twentieth century. The Big Grin suggests that it has done more than that. It is probably the case that there are more Punch and Judy performers in Britain now than at any other time in its history, and this tells us much not only about its popularity, but also about the ability and means of performers to keep the show on the agenda.
Other Big Grin events have included Punch and Judy Festivals and appearances in Buxton, Aberystwyth, Brighton, Morecombe, Daventry, Glasgow and Northern Ireland. Some have been small scale-perhaps one or two performers and a ‘roadshow’- an information point and a display about Punch and Judy as an historical and a contemporary cultural practice. Others have been larger scale. The largest was a meeting at Covent Garden the day before the annual May Fayre, in which there was probably the largest ever gathering of Punch performers, the presentation of a giant birthday card and a string of 350 ‘timeline’ sausages marking significant moments since Punch’s first birthday. There have also been shows and workshops in schools and museums. They have all, to some degree or other, raised awareness and created publicity for Punch and Judy, one of the principal aims of the Big Grin.
Glyn Edwards was once a TV producer, he knows how publicity oxygenates, and he knows how to generate it. Glancing around at the festival, I was struck by the number of film-makers with professional equipment-tripods and furry mics; big cameras muffled against the sand. The Olympics was obviously a magnet for them and some had bunked off from the sailing to get some local colour; others had come specifically to record the atmosphere and the shows. I spoke to a number of radio and newspaper reporters too. This account itself is a part of the project of visibility.
The Cast and their Shows
The festival attracted an array of performers who demonstrate what some commentators call ‘the changing same’ of vernacular tradition in general, and of the Punch and Judy show in particular. Every show is in some essential way identical, but is rendered unique by its performer, like a different interpretation of the same song. The common ingredients, Punch, Judy, Baby, Crocodile, Policeman, Devil, slapstick, swazzle, are handled differently by each puppeteer; some add other characters and routines, and each relates differently to his audience. All of the shows at the festival, though, are enormously accomplished; most of these professors have been doing Punch for decades.
Mark had a free hand in who to invite. He wanted people who were not only standard bearers for the tradition, but who were also friends and close acquaintances-people he wanted to spend time with. Working the show is often a solitary business and punchmen welcome opportunities to meet and to fraternize. Mark considered it an ‘honour’ that these esteemed colleagues had come to his pitch.
Five different Punch and Judy shows were presented on each day; most performed twice. On Saturday, Mark Poulton, Geoff Felix, Reg Payn, Joe Burns and Brian and Alison Davey; Sunday saw the same line up but Martin Bridle and Su Eaton replaced Brian and Alison Davey. The variety of performers is a snapshot of the tradition in Britain today.
Geoff Felix, announced as ‘all the way from Wembley Park,’ is regarded by punchmen as perhaps among the two or three best in the world. He is a trained puppeteer and this accounts for the skill and dexterity he has in manipulating the puppets. Always with an eye on the history of the form-he is a thorough and dedicated Punch archivist-he likes to use puppets and a booth which draw on the best aesthetics of the tradition. He makes his own puppets, usually in the style of a highly regarded past puppet maker, such as Fred Tickner. He likes aesthetic consistency in his shows, which are, as well as very beautiful to look at, sharp and witty and fast. He often uses jokes and dialogue from earlier performers, though his show is not in the least a museum piece and he is continually at work on it, chipping away here, adding a bit there. A couple of times over the weekend I saw him scribbling down one-liners and jokes from other punchmen which he might use later. He likes to talk to the audience about the history of the show before he performs; and in Weymouth he demonstrated a marionette Punch in between shows (Fig. 3). He begins the show with the ‘traditional’ boxing routine.
Reg Payn (Professor Goodvibes) from Cornwall most expresses the subversive energy of Punch. Weymouth sits in the shadow of the Olympic sailing event, it has taken over the town, and there are stories in the press about shopkeepers not being allowed to use certain words and phrases since they have been effectively copyrighted by Locog (the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games) in deference to their sponsors, Macdonalds, Coca Cola, addidas and so on. Reg Payn ignores this and as he announces his show over the tannoy, calls out the names of companies which are not the official sponsors. Like Mr Punch, Reg does not like being told what to do. His show sees Judy’s bare bottom spanked by a rolling pin and the baby flushed down the toilet. He ended one show by bringing up a puppet of Prince Charles and encouraging the audience to sing ‘God Save the King’ and when they didn’t, berated them for being ‘anarchists’.
Joe Burns from Worthing, at 20, is the youngest performer at the event. He was heavily influenced by Mark Poulton having seen his show many times and is in the honourable tradition of developing his show from others he’s seen. At one point he said to me, ‘I’m on after Mark’s show, oh dear, there’s a lot of the same gags and routines in it’.
Brian and Alison Davey, from a few miles west at Lyme Regis, have been performing the show together for more than 30 years. Brian makes his own puppets and booth. His proscenium arch contains references to ‘The Green Man’, an ancient figure which Brian believes prefigures the precognitive energy of Punch and from which Punch draws much of its vigour, a time Brian calls ‘backalong’. The partnership between Alison and Brian looks back to a time when most performers worked with a bottler who would not only collect money from the crowd, but would also act as interlocutor between the puppets and the audience, urging them to join in, explaining things and being a buffer for the more frightened children.
Martin Bridle and Su Eaton also work as a couple-Su plays music for the show, a banjo, and interacts with the puppets (Fig. 6). Martin has a strong connection with Weymouth: he grew up in the resort and saw his first shows there. It was whilst at art college that he decided to perform the show and he is amongst a number of counter-cultural performers in the 60s and 70s who saw in Punch an opportunity to use vernacular forms to celebrate the ordinary folk. His show is highly regarded amongst performers and, as a child, Mark Poulton was very influenced by it. The show has a gentle, witty and ironic tone which contrasts with some of the more barracking shows by less accomplished performers.
Mark Poulton himself is probably unique in making his living exclusively from Punch and Judy, and much of that living from collecting on the beach. He knows the vicissitudes of the weather better than anyone; his show needs to attract and hold an audience. Unlike most performers today, he does not rely on a negotiated fee. He knows his audience and they know him. Several people I spoke to over the weekend told me they come back to Weymouth again and again because of Mark’s show.
For all of these performers, Punch plays a central, indeed for some, a defining part in their live.
Not all participants in the festival were Punch performers, and it’s important to mention some significant others. Head and shoulders above all others is Rene Smith. Rene is Mark’s bottler, and without her skill and efforts in getting money from a sometimes reluctant public, there would be no show at Weymouth. She has been bottling there for nearly 40 years, and she bottled for Mark’s predecessor, Guy Higgins. She makes her living from the bottle as well. A quiet but formidable character, she likes to make sure the puppeteers are happy, bringing them cups of tea, and, with her Dorset burr, asking if they are alright. She’s ready to help Mark out if things go wrong, as they did during his evening show on Saturday night. He’d told the audience he was going to do a particular routine before he’d checked that he had the puppets to hand; fortunately Rene was in the booth, she sorted through his box of puppets and handed the right one to him. The punchmen around me were in stitches.
Called upon to make announcements and introduce events was Ray Banham, Weymouth’s Deputy Mayor. Ray is a retired painter and decorator and, in his own words, a ‘renowned Freddie Mercury impersonator’. He is an important link with the Town Council and it is in part due to figures like Ray that Punch has a presence in Britain at all. I’ve met several local Councillors in towns up and down the country who regard Punch and Judy and other traditional practices as important parts of their town’s identities and therefore as significant in attracting tourism. Ray has concerns about the short term impact of the Olympics on the resort, especially on the takings of the beach traders, which are down, but he hopes it will increase Weymouth’s profile and be beneficial in the longer term. He was clearly thrilled to have ‘so many top performers’, as he put it, on the beach.
On a little table in the shade of Mark’s booth, an impromptu bookstall had been set up: local writer Judith Stinton was selling her books about Mr Punch on Weymouth Beach and about Frank Edmonds, books which have made an important contribution to the small stock of written knowledge of the form. Judith was on hand also to answer questions from the public about what the whole cavalcade was about. Also on hand were Tatty (Tania) Scott and Benjie Hasker, emissaries, as it were, from the Big Grin HQ. Benjie is a Punchman and has travelled the country with the roadshow. Tatty’s job is to gather responses from the audience-a funding requirement, an attempt to measure the Big Grin’s success.
Ephemera and Other Things
As well as the shows for which, in true Punch style, there was no running order, but which followed hard upon the heels of one-another, there were other celebrations. Saturday afternoon saw a procession of ‘professors’ along the promenade to the clock tower. Performers with their puppets were accompanied by children and adults who had made their own puppets at a puppet making table- the puppet making was supervised by Reg Payn, himself a skilled maker- and others. The procession walked in convoy with Mark’s Victorian Punch booth. A replica of a beach booth wheeled on a cart.
The clock tower was the site of the first Punch performances at Weymouth.
On Saturday evening Mark gave a performance as the sun set. He does evening shows several times in the summer and these he likes best. Usually the promenade is packed with holiday makers; on this occasion, though, they were fewer. Evidence, Mark believes, of the impact of the Olympics. Rumour has it that people are staying away because they are wary of traffic congestion; the park and rides have put up their charges enormously and the regular visitors can’t afford the prices. Nonetheless Mark enjoyed himself considerably, playing to his peers and strutting his stuff on his own patch.
Sunday saw more shows throughout the day as well as the pulling of the sausage timeline, led by Ray Banham (Fig. 9). The sausages had been made by Joe Burns and had been exhibited earlier in the year at Covent Garden. There was a repeat of Saturday’s procession and the cutting and distribution of a birthday cake donated by a local baker before which Geoff Felix made a short speech about the history of Punch at Weymouth and the significance of this event (Fig. 10).
Context and Reception
Cultural events do not exist in a vacuum. We might think of a series of concentric circles: at the centre is Mark standing in his booth waving his puppets; outside that, Weymouth, the place and its history; beyond that the other shows, the performers and the tradition itself; around them, the audiences who sit and watch; and beyond them, those who pass by and glimpse it and hear it in the distance; on the horizon, the national context-a complex sphere mediated by commentators, by the press, and by local and national agendas.
At the very local level and at this particular moment, amongst the audience there was a great feeling of warmth and affection, a degree of surprise that this thing had such variety and vibrancy and wit. Many people stayed to see several shows. Mark told me he was ’flabbergasted’ by the audience response. It’s true that on the first day, and during the period of the Olympics as a whole, numbers had been down, and I’ve said a little about this already. But on the second day, due in part to an anticipated Gold medal in the sailing, the crowds were huge, and hundreds watched.
From the perspective of the performers, in particular Mark, the event had a profoundly validating impact. It reminded them of a sense of history and of continuity. It struck me that even in the time I’ve been involved with the tradition, over the last six or seven years, a gradual shift has occurred. One or two of the old guard have stopped performing, the young guns have become the old guard and new performers, like Joe Burns, are establishing themselves. Martin Bridle spoke to me about this, how it did not seem so long ago that he was one of the upstarts of the tradition, cutting his teeth on the beach, and that now people look to him for inspiration. He has become an elder statesman of the form. Something brought home to him with particular poignancy as Weymouth was his home town, the place that made him.
To speak at the broadest cultural level. When I watched the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games only a week before, I was reminded of the kind of artefact that Punch is, the kind of statement it makes about Britishness. Danny Boyle had constructed an astonishingly accurate narrative of the British sense of self: part bucolic yearning and part industrially forged sense of reality. The green and pleasant land with its little inns, its village cricket, its sheep, its yokels, and its squires, the eternal pastoral now, brutally disrupted by the thrusting chimneys of the mills and the factories. Though a product of urbanisation, in fact, of industrialisation, Punch nonetheless draws its audience back to an earlier time, a mythical time, a repository of innocence, a time of freedom and holiday; an irretrievable time of childhood.
On the Sunday evening there was to be ‘An Audience with Mr Punch’ in the Pavilion Theatre. This was cancelled due to lack of ticket sales. You might complain, as some did, that the Olympic authorities wanted the space for something else and had engineered the situation, something which might tell us where the show comes on their list of priorities. Rather than make that case, it might be better to say that this was a blessing in disguise. Punch does not easily survive the forensic scrutiny of the legitimate stage; it is too rough and ready, too at home with the sounds and smells of outdoors, too bolshy to be interrogated under the harsh lights of the theatre. Russell Hoban in whose novel, ‘Riddley Walker’, Punch plays a central part, once remarked to Glyn Edwards that he was attracted to Punch because it was like King Lear on the heath. I didn’t know what he meant when I first heard this; I have a clearer idea now. To put it perhaps rather too grandly, the show is up against unaccommodating nature and no appeals to sophistry or artifice, except of the crudest, patched up kind, can help it. It thrives under a darkening sky, not in a darkening theatre. It is best in the open air, defying the elements.
(Copyright for this document, including photographs, lies exclusively with the author)