Meet the hands behind Judy's little chicken

Harvey McGavin

Mockery is the stock in trade of Sergeant Stone, who operates his portable pantomime on the seafront. Harvey McGavin reports.


Some English summer traditions are met with laughter, mocked and ridiculed. Ask any Morris dancer. But one such tradition thrives on it.

Punch and Judy man Sergeant Stone sets up his striped booth on Brighton seafront. Soon it has attracted a small crowd of children, who sit cross-legged on a blanket, agog with expectation.

The show is a kind of portable pantomime, full of manic energy, daft slapstick and painted faces. It's infectious, and even the grown-ups are joining in with the "It's behind you! Oh no it isn't! Oh yes it is!" exchanges. Half an hour later and Sergeant Stone emerges smiling from his sweltering place of work. He was born in Brighton, brought up 100 yards from the beach and used to watch Punch and Judy shows as a child.

"I was lucky enough to have a magical childhood and one of the reasons I do the show is to give the children some magic. People say 'You must get bored with doing the same show.' But I do the same show on the premise that if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

"Punch and Judy men are an endangered species - there are fewer than 40 full-time professionals in the country. I'm sad more young people don't take up what is a very honourable profession. I'm trying to recruit more men and women to learn the craft."

But it was not, originally, a British one. Mr Punch first popped up in 16th-century Italian Commedia del'Arte, where he was known as Pulcinilla (or "little chicken") because of his distinctive squeaky voice, achieved with a swazzle, a device like a clarinet reed which sits on the back of the tongue.

"Judy used to be a shrewish, funny woman - a bit like the Lucille Ball of the puppet world. When Queen Victoria came to the throne, Judy, like all women and table legs of the time, had to be covered up and became a very nice woman who took her bashings with grace." What kept Punch and Judy going in the face of ever more sophisticated forms of entertainment? "The kids love joining in. In a way they are the extras in my show. A lot of older Punch and Judy men don't have the energy to perform to young people. They are used to Sonic the Hedgehog and Power Rangers and need a very vigorous presentation to keep their interest.

"The enduring appeal is that Mr Punch is allowed to be as naughty as every child would like to be. The babies love the colour and the shouting and the older ones like throwing stones. I wish I was doing it at Littlehampton where there's a sandy beach because they have got a lot of ammunition here," he laughs.

Some grown-ups don't like it either. Mr Punch's antisocial antics have, like Judy, come in for a lot of stick over the years and had the politically correct protesting: "That's not the way to do it!" But Sergeant Stone defends his puppet reputation.

"Children don't put such a serious construction on the violence - it's like a fairy story to them. Saying it encourages violence is like saying Goldilocks and the Three bears encourages squatting. I think Punch and Judy is perfectly PC."

Mr Punch, Judy, Baby, the ghost, the policeman and the rest are all handmade and all the puppets are left-handed, except Mr Punch. Operating so many different puppets and voices in such a small space can occasionally cause problems.

"Sometimes I wish I had three hands! Once I was doing the show and Judy was supposed to be dancing around with Mr Punch and kissing him. Then I looked inside my puppet rack and there was Judy. Mr Punch was kissing the policeman - but that's Brighton for you!" In the winter, Sergeant Stone's workshop visits local schools showing them how to make and operate the puppets. ("It's a little like Blue Peter on wheels") In the evenings he puts on an adult "sex and drugs and rock and roll version" in pubs and clubs.

He isn't in it for the money: "But I get total job satisfaction. You can't put a price on the smile on a kid's face."

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