Britain celebrates 350 years of Punch and Judy

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Dozens of puppeteers gathered in central London on Sunday to celebrate 350 years of the Punch and Judy show, an anarchic English seaside entertainment known for its slapstick and casual violence.

On the second of two days of festivities, Punch and Judy men and women -- known as "professors" -- took their hand puppets on a procession in London's Covent Garden, staged shows for hundreds of children and held a church service with the red-nosed Mr Punch in the pulpit.

"Punch and Judy pokes fun at all the establishment, but it's got a lot of heart," said Maggie Pinhorn, organiser of Sunday's events, which commemorate the first recorded mention of Punch and Judy by diarist Samuel Pepys.

The show, performed by a single puppeteer in a striped booth, features the outrageous Mr Punch, who initially appears happy with his wife Judy and their baby before things go downhill when he is asked to babysit.

He fails terribly, sometimes even feeding the baby into a sausage machine, before getting into a fight with his returning wife, then a policeman, plus usually a crocodile and a ghost.

Punch fights off his opponents -- who can also include a devil, a doctor and a hangman -- using a stick, the original "slapstick", in a story descended from the Italian Commedia dell'Arte and its long-nosed character Pulcinella.

Children screamed with delight Sunday as they watched a series of shows in different booths dotted around the central London venue, each with its own special features, including French, Japanese, US and Australian versions.

Puppeteers insert a "swazzle", or two pieces of metal bound with fabric, into the roof of their mouths to produce the show's trademark squeaky voices.

"It's pantomime, it's a live cartoon," said Katey Wilde, 40, who performs in the seaside town of Brighton as Professor Peanut, having learned the art from her father aged 17.

She mainly performs in schools, where about half of the children have never heard of Punch and Judy before, she said -- "but the reaction is always the same -- they love it. They can shout at the characters, they can change allegiances, they love it."

Punch and Judy's popularity waned in the 1980s and 1990s as critics objected to what they saw as a ruthless portrayal of domestic violence, but Wilde said Punch had "weathered the storm".

"It's not violence, it's physical comedy. It's much too knockabout and silly to compare with real life -- that actually trivialises problems in real life," she said.

"In the old days they were horrified that there was a devil in the show. But it does change. You play to the cultural sensitivities of today," she added.

Professor Patel, otherwise known as Aftab Khan, a puppeteer, stilt-walker and Elvis impersonator from Enfield, said Punch could "lend itself to a lot of different cultures".

His Indian-flavoured show Punjeet and Judy-Gee features Bollywood music and turbaned puppets.

"It's about arranged marriages, domestic violence and infanticide -- it's a family show!" he said.

Pinhorn has run a yearly Punch festival for 37 years.

"It doesn't matter how bad he is. Children always love it," she said, adding that several of the Punch professors she knows are also clergymen.

Pepys, known for his frank and colourful account of 17th-century London, wrote on May 9 1662 that he had been to Covent Garden "to see an Italian puppet play that is within the rails there, which is very pretty, the best that ever I saw".

Audience member Ellis, 7, said Sunday that he would rate Punch and Judy second to Transformers, the film and animation series about alien robots.

"But I like Punch because of the bit where he whacks the policeman," he added.

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