The Big Grin Symposium

The College of Professors has been proudly defending Mr Punch since 1985. But when it comes to protecting heritage and tradition, even Punch himself is asking, “what IS the way to do it?” The Big Grin Symposium was convened to interrogate and debate the work and import of the ongoing Big Grin festival. And, over two days in early March, the Centre for Creative Collaboration played host to academics, practitioners and interested parties from across the globe keen to debate Punch and Judy's relevance.

Mr Punch seems to have been sorting himself out when it comes to his own heritage. Glyn Edwards, Punchman and Professor, is quick to defend Punch against “lazy media, the blinkered journalists” and – worst of the worst – political correctness. He and fellow practitioner Clive Chandler have been celebrating Punch’s 350th birthday since May 2012, as part of the year long, Heritage Lottery funded, Big Grin festival. As protectors of Mr Punch’s identity, they’ve been orchestrating his survival for decades. They are not, however, defenders of “poor Punch and Judy shows, of the thoughtless and badly done.”

The great sinner

History makes no excuses for Punch. Carolyn R’Oark condemned him as a great sinner – “he’s a homicidal, infanticidal, wife-beating liar.” But equally, throughout his multi-national past, he has risen up against the injustices of the police, the hangman and even the devil, and emerged triumphant as the anti-hero of the working class. R’Oark suggested that he fills a deep-seated human need for cathartic violence; the desire to slap someone round the face who has been doing us wrong. He lives in a fantasy world, a perennial Feast of Fools, in which he does exactly as he likes and receives no punishment. Punch lives out our fantasies, showing the bad guys what’s what on our behalf, while we are safe in the knowledge that nobody really gets hurt.

Traditions aside, Karian Schuitana argued that many consider Punch and Judy shows too rude and old fashioned for contemporary young audiences. But this isn’t news for Mr Punch – his violent proclivities been considered inappropriate from as early as the 1870s. The showman has always had to sacrifice artistic endeavor in the name of audience and (almost as important if not more so) profit potential. As part of her research into Punch and the child audience, Schuitana discovered that many more schools would be interested in featuring Punch and Judy shows if clear educational benefits were added that link to the curriculum. Would that be asking too much of Punch, traditionally the everlasting anarchist?

Mastering reinvention

Ariel Doron has been reinventing tradition. Without a traditional puppet in his country, Doron took Italian Pulcinella, French Polichinelle and English Punch, and made him Israeli. Pinhas feeds gas bills to a camel, molests Rudi and slaps General Moshe Dayan around his one-eyed face. He even makes the dove of peace into a tasty dinner. By taking the universal language of Punch, and giving him themes pertinent to his country, Pinhas is both general and specific, and belongs to everywhere and nowhere. There is no formal transition or training required to pass on Punch; Doron nicely described Youtube as his master. Miguel Arreche argued that, “Tradition is not tradition because it is old, but because it is alive.” It is not the origin that is important, but rather the journey.

If Punch can be nation-less, can he also be gender-less? Nenagh Watson discussed her foray into Mr Punch and asked, “Can women be Punch?” Yes, it would seem. Lesley Butler has successfully been doing it for years. Even though the swazzle conveniently manages to override gender, Watson suggested that the puppet has a rigid element of the actor, and it’s not just the voice but also the personality of the puppeteer that contributes to the puppet. Can performers ever really be something that they are inherently not?

The popular traditionalist

In the early days of Pulcinella, the high variation of dialect limited the trajectory of the puppeteer. But as language develops, so has Mr Punch, and you can find him just about anywhere in the world. He is on the internet, just as alive as he is on the beach, on the streets and in museums. Albert Bagno stated, “Photocopies aren’t useful, and as historical performers, we have to grow too.” The puppeteer finds the right character, at the right moment, in the right country, in the right language, and their puppet becomes part of popular culture. If they can adapt to other moments, in other places, they become tradition.


Big Grin Symposium: International Perspectives on Puppets, Popular Culture and Heritage
1-2 March 2013
Centre for Creative Collaboration Acton Street, London


“Tradition is not tradition because it is old, but because it is alive.”

Additional Info

The Big Grin is a national celebration of Mr Punch’s 350th Birthday, and it continues until May 2013.