That’s The Way To Do It! A History of Mr Punch

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A few weeks ago we were at Blaenavon’s World Heritage Day and there was a Punch and Judy show so we decided to stay and watch it, because we thought Marianna would love it. To say we were wrong would be an understatement. Marianna was so terrified of Mr Punch and his cohort of victims that the mere mention of the little bugger will actually make her shake with terror. But I on the other hand seem to have developed a little morbid fascination with Punch and Judy and Co.

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Everyone knows the story of Mr Punch, or at least the key elements. Mr Punch kills his child and his wife Judy, and the policeman who tries to arrest him, gets attacked by a crocodile, then beats the doctor who saves him for giving him a bill (although seeing the sort of bills from American doctor’s I can see why) after finally facing trial Mr Punch manages to trick the hangman into hanging himself, and is then haunted by a skeleton, before beating the devil himself, all the while exclaiming “That’s the way to do it”. 

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Its a show that has been going on since 1662 (with Mr Punches birthday being recognised as May 9th) the diarist Samuel Pepys saw an early version of the Punch character in Covent Garden in London. It was performed by Italian puppet showman Signor Bologna. Pepys described the event in his diary as “an Italian puppet play, that is within the rails there, which is very pretty.” Punch chases his roots back to the Italian Commedia dell’arte appearing as a hunch back in a jesters motley characterised mostly by his jutting chin and hooked nose (giving him almost the shape of a crescent moon) he carries a stick almost the size of himself called a slapstick (where the term slapstick humour derives). Originally performed as a marionette show it wasn’t until the mid 18th century that it gave way to the more well known glove puppet.

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A more substantial change came over time to the show’s target audience. The show was originally intended for adults, but it changed into primarily a children’s entertainment in the late Victorian era. Ancient members of the show’s cast ceased to be included, such as the Devil and Punch’s mistress “Pretty Polly,” when they came to be seen as inappropriate for young audiences.

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The story changes, but some phrases remain the same for decades or even centuries. For example, Punch dispatches his foes each in turn and still squeaks his famous catchphrase: “That’s the way to do it!” The term “pleased as Punch” is derived from Punch and Judy; specifically, Mr. Punch’s characteristic sense of gleeful self-satisfaction.

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In modern times Punch and Judy is often chided as violent and inappropriate for children, for its glorification of domestic violence and death, and Mr Punches gleeful malignance, but if your going to put on a Punch and Judy show, “That’s The Way To Do It”. 

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