Punch Scholar

Rod Burnett's Punch & Judy Show

In this section I will look closely at a particular Punch and Judy show; that of Rod Burnett (1954-2017), recorded in July 2012. The purpose here is not to teach anyone how to do a show, but rather what to pay attention to when watching one.

While it is always best to watch a live show to understand exactly what is going on during a performance, this is not always possible. The next best thing is to watch a video. Luckily this is now quite easy to do. Below I discuss each part of the show and you can watch the relevant part of the video by clicking on the buttons as indicated.

The warm up

Rod comes out to the front of the booth and speaks to the audience. You will notice that he gets the audience to wave and respond to simple questions. The purpose of this is to both engage them in a friendly way and also to allow the them to respond to him as an entertainer. Once in the booth the puppets need to do all the work, so he is in fact preparing them for the show by connecting with them beforehand.

There are numerous techniques that performers use for this purpose, generally they involve something physical such as the hand waving here, or often shouting out in unison: “Wake up Mr. punch!”. I have seen performers have the children stand up and take steps sideways and back again, then backwards. This is certainly a good method to use if you find an audience is sitting too close to the booth. But it is in fact teaching them to respond to the showman's voice.

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Introducing the show

Rod plays a jaunty tune on the mouth organ. In some shows he has a little puppet band. [ Click here to see this ]

This tune establishes a rhythm that continues to thread its way throughout the show. He speaks to the audience, continuing the connection between the man outside the booth and the puppet show within. That voice is now that of Joey the clown who appears dancing to the music. So the transition has been made, the audience drawn into the puppet world.

Having a puppet perform a very visual routine with movement and sound is a good way to both focus the audience into the puppet theatre and also attracts attention and allows the audience to gather and sit before the actual show begins. He also takes this opportunity to speak directly to the audience. Many of the audience may not have had much experience with live entertainment and the possibility that you can actually engage with the puppets sometimes needs to taught and encouraged. The illusion of the puppets as living creatures is being established.

Often in Punch and Judy shows the showman will mention the place where the show is being performed. This reinforces that the show is here and now.

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Up comes Punch

In this show Punch begins as a voice from below. The clown remains the character of attention and repeats what Punch says. This repetition of everything Punch says is both practical, in that the swazzled voice is not always intelligible but also establishes a type of call and response rhythm that continues throughout the show.

When punch does come up he is made to look as though he is climbing stairs. This and the mention of the toilet refers back to Burnett’s description of the insides of the booth from his warm up in which he had the audience picture the booth as a house.

There are a number of interesting ways puppets can appear on stage. They can suddenly appear by quickly popping up. They can slowly and gently rise as if going up on an elevator or escalator (Martin Bridle). They can sweep up in an arc and land sitting on the stage with their legs dangling over. Or they can do it with the puppet first peeping out tentatively then popping down before coming back up with confidence. Every time a puppet comes on stage its entrance style is of some importance for establishing its character. Punch swinging his legs over the stage is a visual punctuation mark that occurs throughout the show. Of course if a puppet comes on stage they can leave it in all sorts of ways too. Here Punch accidentally topples off.

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Joey the Clown

In this show Punch begins as a voice from below. The clown remains the character of attention and repeats what Punch says. This repetition of everything Punch says is both practical, in that the swazzled voice is not always intelligible but also establishes a type of call and response rhythm that continues throughout the show.

When punch does come up he is made to look as though he is climbing stairs. This and the mention of the toilet refers back to Burnett’s description of the insides of the booth from his warm up in which he had the audience picture the booth as a house.

There are a number of interesting ways puppets can appear on stage. They can suddenly appear by quickly popping up. They can slowly and gently rise as if going up on an elevator or escalator (Martin Bridle). They can sweep up in an arc and land sitting on the stage with their legs dangling over. Or they can do it with the puppet first peeping out tentatively then popping down before coming back up with confidence. Every time a puppet comes on stage its entrance style is of some importance for establishing its character. Punch swinging his legs over the stage is a visual punctuation mark that occurs throughout the show. Of course if a puppet comes on stage they can leave it in all sorts of ways too. Here Punch accidentally topples off.

Click here to see this section of the video

 

Judy

In Punch and Judy shows there is a lot of counting to three. There is a lot of repetition in threes: “Judy! Judy! Judy!” And this is how the character of Judy is brought up. As with Punch her appearance is preceded by a voice from below. Preparation and raising expectation is a simple and effective technique employed in puppet shows with lots of character appearances.

Here Judy is used to continue to have the audience reacting. Judy is used to sharpen this up somewhat by having the audience shout louder. This occurs in other shows, sometimes with Judy saying “I am sorry I can’t hear you. I‘ve got my new shoes on.” (As used by Robert Styles)

Burnett goes straight into the "kissy, kissy" business; repeating the suggestion three times, with exaggerated movements as visual emphasis. The rule of three is indeed very important here.

Now in this routine you will see how the sides of the stage are used in puppet shows. Being on one side or the other and moving across the stage is an important visual act as each puppet deals with their position in this space. This is of course most notably seen in the “behind you” routines, the dodging, baby walking and sliding across the stage as done in the counting routines. This simple visual technique is used to introduce conflict between the Punch and Judy characters. The dancing before the kiss is disrupted several times by asides from Judy, slightly raising the tension and delaying expectation (of the kiss).

Here is another, somewhat more involved (adult) version of the kissing routine: [ Click here to see this ]

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The Baby

“The baby! The baby! The baby!” You can repeat something three times and then you can again repeat that same bit of business throughout the show. Rhythms and meta rhythms, as it were.

In a Punch and Judy show the baby is a simple puppet, here it has a broad flat bottom so that it can be put on the stage and arms that can helplessly swing about when it is shaken. It also has a hole in its bottom into which a rod can be inserted for it to perform the walking routine. The “walky, walky, walky” routine is pretty much standard for all Punch shows. Each walk across the stage is punctuated by Punch sliding the baby back to its side of the stage and swinging his legs over the stage on his side. In this video what happens to the baby has been edited out for some reason. Obviously the baby has inevitably met its fate by being thrown down stairs after causing Punch some consternation. Other videos reveal that Burnett puts the baby into a sausage machine: [ Click here to see this ]
a fate also shared by the constable. He uses the visual gag of the sausages changing colour: Pink for the baby and blue for the copper.

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Judy returns

Judy again is heard before she returns by the stairs. Martin Bridle does an amusing routine out of making a distinction between a puppet using stairs or a lift by having the puppets rise slowly or use an escalator by having it do this at an angle. Here Punch and Judy both look together down stairs and a joke is made about the baby drinking the water from the afore mentioned toilet into which it has apparently landed. Any possible act that could be interpreted as violent is given a humorous overlay. In a Punch and Judy show this is essential, especially these days, and consideration should always be given to how this is done.

At one moment Judy then has Punch close his eyes. Look very carefully when Judy says: “No peeping”, as this includes some very subtle puppetry that gives the puppet a distinct character. It may never be explicitly noticed but it is effective to the overall illusion the audience requires to believe the puppets are alive. These details count.

Now Judy has the stick. It is of course comically referred to as a “present”, again serving to undermine any impression of violence. The hit is a mere tap and is immediately extended into a comic action of the two puppets sea-sawing with the stick. This is made into an effective illusion by the black background and black sleeves Burnett seems to be wearing.

The next use of the stick is a smack on Punch’s bottom that has a reference for the adults in the audience to have a knowing laugh. As in the Pantomime, this is often done in Punch and Judy shows. The bending over business is once again done to a distinct rhythm or repetition - this one ending in a “dramatic pause”.

In this show Judy doesn’t actually get killed or even knocked down. But she still calls for a policeman. This is one way of dealing with the current issue of domestic violence that has been aimed at the Punch and Judy show. I notice in one of Mark Poulton’s show on youTube he has Judy say: “This may be a really, really good time to call for the policeman”, preceding her expected demise. [ Click here to see this ]

The point being that Punch can never actually say “That’s the way to do it!” after he has pummeled Judy with his stick. The quicker you can bring up the copper the better I was once told. The trick being to either stylise the hitting into a sort of dance or make it less significant. But remember it is a feature of the show and leaving it out altogether is a move towards inauthenticity.

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The Constable

The speediest way to bring up the policeman is to have the children shout out, make siren noises (Clive Chandler and Burnett in other shows) and have the voice from below sounding very officious. This covers any delay and drives home the point that is most essential to the show: that it is about Punch confronting his various adversaries each representing a different form of oppression.

The lowering of the voice to gruffness and lots of officious police language is important for this character and, once again, how the character comes up on stage. In most Punch shows the arrival of the policeman or beadle is very crucial to this particular routine. In this show he uses the voice and just brings the puppet up “stairs”. In shows by others the constable appears at the side searching for his criminal, while Punch goes on the run. Of course the good old “Hello! Hello! Hello!” is most useful. To help establish the bossiness of this character, Burnett even has him giving instructions to the audience before he starts to gather his evidence. Of course the audience are ever willing to provide the constable with an account of Punch’s crimes. They know what’s what, as Geoff Felix points out in his own inimitable warm up.

The routine here is that of “Behind you!”, Punch keeps appearing behind the constable and ducking down. This is a routine that must be done with timing that also includes the shouting of the audience. It is one of those things that if you do it for too little it loses its joke, and if you do it too often or too slowly it becomes tiresome. You can also easily lose control of over eager and noisy children if you are not careful. Here the Copper keeps crowd control according to standard police procedure. The whole thing is concluded by moving along with another gag: that of falling on to his nose.

The constable is knocked down and rolled on the stage. But he keeps talking so that he is never seen as being ‘killed’, and even says “Bye, bye”. This technique I have seen used with Judy where she says “My mother was right. I should never have married him.” (John Styles) while being rolled along the stage. Like cartoon characters puppets do not die.

However, it seems the police are fair game. Perhaps it is because he has a helmet. At this point Punch is allowed to gloat with a “That’s the way to do it!” Of course one way round this is to train the audience to shout back; "Oh no it isn't!" or have the "dead" puppet lift its head and say this.

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The Ghost

This is one of those characters that a Punch performer can choose to include or not. This sort of character can be used to give shows variation if you are doing a number of performances at the same event throughout the day. In this show it is a bit of dodging about. The black background is effective here with the head raising and at one point the ghost walks into the side of the booth (Not a very competent apparition. I have seen a ghost where the head rises and it accidentally knocks on the top of the booth to good comic effect (Lachlan Haig).

The point of the ghost is that it represents something people are scared of - fear. But in the end all it has is a pathetic and silly “Boo!”, whereas Punch has a stick, which he uses to rhythmically end the routine by knocking down the head and sweeping the ghost, reduced to nothing more than a limp handkerchief , off the stage. At the end of this Burnett uses a little trick of having Punch put aside his stick by seemingly standing it up on the stage while he does a few self-congratulating claps.

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The Devil

This routine begins with an anticipatory voice off stage. A threat. Constraints, fears and threats are the adversaries of Mr. Punch.

Fear is represented well by glove puppets as they can be vigorously shaken to appear as though shivering and run from side to side of the stage in panic. The edge of the stage can be used as an inadequate hiding place which the “little devils” in the audience are only too willing to reveal.

In this show Punch goes off with the devil having arranged to fight it out. Joey comes up singing a song looking for him. The purpose of this is to instruct the children to support Punch in this fight with the devil, on the basis that if Punch loses we may never see Mr. Punch again. This premise that if we allow the Devil to get Punch we will never enjoy another show is also used by Glyn Edwards. God knows how this plays out in the minds of the young audience.

Amusingly at this point he talks to a child in the audience who’s name happens to be Angel.

There are a number of ways to end a Punch and Judy show. Burnett has Punch defeat the Devil and swing the puppet about (The puppet has been specially designed for this.) and then Joey comes up and they dance about to the mouth organ music accompanied by Joey on the tambourine.

Personally I have Punch hearing a voice calling his name from below and he thinks it is the Devil coming back for him, so he says goodbye and goes off. It is in fact Joey who comes back up and finding out that Punch has gone says: “There is no show without Punch, so that must be the end of the show.” Although this is an old saying it seems not many people know it these days. I also have the Devil say “I am the devil you know, and there is nothing better.” But few get that joke too.

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Other routines Rod Burnett includes in his show are:

The Hangman. Coming after the visit from the ghost, this is the usual business of trying to get Punch to put his head through the loop and hanging himself. The entrance is to a slow song of meaningless words. There is a poignant point here where there is a moment of silence, with the the hangman spreading out the noose so it will be a nice fit. The routine is done to the rhythm of the puppets repeating “head in there.” (At one point it even becomes a little song and dance.) and asking the audience whether it is in the right position or not: “Yes or no?”. Of course Punch gets it wrong each time. Eventually, while dancing about, the hangman unknowingly has his own head put in the noose and Punch pulls it tight. Hanging from the noose he is swung outside the booth and back in to fall down below. This is a slight variation on the traditional routine where the Hangman suggests to Punch that he will show him how to do it.
[ Click here to see this ]

The Crocodile, in which Punch thinks it is a pussy cat and pats it. The crocodile keeps opening up its mouth to show its many teeth. Punch closes its mouth and continues patting up it. He feeds it the sausages, left on the stage from the sausage machine, and eventually removes a row of its teeth (a special puppet feature) and knocks it down stairs.

The appearance of the crocodile is preceded by the sausages moving in the same way the pillow does. Think of props as puppets.
[ Click here to see this (part 1) ]
and continues here:
[ Click here to see this (part 2) ]

Counting and audience expectation of a sequence is played with in a routine where Joey the clown cheerfully calls out “number one.” from below. Then repeats this with number two. Punch repeating what Joey says each time. When he gets to three it turns out to be a count for a whack on Punch’s head with the stick. A very simple but effective bit of business, mainly because it uses the show’s well established repetition and rhythm. This is repeated and Punch comes to expect the hit, as would the audience, and covers his head protectively with his hands. Joey comes up but this time doesn’t hit Punch. He then asks “Number three?” sounding as a question. Punch looks up saying “Yes” and gets his whack. So there is a slight, playful pause in the rhythm.
[ Click here to see this ]

Pillow that moves. Punch trying to sleep on a pillow. This sequence shows how glove puppets can effectively show affection in that Punch plumps the pillow before rotating himself down onto it (literally falling to sleep).
This also occurs in some other shows with the baby and the crocodile and even Judy. After a few tries at falling asleep, Joey removes the pillow away and we hear the loud wooden sound of Punch's head hitting stage. which punctuates the set rhythm of threes. Eventually he says goodnight and sleeps, snoring in an exaggerated way rising up and down with each snore. Joey takes away the pillow again and puts it back to confuse Punch. Eventually he takes away the pillow and the routine finishes with the same counting as done before, but quickly. A nice bit of bracketing to complete the routine.
[ Click here to see this ]

Punch