Basingstoke loves Punch. Perhaps it is in no small part thanks to the late Mr. Norman Morris – The Pride of Wessex. Norman lived and worked around Basingstoke and Punch’s history in this area of Hampshire, he was the Punchman bookers went too. Norman cast his own Punch figures and, in fact, his Devil and Punch came from the same mould. Norman’s claim to fame though was his mobile Caravan barrel organ. Julie and he toured the country performing Punch and playing the organ. Southend is where I particularly remember his appearances, where he not only ‘showed’ but also presented barrel organ music at the pier’s entrance in order to gather an audience.
And Norman’s love of the organ was matched too by his respect for Punch, a respect which probably cost him his life – but more of that anon.
Norman had contacted the older of the two and adjacent Basingstoke Shopping Centre’s management and offered to provide a Punch festival, with balloons. Norman and latterly ‘Larger Than Life’ acted as organisers and providers of trolleys for the professors and mats for the children to sit on. Dressed as a policeman Norman went out ‘laughing’ and handing out helium inflated balloons and ensuring the three performers entertained in a strict rotation. Over the years he drew performers from as far apart as Norfolk and Southampton. Latterly I, Chippy Wood and David Wilde and James Arnott have been booked to perform but Richard Tucker, Geoff Felix and many others have graced the courtyard to show their work. Apart from Norman, Basingstoke has enjoyed (amongst others) : Philip Dann (Dandini Puppets), Geoff Gould, Chris Drewitt, Tony Drewitt, Geoff Felix, Kevin Hart and Bob Sacco.
The balloons, when deflated, change the vocal cords and in the early years my son used to accompany me and render Norman insensible by making funny voices and silly sounds. Julie, who was always on hand to help, used to reprimand Norman but I let Matthew do his worst – what’s life without a laugh?
We used to pitch in front of Debenhams, now Primark or adjacent to Sainsbury’s entrance on the walkway to the railway station. It meant there was a quick get-away for some but also meant Platform 5 broadcasted some of our shows, over their tannoy system – quite illegally of course! (I hasten to add the illegality wasn’t on the part of any Punch man). Power was supplied, the security guards, who used to look forward to our appearance, would provide and shin up a ladder to plug us all in. The courtyard was open to the elements and anyone whose booth was fragile could get caught out and be blown over – Robert Styles suffered this ignominy but those of us who knew better, ensured we were always weighed down. Parking was fun, in the basement carpark but wheeling a trolley up the goods lift became something of an annual rite of passage. We were provided a secure, empty shop unit, for once booked you were expected to work two days but you could leave your stuff and return next day to find nothing had been touched. The Punch festival went over a full week which meant there were many changes of performers. The festival proved so popular, that any attempt to curtail it was resisted by the Basingstoke shoppers and in fact, one year they demanded and got an extended booking period – the festival ran for longer than the advertised week.
They continue with the balloons but the days of a laughing Policeman are sadly over.
Norman initiated Punch’s ‘Picnic in the (adjacent) Park’. The first was held just at the same time as the shopping centre festival; Norman ran between the two, did his barrel organ, ran a kiddies Punch themed treasure hunt and finally did his Punch show. All that effort resulted in him, mid-show collapsing and dying in his booth. He was too young but the strain of all that giving, while (like some of us) carrying a few extra pounds, gave him a massive heart attack and that resulted in Julie finding herself a widow too soon.
We still see Julie; she pops along for a chat. We miss Norman, he was ‘almost’ a larger-than-life character. I don’t know for how many years the festival has run but audiences could be good and the two days provided a welcome pitch to anchor the year and bolster the finances.
It’s always challenging working Basingstoke but the opportunity to meet with ones fellow performers is always welcome and besides – Basingstoke loves Punch!