It was 350 years ago yesterday that famed diarist Samuel Pepys was out on a stroll in London’s Covent Garden and recorded an encounter with “an Italian puppet play that is within the rayles there, which is very pretty, the best that ever I saw…” He was describing a marionette performance by an Italian puppeteer named Pietro Gimonde (who apparently performed as “Signor Bologna”) featuring a popular puppet character from his native country known as Pulcinella. Eventually, “Pulcinella” became “Punch” and a British cultural icon was born.
Punch as a marionette would go on to hit the height of his fame in the early 18th century before evolving in to a hand puppet in the mid-18th century and picking up a wife (Judy), a baby and a large cast of supporting characters along the way. Although not as popular as they once were, Punch and Judy shows are still performed all over England today, although never more so than at the annual Punch and Judy Festival in Covent Garden, which celebrates “Punch’s birthday” on May 9th (the date Pepy’s entry in his diary). This year’s festival takes place May 12-13 in in Covent Garden Piazza, London and will be extra special, as befits a famous fellow who’s been entertaining audiences for 350 years.
Even if you’re not in London this weekend, don’t despair! Events to celebrate Punch’s “Big Grin Birthday” are ongoing throughout the rest of the year, including a special Happy Birthday, Mr Punch exhibit at the V&A Museum of Childhood July 14th through December 9th. You can find more information and a complete listing of events celebrating Punch’s 350th Birthday around the UK at www.thebiggrin350.com.
(Embedded at the top of this post is a brief clip of Geoff Felix’s Punch and Judy show – which I’m told is fantastic – at the 2005 Punch and Judy Festival in Covent Garden)