The Big Grin Birthday 2012 celebrated 350 years of Mr Punch in London, right where it all began. International performances and a parade of the largest ever gathering of ‘Professors’ took place at St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden on Sunday 13 May. This evocative spot has been the geographical heart of Pulcinelia in Britain ever since 9th May 1662 when Samuel Pepys, the diarist, was strolling past and caught the performance of a new puppet show from Italy.

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Samuel Pepys loved ‘Punchinello’, as the character was called in Britain, so much that he recorded the sighting in his famous diary. ‘[In] Covent Garden … 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.’ The appeal, diversity and artistry of this ‘Italian puppet play’ have grown during the three following centuries and more; and as I enjoyed these post-millennial performances I wondered what Pepys would make of the modern art of Punch, now bursting from the ‘rayles’ of St Paul’s Church in all sorts of madcap directions. The incredibly varied performances came not only from Naples and England but also Japan, the U.S., Australia and France. The unifying features were the sardonic tone and the crack of the slapstick. But differing styles and storytelling modes provided a refreshing international clash. It became clear as ‘The Big Grin’ unfolded that Mr Punch has become a fascinating prism of cultural diversity and commonality across the globe.

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Pulcinella (Bruno Leone) came from Naples.

Throughout the Big Grin it was intriguing to see how the modern Punch has evolved in the last 350 years. In 2012 the Mr Punch who continues to pull crowds together in Covent Garden is a hand puppet parading over a small stage; taunting, hitting, kissing, and dancing with Death, with one ‘professor’ skilfully manipu- lating several characters. In contrast the 1662 “Mr Punch”, known as Pulcinelia, Pollicinella, Polichinello, Punchinanello and Punchinello, would have been a marionette controlled with string or rods, requiring several puppeteers and a more elaborate set.

I particularly enjoyed walking behind the stages and watching the Professors dance and contract expressively while they spoke their invisible words which so captivated the audience.

In 2012 Mr Punch’s wife and counterpart, Judy, is now synonymous with these short slap-stick performances, typical of fairgrounds and seasides across the country. Punch and Judy shows have inspired many artists to become ‘professors’; and no longer is this an entertainment commissioned by a monarch but is a form of international street theatre which people of all ages and backgrounds are able to enjoy.

Before the individual shows began on Sunday, there was great excitement in the historic square as the Professors gathered beneath the higgledy-piggledy rooftops and windows of this area of central London. Some proudly displayed their puppets while others had dressed in full costume themselves. A carnival atmosphere grew as the Bournemouth Carnival Band inflated the noise of the crowd with brass and drums. Some performers embraced the more modern jester style of Punch, others wore white cotton, ghostly or even ‘skeleton’ costumes. Giant Crocodiles, Policemen and Judy look-alikes joined the celebration. The troop danced past the tourists and locals who were eating and drinking around the Royal Opera House and the old market, and eventually gathered on the main stage. A celebratory speech was followed by the appearance of Samuel Pepys himself. This largest ever gathering of Professors was marked by a historic photograph. The crowds cheered as the Punch professionals bowed and left the stage. The shows were about to commence!

Geoff Felix from Wembley, London, provided an excellent and hilarious start to a string of Punch experiences. Both dark and slapstick humour captivated all ages in the audience. It was particularly interesting in this show and during the other performances, – in all languages -, to see how very young children watched with unfaltering fascination. It seemed that from a very early age audiences understood the humour and stories transmitted through the skill of the puppeteers, even if the spoken language was not understood. This British show used the reds and greens and comic puppets which I have come to expect in Punch and Judy. The timing and pace of the performance caused continuous laughter. When I spoke with Geoff after the show he said that for him, the main significance of the Big Grin was the historical background. He recalled the sound of the ‘laughter ringing in the air’ at the first Covent Garden May Fayre in 1962; he returned in 1987 and hopes to do so again in another 25 years.

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Bruno Leone from Naples was also present in 1987 and he was determined to come back in 2012. As the event’s website states: “Pulcinella from Naples is Mr. Punch in his original feisty Italian form. He was a very special guest indeed at Mr. Punch’s 350th Birthday. Maestro Bruno Leone is the word travelled performer who has done the most to ensure Pulcinella’s tradition stays alive and well today in his home city.” With humour sparkling in his eyes, Bruno Leone said he hopes to be back in another 25 years but, just in case, he had come with younger colleagues who will ensure Pulcinella’s return in 2037. The traditional Italian show and the aesthetically beautiful French show were both fascinating in their own unique ways. The extended scene of Mr Punch dressed in white cotton and Death itself fighting over a coffin was particularly funny, although I was not able to understand the words. The movement and timing was so expressive that a great deal was communicated. Of course Mr Punch won the battle and escaped death and seemed to enjoy his bow as his long career continued unhindered by mortality.

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Unce Shiro Punch, from Japan.

It was a pleasure to meet the artists behind ‘Uncle Shiro Punch from Japan and to look at their wonderful set. I was sorry to have missed their display, but it was an honour to hear about their experiences of performing in Britain and other countries.

The Big Grin 2012 was an international feat which celebrated and continued the long career of Pulcinalia the entertainer, in a city which has evolved while the international humour of people has remained as morbid, ridiculous and responsive to the skill of the best contemporary puppeteers as ever.