Forget the puppets, it's argy-bargy from miserly staycationers

Take your seats for a tight-fisted punch-up! It’s miserable staycationers who are causing a rumpus this summer rather than the puppets at this Punch and Judy show, writes HENRY DEEDES

  • Holidaymakers visiting Swanage do not want to pay for the Punch and Judy show
  • Joe Burns, 29, has been performing his one-man Punch show there for six years
  • He didn’t get any of the Government’s £1.5b rescue fund for the arts amid Covid
  • Now, some beach-goers are refusing to fork out the £2 charge to view his shows

As any bucket ‘n’ spade-wielding aficionado of the British seaside knows, a traditional Punch and Judy show should feature plenty of shouting, screaming and unseemly squabbling.

There are usually cameos from a crocodile, a hapless policeman and — for some long-forgotten reason — a string of juicy sausages.

Amid this scene of mayhem, cartoonish violence inevitably ensues.

But this summer, down on Swanage’s waterfront, the argy-bargy has spilled out from the puppet booth on to the golden sands.

And it’s not Mr Punch’s performance upsetting punters at this Dorset resort. Nor indeed the show’s often risqué content, in which double-entendres and slapstick violence are de rigueur.

As any aficionado of the UK seaside knows, a Punch and Judy show should feature shouting and squabbling. Pictured: Henry Deedes at a Punch and Judy show in Swanage, Hampshire

Not at all. It seems that while holidaymakers are happy to stop to enjoy this traditional entertainment, some of them are far less keen on paying for it.

Joe Burns, 29, has been performing his one-man Punch show here for six years. It’s been a rough 18 months, as you can imagine.

Last year was all but a write-off. Plus, he’s received none of the Government’s £1.5 billion rescue fund for the arts.

And — as the Mail reported yesterday — to make matters worse, this year some tight-fisted beach-goers are refusing to fork out the meagre £2 fee to view his shows.

‘It’s been tricky,’ says Joe, sipping a coffee on the seafront as he prepares for his lunch- time performance.

‘We’ve had the odd problem in years gone by but the abuse we’ve been getting this year has been far worse than anything we’ve had before. It seems some people want something for nothing.

On Swanage’s waterfront (pictured), the argy-bargy has spilled out from the puppet booth as some holidaymakers have not been keen on paying for the show

‘The other day, one of my collectors went round after a show asking for donations and this family told us we had ruined their day by doing so. They reported us to the beach manager. Others have told us to ‘f*** off’. That’s happened quite a lot.’

And there’s been worse still: ‘Last week, a group of about eight set up in front of the show all day, and when we asked them to chip in they couldn’t believe we’d asked. 

‘There were three of us working and they followed us down the beach screaming at us. It was awful. We do this job out of love. We don’t do it to be abused!’

Joe was keen to stress that most people who come to watch are delightful. 

He reckons the troublemakers are ‘staycationers’ who may not be too happy at having to swap Majorca for the English south coast this year, thanks to the chaos of the Government’s travel policy during the pandemic.

‘It’s definitely a different crowd this year. Perhaps they’re irritated about being here. But the regulars are fantastic.’

And it’s not as the show is free entertainment laid on by the council. On the contrary, Joe has to pay for a licence, while managing other considerable overheads such as insurance — plus he has a staff of four to pay, who help to collect his takings.

And since Joe’s not local (off season he works in a theatre in Brighton) he also has to pay for his own accommodation.

For all that Mr Punch has been a joy on British seasides for centuries, Joe is a practitioner (or ‘Professor’, as Punch operators are traditionally known) of a dying art.

Joe Burns (pictured), 29, has been performing his one-man Punch show here for six years. He’s received none of the Government’s £1.5 billion rescue fund for the arts amid the pandemic

Once a staple akin to donkeys and candy floss, now just two Punch stands other than Joe’s remain: one along the coast in Weymouth and another at Llandudno in North Wales.

But Joe is determined to keep the flame alive. He hopes to one day encourage others to take up the art, the same way he was inspired to during his ‘magical’ visits to Weymouth as a child.

‘I’ve been doing this since I was 12,’ he says. ‘I placed my first ad in the Yellow Pages. You can imagine my parents’ surprise when someone called asking for a Mr Punch!’

He is following in a rich tradition. Mr Punch’s first known performance in England was back in 1662, having found his way over from Italy where he was a cheeky character called ‘Punchinello’.

After theatre had been banned under the Puritan Oliver Cromwell following the English Civil War, it didn’t take long for Mr Punch and his anarchic act to take hold. 

Even London’s snooty literary salons were enraptured. The great diarist Samuel Pepys records the puppet show being ‘the best that ever I saw’.

Later, Charles Dickens enjoyed Mr Punch’s daftness, noting his ‘extravagant relief from the realities of life’. 

And as for the violence, the novelist remarked that this was an ‘outrageous joke… no one in existence would regard it as an incentive to any kind of action’.

But for many people today, the show — in which Judy is regularly the victim of Mr Punch’s displeasure — represents a dated relic from more chauvinistic times. Poppycock, insists Joe.

‘People who say that haven’t seen a show for 50 years,’ he says. ‘When they were young it probably featured hanging and stuff like that. But it’s a happy routine now.’

This year some tight-fisted beach-goers are refusing to fork out the meagre £2 fee to view Joe Burns’ one-man Punch show. Pictured: A Punch and Judy show on Weymouth beach

In Swanage, despite the drizzle, a decent crowd — many of them regulars — have come to watch Joe’s second performance of the day. 

As the brass band music wails over the speakers, families scoff fish and chips while laughing children smear ice cream on their faces. If anything, the rain adds to the scene’s British flavour.

And, whatever the claims about some staycationers’ behaviour this year, some people told me they were horrified some audience members hadn’t paid their way.

Jo Nugent, down for the week from Wimbledon, says: ‘I’ve been coming here for 45 years. My grandparents had a house here and we always come to see Mr Punch. Not once have we not paid. It’s a wonderful tradition and it would be terrible if he had to go.’

Drew Webster, from West Sussex, agrees: ‘You want entertainment, you have to pay. A bloke’s got to make a living. And you can see how much effort goes into it. Someone puts on a show like that, you can’t expect it to come free.’

He’s right. Punch and his gang are beautifully crafted. Time, effort and a lot of love have gone in to them.

The show itself is bonkers — if incomprehensible at times.

Judy gives as good as she gets to her pugnacious husband, at one point delivering a blow to Punch’s nether regions.

‘That one’s for Women’s Lib!’ she shrieks, before tottering off, she claims, for ‘a date with Matt Hancock’.

Joe is determined to keep the flame alive. He hopes to encourage others to take up the art, the same way he was inspired to. Pictured: Henry Deedes at the Punch and Judy show in Swanage

That joke sails over the little ones’ heads, of course; but otherwise, they laugh and scream and join in the obligatory cries of: ‘There he is!’ and ‘Oh no, we won’t!’

And they love it whenever Mr Punch gives one of his gang yet another fearsome kicking.

Niall Wilson, who regularly comes to Swanage with his wife Helena, isn’t fussed by the violence.

‘It’s harmless,’ he says. ‘We watch it every year. The beach wouldn’t be the same without it. The kids love it; they’re only little but they can see it’s just a bit of fun.’

As Joe’s performance reaches its end, Inspector Plod appears — and gets the sharp end of Mr Punch’s stick. As the Crocodile pops up and clasps those bangers in his jaws, everyone bursts into applause.

Perhaps the weather kept the more thuggish element away, or perhaps word had spread that Mr Punch and his marvellous gangs’ exotic threads simply don’t pay for themselves. 

But everyone I can see is generously tossing their cash into the collector’s pouch.

As Mr Punch would surely say in his distinctive twang: ‘That’s the way to do it!’

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