Sh! What’s That?
Sh, what’s that, the wooden slap, the swazzle-voiced cry and the short sharp crack?
Sh, what’s that, the glazed-eyed clap, the hollow applause and the rat-a-tat-tat?
Passing by, you pause and try to catch a glimpse of – sh! What’s that?
Where the shadows and lamp-oil meet, pooling gold in the midnight street, behind the windows thick with grime, behind the door where the horseshoes shine, take good care if you stop and stare, for the hour is late and the moon is fat, and the sounds continue: sh! What’s that?
Peering out as you peer in, Mr Punch puppets sit and swing around the window frame inside, red as wrath and stiff as pride, tangled strings and broken things obscure the view but not of you – why do they stare beneath their hats? Why are they watching? Sh! What’s that?
~ The Punch and Judy Man, Anon., first printed in the Pagham-on-Sea Community Newsletter 4 March 1984
The Punch & Judy Man, as he came to be known, had a shop in Hangman’s Walk selling antique sets, props, marionettes & puppets, mainly but not limited to Punch & Judy shows. There were 15 Mr Punches in his window alone, and hundreds more in the shop.
To cross the threshold of the lair of the Punch & Judy Man, that devoted patron of these seaside shows, one must duck below the iron horseshoes framing the door, and the strange traps of woven strings suspended around the shop itself. Most puppets live in glass-fronted cabinets or are posed inside the sets, which mimic theatre stages. At night, they say you can hear the Punch & Judy Man performing the same sequence of variations of the play, sometimes w/ innovations of his own, voice masked by the swazzle.
(Audio: demonstration of the swazzle where the actor says, “That’s the way to do it!” a catchphrase of Mr Punch)
We speak about the Punch & Judy Man in both the past and present tense because, for the last 15 years, no one has seen him leave the shop. There are still deliveries, but few customers. Only those dedicated to this art ever venture to knock the shop door.
They say he is the last of a family of Punchmen descended from the first English disciple of Signor Bologna himself.
It is said that you can still hear the plays performed by the Punch & Judy Man at night, the shop lit by three antique oil lamps on stands. The lamps are set around a cleared space on the shop floor, where the set (from 1812) is positioned dead centre. Like Signor Bologna, the Punch & Judy Man uses marionettes in some of his midnight performances, particularly for the ‘older’ material, as well as the glove puppets now associated with the show. If you stop to watch, you will see the play being performed, the puppets going through the variants of the stories from midnight through to 3am with short breaks in between. You will not see the Punch & Judy Man, but you may see 1 or 2 seated people, customers, perhaps, paying rapt attention. You may recognise them from the train station or bus stop earlier that day – who knows how long they plan on staying? Or if they will leave? They come to learn, to watch.
Hurry by. You will not see them again.
What is a Punch and Judy Show?
That’s the Way to Do it! – A History of Punch & Judy, article from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London
An illustrated Punch & Judy Play [2nd edn, London, 1828]
From British Pathé, some Australian amateur Punch and Judy, traumatising children in the 1950s – adorable.