Britain’s seaside resorts could lose their last remaining Punch and Judy shows due to rising levels of abuse being hurled at performers by vulgar viewers.
With just three official Punch and Judy acts still operating in England, two of the performers say they are subjected to foul-mouthed tirades when they ask for £2 donations.
Viewers wrongly assume that because the traditional shows are on public beaches in Swanage and Weymouth, Dorset, they are funded by the local council despite signs next to the stalls asking for a £2 fee, the performers say.
Punch and Judy staff have been shocked by the ‘effing and blinding’ shouted out in front of youngsters while performing the traditional puppet show.
Shows in the coastal towns of Weymouth and Swanage have entertained beachgoers for generations since they were set up in 1880 and 1904 respectively.
Staff have been shocked by the ‘effing and blinding’ shouted out in front of youngsters while performing the traditional puppet show. Pictured: Punch and Judy in Weymouth, Dorset
Britain’s seaside resorts could lose their last remaining Punch and Judy shows due to rising levels of abuse being hurled at performers by vulgar viewers
But Punch and Judy ‘professors’ Joe Burns and Mark Poulton say this summer’s antics have been the worst they’ve ever experienced.
They say their assistants have been left terrified by the abuse they have received on a regular basis.
29-year-old Joe, who works on Swanage beach, said: ‘There’s a lot of effing and blinding – it’s not ok swearing around kids.
‘It definitely feels more pronounced this year, people are getting more angry. Each day you wake up not knowing what’s going to happen and how people are going to react.
‘If we have to worry each year about the level of abuse we’re getting, you start to think, what’s the point in carrying on?’
Punch and Judy ‘professors’ Joe Burns (left) and Mark Poulton say this summer’s antics have been the worst they’ve ever experienced
It is understood that there are just three official Punch and Judy acts still operating in England
On one occasion, Joe recalled a family of eight setting up camp in front of the show and refusing to pay.
One member of the family followed the donation collector, screaming and shouting at them and accusing them of ‘ruining’ their day at the beach.
‘My ambition is to make people’s day at the beach, not to ruin it,’ Joe said.
‘The collectors that work for both Mark and myself have done this for years – it’s a very personable job.
‘We always use people who are friendly and smiley and happy. It’s emotionally distressing for them to come to work and be abused.’
Assistants have been left terrified by the abuse they have received on a regular basis. Pictured: Mark Poulton poses with the traditional puppets
Viewers wrongly assume that because the traditional shows are on public beaches, they are funded by the local council despite signs next to the stalls asking for a £2 fee
He said the misconception that Punch and Judy shows are funded by the council has made people resentful about paying.
However operators rely solely on audience donations to cover their overheads, such as paying for a licence to perform on the beach, paying staff and making a living themselves.
The recent backlash has compounded 18 months of hardship when neither the Weymouth or Swanage shows were able to operate due to the coronavirus lockdowns.
Joe said: ‘A lot of people think that we’re funded to be down at the beach, however both myself and Mark pay to be down here.
Mr Punch’s violent past
The earliest recorded evidence of Punch and Judy can be found in the diary of Samuel Pepys.
After a visit to Covent Garden in 1662, Pepys wrote: ‘Thence to see an Italian puppet play that is within the rayles there, which is very pretty, the best that ever I saw, and great resort of gallants.’
In the late Victorian era the show evolved into entertainment aimed primarily at children.
Ancient members of the cast, such as the Devil and Punch’s mistress Pretty Polly, were written out due to fears they were inappropriate.
The term ‘pleased as Punch’ is derived from Punch and Judy and comes from Punch’s characteristic sense of gleeful self-satisfaction.
‘Neither of us live in Dorset so we’re away from friends and family. We do it for the love but it’s also our job – but the money isn’t amazing.
‘We’re doing it for the passion and to keep the tradition of Punch and Judy on the beach – there’s a real danger of it being lost.
‘Donkeys, fish and chips, Punch and Judy – it’s really important for the heritage of these coastal towns.
‘There are only three full time Punch and Judy shows left so it’s really important for the heritage to keep going but it just gets harder and harder every year.
‘I could be doing private work and getting paid more I saw my first performance on the beach and I want to encourage others to carry on the tradition.
‘What we do here is open air – it’s theatre for the people in the most accessible place possible.
‘We both love working here – we want to keep coming back but it just makes it uncomfortable.
‘You just don’t want to wake up in the morning and not know if someone’s going to tell you to f-off or not.
‘We pay our licenses, we pay our insurances – people think we make a lot of money but some years I’m lucky if I’m able to pay myself minimum wage.’