Newtownards Celebrates Punch and Judy

Charles Dickens thought them 'quite harmless'. The Web Theatre shows the puppets' good side on their 350th birthday

This month marks the 350th birthday of one of puppetry’s most enduring characters, Mr Punch. To celebrate the occasion, the Web Theatre in Newtownards is running a free Punch and Judy extravaganza on Saturday, May 19 featuring the talents of many local puppeteers.

Amongst the roster is retired Newtownards minister and long-time Punch enthusiast, Bill Haslett. 'I first saw a Punch and Judy show as a small boy, when my father took me to see a performer called Sam Corry,' Haslett recalls. 'His star attraction was a dog that would jump through hoops and perform all sorts of tricks, but I was much more interested in his puppet show.'

Captivated by the performance, Haslett sought out other Punch and Judy shows, including one at Portstewart Strand, before becoming involved himself. 'My grandfather made me some puppets, but it wasn’t long before I started making my own. I fell out of the way of it for a while, but years later I found a lot of these puppets and refurbished them to entertain my young children.'

Having put on puppet displays around the country for over 20 years (including long-standing shows at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum) Haslett was recently asked to join The Punch and Judy Fellowship. This is an organisation dedicated to keeping the tradition of Punch and Judy shows alive, and counts esteemed performers such as Ken Dodd amongst its ranks.

'I’ve just returned from Covent Garden with the Fellowship, where Punch has his roots,' explains Haslett. 'Samuel Peeps, the creator of Mr Punch, recalled seeing an Italian Commedia dell’Arte style puppet show there on May 9, 1662 – Punch was born shortly after. We had a great celebration there to commemorate the birthday.'

When asked if Punch and Judy are still as relevant today as they were 350 years ago, Haslett replies enthusiastically. 'At our show in Covent Garden we had over 200 puppeteers, and it felt as if half of London was out to see us.

'People are fascinated by the speed, colour and mystery of the performance. We had a procession right around Covent Garden market, and the whole thing made me sure that it would be dreadful to be completely sane.

On the Sunday we had a service in St Paul’s Church – I preached the sermon and it was bunged to the doors with a jazz band and street entertainers in the church. It was just sheer delight and everyone was so relaxed. We’re hoping to bring the same kind of feeling to Newtownards this weekend.'

The Web Theatre is currently the only family-owned theatre in Northern Ireland, and Saturday’s celebrations will feature performances from both Northern Irish puppeteers and those from across the water. UTV presenter Tina Campbell will also be present to cut a birthday cake for Mr Punch.

In this age of political correctness, some have argued that Punch and Judy are too violent, a bad influence on our children. Haslett disagrees.

'This is something I get asked a lot, and I always refer to Charles Dickens’ thoughts on the matter. He believed Punch and Judy to be "one of those extravagant reliefs from the realities of life", regarding it as "quite harmless, an outrageous joke, as nobody in existence would think it an incentive to any kind of violence". I think that says it all. He also goes on to compare it to the more boisterous parts of a Christmas pantomime.'

The celebrations at the Web Theatre kick off on Saturday at 10am, with puppet shows and craft activities throughout the day, as well a fancy dress parade for children and a display about the history of Mr Punch. Haslett is confident of a great turnout from people of all ages.

'I think everyone enjoys Punch and Judy. I did a show in a very sedate place in Scotland once – I don’t think anyone there was under 65, and I was a bit worried that they wouldn’t like it, but they really got into it.

'I also get great satisfaction at shows when children come up to me and say how enjoyable it was – this used to happen quite a bit when I was performing at the Folk Museum. My grandchildren like to play video games, but I suppose Mr Punch is like my own video game – it is great entertainment.'