PJ. Paul Jackson. Punch and Judy
The first Noel the angels did say
Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay:
In fields where they lay, a keeping their sheep
On a cold winter’s night that was so deep.
“Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel!”
The woman, heavily pregnant with her first child, approached her accommodation with trepidation. Would it be appropriate? Would it be welcoming? Most of all would it be homely?
She turned to her husband, “Gordon” she said (for t’was his name) holdeth this ladder while I nip up it and splosh some paint on the ceiling. We must be prepared for the one thousand, nine hundred and sixty second yuletide.
Being something of a butler, in his spare time only you understand, he responded suitable to the occasion. Cognoscente of the circumstance he declared: “don’t be stupid, woman, you’re far too fat to be shinning up a ladder”. “Wait until after the babe is born and I shall be only too pleased to let you cover us both in white droplets of paint.”
This was prophetic indeed for the winter turned hard and “so deep” that the snow stayed ‘till Easter. Obedient and compliant, she did as she was bid, until he’d sloped off down to the Rose and Crown for a swift half. Up the ladder she hoisted herself and lo, and as a direct consequence, two hours later out popped I. An emergency dash to Epsom infirmary ensued and the woman enjoyed the next fortnight holed up in the maternity ward being royally treated to turkey, veg, roast potatoes and pud.
Christmas lunch, that year, in the Jackson abode was strictly a solitary affair. There may have been no room in the inn, he thought, but it would have been nice at least, to have been invited. Every year, upon occasion of his son’s birthday, the father reminds his eldest off-spring of how the Christmas lunch for that year had been one of poached eggs on toast. “What no stuffing” the son chides “I’ll give you stuffing’ is the customary reply, as he quaffs yet another bottle of Chianti.
Being a child of Christmas, in the tercentenary anniversary year of Punch’s first sighting, has its advantages. Especially when it comes to presents. While others may have to wait six months in order to see the Christmas gift and birthday gift combined, to make a really big present, I had but five days to wait.
And I’m used to waiting. I spotted my first Punch & Judy Show in Filey, West Yorkshire before I was sufficiently aged to know how old I was. Rooted to the spot I was! A spark emanated from the experience, and as any other Punch performer will tell you, once the fire is lit, it can never be extinguished.
Let us return to the butler’s tale. His career took off. Daily to the Houses of Parliament he commuted, to sit amongst the Parliamentary Press Lobby. The Lobby journalists sit in the balcony high above The Speaker’s throne. In time, he came to be the Chairman of this ‘august’ group; a position held by none other than one Charles Dickens. He now fondly recalls this self-same off-spring sitting in their children’s Christmas party tastefully dipping his sausage rolls into the custard, conversing with the then Speaker of The House of Commons, without a care in the world. Years later Terry Herbert performed Punch’s show for the same party, hands-over-head with some fantastic Wal Kent puppets. A conversation ensued where the father enquired where a professional Punch may be acquired. The name and address of The Supreme Magic Company was recorded in one of the many notebooks that would subsequently come to record interviews with Margret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Benn and the like. That Christmas would be one of the most disappointing.
My mother, you remember her, the one who sneaks up ladders and does other daft things when she’s not supposed too (agh, now I know where I get it from!) telephoned the then leading supplier of magical apparatus to hear their Punch figures being described in beautiful detail, how resplendent he looked dressed in red velvet and gold braiding. But, unfortunately, their punch maker had regrettably just died and while they could supply any other puppet, they were all out of Punch’s.
Knowing that all good things comes to he who waits, I waited. And waited, and waited. It’s enough to make your hair turn white. But eventually and jumping forward to my 13th birthday, another call to ‘Supreme’ delivered the news I longed to hear. “Can you supply a real Mr. Punch” I asked plaintively (and not without a little pathos)? ‘Yes’ came the reply… £25.00 to you.
£25.00! Twenty-five quid – in those days a small fortune. Luckily, I remembered that not only was Christmas around the corner so was my birthday. Taking a ‘no-way’ from my parents just wasn’t going to happen. So it was, the spotted youth was soon spotted legging it up the hill, order book in hand, with the appropriately worded cheque, envelope and stamp.
Is 13 special? It was for me. The Supreme Magic Company, after many years, delivered the present all tied up with string. The box remained unopened for at least a month. It rested adjacent to my bed. Nothing or no-body was going to take ‘him’ away from me. Nor were they going to wrap it, hide it, or do anything that amounted to a mis-appropriation. This one’s mine.
I only mention this as you can image how the box was handled during the removal from London to Leeds; well Ilkley, West Yorkshire to be exact. The Jackson’s hail from Leeds. It explains our love of Yorkshire Bitter, Dandelion and Burdock, Yorkshire Pudding and wondering around Ilkley Moor without a hat.
Late at night, and upon the eve of my birthday, the temptation grew just too great. The string was slit, the box prised open (as quietly as possible) and the magazines and further order slips and newspaper and plastic was stripped away to reveal Mr. Punch.
My goodness he was large. One finger in the head, the weight was too much to bear, the head dipped un-theatrically to his chest. Gutted but not unbowed, Punch was soon married to a Judy, baby, slapstick and swazzle. Supreme Magic published a DIY Punch & Judy Book: ‘Hello Mr. Punch’, in it were instructions how to make the booth, perform the show and to make the all-important slap-stick.
Hello indeed – if you think after all these years, I was going to take a stick to him, you’ve got another think coming. So, there he sat, in his box, ready for action but with a very reticent owner.
Punch & Judy needs a theatre from which to perform their little tale. The design for which is included (not entirely accurately as I was subsequently to learn) in the aforementioned book. Thrusting the plans beneath my father’s nose, I pleaded : ‘make me one…’.
‘No-way’ came the response… he may have been good with the pen but his efforts of a more practical nature were sadly lacking. The pen may be mightier than the saw, but it was the saw that was required.
No Way… he cried again; we’ll make it out of 2” x 2”…
… 1” X 1” is way too flimsy…
Have you studied Pythagoras? He’s the ancient Greek who once looked at a right-angled triangle and speculated… you know that diagonal bit must be proportional to the other two sides. I bet if I just put my mind to it I could fathom it out. Along the way he showed us Punch men (and women) that if you make a booth theatre from triangles it is more likely to be stiff and rigid. If you don’t, then if you push the top of what appears to look like the framing of a box kite, then the booth will slide slowly over and come to an inconvenient resting position akin to an angle of 55 degrees. And so, it proved with my first theatre.
Undeterred, a triangular batten was notched in and with a 3ft five-foot tall painted ply-board frontage, the first booth was built.
Now all I needed was to have the son of the local green grocer to need a children’s entertainer for his child’s birthday party. And as luck would have it, that’s just what happened.
Dorking, Surrey, a picturesque Surrey Hills town, one that has many flint fronted thatched buildings, lovely I thought, what a great place to break my duck. Walking into their front room I came to appreciate that the word ‘duck’ has several meanings. Those timber beams may look good in a ceiling but try as you might, fitting-up a Punch booth inside a century’s old cottage, especially one made of 2” x 2”, just wasn’t going to work.
I’m nothing if not adaptable and leaning the uprights against the beams we built a theatre. I say we, because the Punch weighed so much, that I’d enlisted the help of a neighbour to act as my accomplice and together, we worked our first show. I still remember throwing sweets out of the performing ‘window’ to a somewhat bemused congregation.
I returned to Dorking to work for the Local Authority, and being an authority on the green grass of home and the moors, while sitting with some local dignitaries, I casually mentioned that some hanging baskets may be nice. Returning a week later, there they were, (I’d forgotten and left my coat behind) and the building’s manager was just so pleased that I’d dreamed up another job for him to do (that he offered to ram the coat down my big mouth).
Yes, It’s taken many years to realise that my mouth is not sized or supposed to act a receptacle for my foot and sometimes I still forget. It troubles me and sometimes provides sleepless nights, but I digress (I’m good at that too!).
Up and running, I’ve performed on beaches, in hotels, in pubs, in homes (stately and otherwise), in parks, in fields (150mm under water) in cupboards, in corners with rose bushes projecting up my posterior, in fetes, fairs ( I haven’t yet done a Bar mitzvah but there’s still time) and yes, you’ve guessed it, I’ve even made it back, with Mr. Punch in hand, into the Palaces of Westminster.
Being born upon the tercentenary was a good clue as to what I’d become. But perhaps the biggest clue came from my Initials – PJ. Paul Jackson. Punch and Judy.
Yes, It was pre-ordained that in that Sagittarian night sky of nearly six decades ago, the stars and heavens prophesied that I would become a Punch and Judy Man.
And you know what? When you’re working the show and it’s going brilliantly, there’s no finer feeling.
(And if you spot those Three Wise Men, tell them I’ve take the Frankincense and Gold but they can keep the mere – thank you very much).
There’s more, you knew that right? But I guessed enough, is enough. As one booker pointed out to the mega-excited audience, it’s not getting him to start that’s the problem, it’s getting him to stop that’s the trick…..