Ugly quarrels, outbreaks of unacceptable violence and a sense of anarchy have traditionally been a feature of one of the British seaside’s most curious theatrical events: the Punch and Judy show.
But in this post-lockdown summer, some practitioners (or professors, to give them their traditional titles) are expressing concern that the bad behaviour seems to be spilling out from the puppet booth into the audience.
It is not that they are protesting about the nature of Punch and Judy, which has long been criticised for glorifying violence, especially against women and children. It is just that some people appear reluctant to pay and a few even turn aggressive when asked to dip into their pockets.
There are only a handful of professors who still regularly make a living on the beaches of Britain but some say they may be forced away if the problems persist.
Joe Burns, who performs at Swanage in Dorset, said: “We are getting a lot of people who are reluctant to pay. They swear or get aggressive.
“I find it hard to understand why they don’t just walk away if they don’t want to pay. I was squared up to earlier in the season and another person walked after me and my collector screaming and shouting: ‘How dare you ask for money?’
“It’s been a very hard 18 months. We had all that time when we couldn’t perform and then to have the abuse now is very frustrating. It is a daily occurrence. We are constantly being shouted out. I’m not sure why tensions are so high but it may be that it has been a really tricky couple of years for everyone.”
Burns said some people didn’t understand that he and his colleagues are wholly depended on audiences paying – he asks for £2 per person – to make a living.
“Actually we have to pay licences and insurance to be there. The only payment we get is from the people who watch us. It may be that people are more used to seeing Punch and Judy at private events or fetes when professors may be paid to be there. People aren’t as used to how it works at the seaside as they used to.”
Another professor, Mark Poulton, who puts on shows along the Dorset coast at Weymouth, posted on his Facebook page calling for the abuse to stop.
He said: “We love making people happy, seeing everyone smile, and enjoying themselves. If you don’t wish to pay for the show, please politely decline and move along, please don’t hurl abuse at people simply for trying to make a living.”
James Arnott, a professor and a spokesperson for the Punch and Judy Club, said: “It’s difficult to hear about people using bad language around kids.”
The professors deny the nature of the material is encouraging the bad behaviour. Arnott said that Mr Punch did still hit Judy and Judy hit Mr Punch. He said it was slapstick humour and modern professors had toned down and developed the material to take in modern sensibilities. “You see the same sort of things in cartoons and pantomimes. It is not realistic,” he said.
In Llandudno, north Wales, Jason Codman’s family has been staging Punch and Judy shows for more than 150 years.
He said: “I don’t put a sign up saying how much the show is per person. We just rely on voluntary donations, but a lot of people go hiding when the collection box goes round.”
Codman dismissed the idea that the show’s popularity had declined because it was offensive. “Punch and Judy died out on a large scale when people stopped putting donations in the box,” he said.
The problem does not seem to be affecting all professors.
Tony Lidington, who puts on a show in Devon and is a drama lecturer at the University of Exeter, said he had received no complaints – only delight.
“Grandparents and grandchildren are bonding over it,” he said. “The form has evolved and our show is not misogynistic or offensive. People have been happy to pay and even more generous than usual. It’s a brilliant contribution to the family seaside experience.”