‘That’s the way to do it!’ Punch and Judy Professor Mark Paulton
Marc Hill meets the man behind Mr Punch, Professor Mark Paulton
Published in August ’12
The workshop is full to overflowing; it is chaos to anyone but the owner and it is difficult to tell what goes on here. There are tools, boxes, tiny pots of paint; hand-painted signs and material are piled high like the backstage area of a theatre. Small partly carved faces grin at you out of the gloom and then by the window you see them… three brightly coloured puppets that appear to be standing, watching your every move, grinning madly.
These are the creation of Professor Mark Poulton, one of Britain’s few remaining full-time Punch-and-Judy performers and a well-known figure on Weymouth’s beach. Sure, there are plenty of magic-dabbling, balloon-twisting children’s entertainers who dip into the world of Mr Punch, but probably only a dozen or so specialists like Mark left in existence.
Mark has spent many winter days, with only his elderly cat and an iPod for company, restoring his puppets and sign-writing banners and getting everything ready for the important forthcoming season. It is one that will mark Mr Punch’s 350th birthday, and includes a two-day puppet festival, starting on 4 August, with workshops where visitors can make their own puppets.
It all started for Mark when, as a three-year-old lad, he went on a seaside holiday to Weston-super-Mare and became captivated by the voice of Mr Punch. A couple of years later he was back at the seaside, this time at Weymouth, and came across Punch once again. ‘I heard that same squeaky voice and I was instantly drawn to the Punch and Judy,’ says Mark. ‘I must have watched every single show for the whole week.’ Meanwhile, back at the bed and breakfast where his family was staying, he proceeded to pull all the stuffing out of his teddy bears to make them into glove puppets, and then crouching behind the bed, he performed his first show. Leaving school at the earliest opportunity, and ignoring careers advice about getting a ‘proper job’, he threw himself into the showman’s world and did his first season at Aberystwyth when he was just fifteen. Since then he’s worked every summer season along the West Country’s south coast, and will be in Weymouth again this year.
He looks back fondly to the heady days in his late teens when working the summer at Goodrington. He and his friends would work hard and play equally hard. ‘We got the work done, but I never had any money left come September – it was great,’ says Mark. ‘Of course all that’s changed now: I’m married, I’ve got a house… that avenue of enjoyment’s been cut off,’ he says with a laugh.
During the season he averages about three shows a day and, although the spectators aren’t obliged to pay, about ninety percent of them are happy to contribute. When his guide price is only a pound, it represents good value for up to 45 minutes of live entertainment. Out of season he performs at private functions and undertakes commissions making puppets for other Punch and Judy enthusiasts.
He has taken his show to places such as the Millennium Dome and an after-show party at the Brit Awards to the BBC’s One Show and Countryfile programmes and was presented to the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh when they visited Weymouth in 2009. More recently, part of his show has been included in the singer PJ Harvey’s video.
Back in his workshop, Mark is putting the finishing touches to his restored puppets. After three months of work, he’s still not happy with some of the details, but you’d be hard pushed to find a fault with them. All the puppets’ heads are carved from solid blocks of lime wood and then painstakingly decorated with enamel paints. That’s a couple of weeks’ work for each head before he’s even started on the costumes.
Mr Punch hasn’t changed much since he was first spotted in London during the 17th century. According to Samuel Pepys’ diary, on the ninth of May 1662, he came across the Punchinello show when in Covent Garden. The colourful marionettes that he watched had come from Italy and performed in a marquee. Over the years, Punch and Judy have evolved into glove puppets enabling the puppeteers to go out into the streets and perform with a small booth rather than having to set up large marquees.
Mark doesn’t believe that the show has lost any of its popularity in this modern digital age. ‘It’s always stayed popular for the single reason that it’s live. When people go on holiday to the beach, you haven’t got computers there, it’s almost the novelty of a week away from reality’ says Mark. Nor has political correctness dampened the show. As an experienced performer, he knows where to draw the line and has adapted his show to appeal to a modern mixed audience whilst retaining the essential pantomime slapstick comedy. The term slapstick, by the way, originates with Mr Punch and it refers to the stick he wields, which is composed of two wooden slats that slap together when hit – hence slapstick.
So what does the future hold? Mark’s seven-year-old daughter is helping out and working parts of the show, but he’s not sure if she’ll carry on the tradition. ‘If she wants to, I’ll encourage her, but I want her to see so many different walks of life and make her own mind up. I wouldn’t discourage her, but it’s a very haphazard lifestyle, which I love. It’s the alternative streak in me with a bit of anarchy thrown in as well.’ A little like Mr Punch then!