Felix - Puppeteer and Punch and Judy performer
of and copyright © Ned Dyke-Coombes)
talks to Geoff Felix, Punch and Judy man and puppeteer, about
the history of Punch and Judy and the way it reflects the
times and social changes. The genre has survived for 350
years, Punch exists in countless manifestations around the
world and is constantly evolving. Nevertheless, Punch is
essentially a very British phenomenon.
in the park
Geoff Felix archive)
Digger: Hello Geoff. Can you please tell us a little of your
background and how you got into the world of Punch and Judy?
I began as a puppeteer. As a child I saw Andy Pandy and Bill
and Ben and those Watch With Mother programmes on TV. Those puppets are now in The Museum Of London. I always loved
puppetry and I always wanted to be a puppeteer since before I
could read and write. I remember sitting on my mother's knee
and declaring that puppeteers didn't need to read and write
and why was she bothering with Janet and John? (Digger laughs)
I went to drama college and then, after I left that, I actually
got work in films as a puppeteer starting in 1982.
Any movies that we'd recognise?
My first film was one called Return To Oz.
Ah! A favourite of my two daughters. They watched that before they
saw the original, time and time again.
I was the wings of the chicken - Dorothy didn't take Toto this
time, she took a chicken.
Yes, I recall. The stone wall was the face of a chap - I can't
remember the actor's name, but it was very effective.
I learned a lot on that film because I was there for almost
Was that Elstree studios? Pinewood?
That was Elstree. We worked as a team on the puppets for the
chicken and there was a character called a Gump which was like
an Elk's head. Tick Tock, Belina and The Scarecrow too.
Yes, I can see them all in my mind's eye now.
Unfortunately the film didn't have Judy Garland in it or any
songs, which made it a darker sort of film. But then I did
Labyrinth, Little Shop Of Horrors, Who Framed Roger Rabbit,
Muppet Treasure Island, Muppet Christmas Carol, The Adventures
Of Baron Munchausen...
Some good films.
Good stuff and that was great all through the 1990s. I did
make a Punch and Judy show while I was at college but that was
my fallback if I didn't get any film and television work. Then
I started work for a company called Ultimate Animates, which
provided puppets for films and television, and that was going
very well. Then the two directors got
headhunted and moved to America. A lot of work
for me dried up and it also coincided with the time when Jim
Henson died and he was providing a lot of work for puppeteers
in this country. His son took over from him for a bit but has
since not done a great deal after Muppet Treasure Island. So I
needed to search around for another source of income and I
still wanted to do puppetry. I had done Punch and Judy, but
it became much more important in my life. The more I did it,
the more I realised I was tapping into a very, very ancient
tradition. And it's become very important to me.
Punch and Judy is a great link with the past. Why is it so
perennially popular with children and adults?
The audience has a direct involvement in the show and it's
live theatre. Also the show itself has evolved over many, many
years and thousands of performances. It's evolved on the
streets and there's a winning formula with the structure of
the show that performers know works because it's evolved over
a long period of time.
Is there much inclination to improvise?
Oh yes, that's part of it. But when the audience watches a
good Punch and Judy show they're not just watching one
performer, they're watching the performances of many thousands
That's fascinating. All that tradition rolled into the show
you see before you. What happens if you get over-enthusiastic
children who want to have too much audience participation? How
do you deal with that?
That does happen and it's part of it. I don't really get upset
by that, or when people crowd around afterwards, because it
means they have engaged in the show and it's become a part of
their lives and they want to find out more. They want to look
at the puppets. Most people at the shows think there's
something special about the puppet that makes it good whereas
it's the way the puppets are used that makes it good. But I'm
happy for them to be interested.
We saw a show near Warwick and our granddaughter was scared
because one of the characters was a big spider.
How old was she?
She was about five at the time.
Well, originally Punch and Judy was for adults. The old time
showman regarded children, especially street urchins, as a nuisance
because they had no money in their pockets. And in Victorian
and Edwardian times, and Regency times before then, the show was
a busking show. It was taken around from street corner to
street corner and a collection was made. Well, children had no
And they'd take the best spots.
Yes, and follow you around. But, of course, children are programmed
to laugh at puppet shows, thank goodness.
It's almost as if they like being scared sometimes.
Well, I don't say 'scared', I say that Punch and Judy is not
Teletubbies. It is "the drama of the street corner" and there
has to be a little bit of a frisson, excitement when the crocodile
comes. It can't just be all happiness and light because life
isn't like that, it is a drama and there has to be tension in
it. And it does engage the audience very actively.
You have one of the most comprehensive archives on Punch and
Judy and have made a big study of the subject and proponents
of the genre. Who were/are the maestros and how far and wide
is Punch and Judy found both geographically and
Geoff: There have always been a handful of virtuoso performers
who have inspired others. In living memory I would say Percy
Press Sr, Bruce Macloud, Fred Tickner. These were showmen whose
names you probably don't know but who were very influential
because they inspired other showmen and passed on the flame as
it were. In the Victorian era there was the Codman family, the
Bailey family, the Jessons, the Smith family, the Green
family and the Manley family. These were families where
the tradition was handed down from father to son. Living today
thereís really only two families that are actively involved
in Punch and Judy, the Codman family and the Maggs family.
show - Punch, the sausages and the crocodile
Obviously both in the UK? What about other English-speaking
Punch and Judy did go to Australia and it went to America and
in fact there was a man called George Prentice in America who
did a film called Santa Claus and Punch and Judy which is available
to watch on Youtube. Also in Australia thereís a guy called
Van Der Craats who has come over to England and has made a
study of British Punch and Judy. Heís the epicentre of Punch
and Judy in Australia. Heís been to the May Fayres on several
Whatís the European connection with Punch?
In every European country there is a national character
similar to Punch. Itís almost like there needs to be one. In
Italy itís Pulcinella Ė dressed in white with a black
mask. That is an oral tradition handed down and there are some
wonderful performers. In Russia
thereís Petrushka and in Germany thereís Kasper. In other
countries as well they all seem to have a national puppet who
is a rebellious character who knocks the stuffing out of
authority (Digger laughs) and who represents the common man.
An interesting point Ė the only two countries that succeeded
in radically sanitising their versions of the national puppet
character were the Germans during the second World War who
sanitised Kasper. He became a good man who threw away his
stick and behaved himself. And then Stalinís Russia had Red
Petrushka who was a sanitised version of the original character.
It seems that as society got more oppressive so they feared
the anarchic presence of the puppet. There are moves now to
reintroduce the original Petrushka character, so there are
people trying to revive that tradition. In China thereís a
very strong tradition of puppets and I have seen some
wonderful Chinese puppet shows, both with marionettes and
glove puppets, especially in the Fujian province. There was a visit
from their puppeteer Yang Feng to this country who did some
wonderful glove puppetry. Thereís also a strong tradition in Japan.
So if we went around the world weíd be able to spot
characters that weíd instantly recognise as Mr Punch?
Yes, or his cousins. Even in Turkey, Karagoz which is a shadow
puppet, is their version of Punch and itís quite nice
because so many people from different parts of the world come
to England. I often question them and I ask them where theyíre
from to see if I can identify a national puppet that they
I bet theyíre thrilled when you do?
Itís very fascinating because when I do public performances,
in London especially, there are people who arenít shouting
out and it worries me that they not becoming actively involved.
And I think ďWhy is that lady with the long hair not
shouting?Ē Afterwards I discover that sheís just
arrived from Lithuania and doesnít know what on earth is
going on but still loves it anyway. And,
of course, sheís not shouting back, because she canít
Amazing. Where did you develop the skills to make your own
puppets and how much maintenance for the puppets is required?
They look very intricate.
Geoff: I used to work for Ultimate Animates as I said but
prior to this I always made puppets since I was six years old.
That was out of papier mache.
Yes, I can also remember doing papier mache at school.
The teacher got a lot of rolls like toilet rolls but slightly
small and some soft toilet paper and glue and moulded them
into the shapes, then added little bits to them to tweak them
It was great and then I had Pelham Puppets, which people will remember. I loved the yellow boxes
arriving. At one stage I worked for Pelham Puppets as
a demonstrator. They were based in Marlborough in Wilts and I
remember going to the factory and meeting Bob Pelham and
showing him some puppets that Iíd made. He was the most
charming of people and someone who had a big influence on me
as a child. He
showed me round and did everything you could hope for.
I demonstrated puppets in Hamleys and Selfridges. It was through doing the demonstrations that
someone got me into the films. I made a study of old Punch
figures to see how they were made, what made them particularly
attractive for an audience and what made them usable for
performers. I borrowed and bought old puppets and went to see
people who had puppets. I drew them and did measurements and
made detailed notes of how they were constructed. You could
tell a good working puppet when it was in your hand because it
just fits beautifully. I saw a very, very old Punch that was
owned by a lady who worked on Upstairs Downstairs Ė she was
the wardrobe mistress Sheila Jackson. And she allowed me to
take photographs and to have a look at it and you could see
the sweat marks where the fingers had rubbed inside the head as
the performer had done the show. You slipped it on your hand
and instantly it came to life and you knew you could do a show
with it. So those puppets, which I regard as working puppets
rather than those just for show, they were more interesting to
me and I made a study of them.
Is there much maintenance required?
Yes, you have to constantly maintain them. I donít believe a
Punch figure has to be totally pristine. I regard the knocks
and dents as 'the scars of battle' and they say
a Punch figure isnít a Punch figure until it has heard the
sound of laughter. By that I mean it has done shows and been
worked and appeared in front of an audience. A good Punch
figure will do exactly what you want it to do like any good
puppet. It has to be able to handle props, to gesture and not
be too heavy and also be sensitive so that you can move your
hand and the puppet reacts instantly and tells the story to
Do you ever record the show so you can see how it looks?
I havenít done that recently although obviously as I perform I try to
imagine how it looks from the front. I have had recordings of
my show made by others and theyíre very educational in that
you try and improve when you spot faults. I did, in the early
stages, make an audio recording of the show, and any bits of
the show that didnít get a good reaction or a laugh I
altered or cut.
I suppose it goes without saying that you need some gaps and
silences to create more tension?
Yes. In fact, some of the most rewarding parts are those
moments of silence when the audience is holding its breath.
Yes, I know exactly what you mean.
Because that shows that the audience really are engaged and
are hanging on every move.
Children and adults alike.
What are the most enjoyable aspects of what you do?
Geoff: There are two things really. One is the performance
itself and the reaction and laughter of the children and
witnessing their excitement when they tell me whatís
happened in the show. (Digger laughs) As if I didnít know.
Digger: Well you werenít there, were you? You turned up
Thatís right. And thereís a moment at the end of the show
when everything is over and the audience starts to disperse.
Iím listening to their reaction and if itís good itís
like nectar. You can hear their reaction and often thereís
en exciting chatter and a bubble of conversation as theyíre gathering themselves up to go away. So even if
there isnít an applause you can tell from hearing whether or not
youíve done well and when it goes well itís the best thing
ever. You can understand why people never retire from show
business. Youíre being the most alive you can ever be. The
other thing is doing the show gives me the opportunity of
passing on the tradition by introducing children to live
theatre and introducing people from other countries to British
culture. Itís one of those few things that people regard as
quintessentially British, although ironically it came from
In what ways has Punch and Judy evolved over the years Geoff?
Geoff: There has, indeed, been an evolution. Punch first came
to London in 1662 and when he
first came to London he was just a string puppet. In fact,
what he did was interrupt the plays in the same way that Eric
Morecambe destroyed the plays of Ernie Wise. They would have a
serious play and then Punch would come and interrupt it. So
when they were doing the creation or Noah, Punch would wheel
his wife into the ark on a wheelbarrow and say ďFunny what
weather weíre having Mr Noah.Ē Or when George was slaying
the dragon heíd jump on the dragonís back.
If it was a dramatic play theyíd had Punch intervening?
Yes. And it was also slightly satirical because in those days
with Punch as a string puppet they would satirise the opera of
the day which had Castrati singing with their high voices. Because
Punch had a high squeaky voice he could mimic them quite well.
And he became very fashionable in London and Bath. Then, in about
1779, a showman called Piccini brought a glove puppet version
of Punch to London and this quickly took off so he turned from
a string puppet to a glove puppet. Essentially, the nature of
the performance changed because glove puppets are more direct,
they can do more slapstick. They can pick up a stick and fight
with it, they can throw things out of the booth and it becomes
a faster show because youíve got one puppet on one hand and
one on another. Whereas the old shows with marionettes were
more complicated affairs because you needed several
manipulators, several cart-horses to carry the show around and
a tent where people would pay to go in. The new version of
the Punch show was more mobile and existed on the street
corner, you had one person doing the show and another
collecting the money. Then heíd pick the show up and walk to
the next street corner. It was a much leaner, meaner thing and
that was the first big change in Punch. The show that
the Victorians and the Regency people saw would always be a
two-man affair, the puppeteer and the man outside collecting
the money and sometimes interacting with the show. And, very
often, he would be a musician and they would work together.
Also there was a live dog in the Victorian show called Toby
who was regarded as an essential part of the performance. If
he was well trained then that was regarded as being very
important. These days thereís no dog and usually itís a
solo performer because you donít have to pay for two
people. Itís very rarely a busking show these days so you donít need anyone to collect the money.
How did the association with the seaside come about?
It began with the expansion of the railways and for the first
time poor people could go on holiday. And anywhere that people
went, Punch would follow. In those days they were very hungry
for entertainment. When you consider that in the Victorian
times, going for a walk was regarded as entertainment. (Both
laugh) You made your own entertainment, sang and played
instruments and so on. Well, a puppet show would be very, very
fascinating to a lot of people and Punch did very well. The
best showmen did very well and the worst ended up begging or
in the workhouse.
I can remember as a child I always watched Punch hang the
hangman. Now capital punishment has ended and so we donít
really tend to do that. Although I can do that routine if
required, and have done in museums. I can remember thinking it was the best thing but itís
not used much these days. Neither is the Beadle, although I
love the Beadle puppet.
I remember all of these although I donít know where I saw
The Beadle was replaced in about 1829. Showmen are, by nature,
conservative because these routines have worked so well. My
friend Joe Beeby always did the Beadle routine and he had a
lovely old Victorian puppet that he used up until his retirement.
Digger: Letís hope we donít see Punch using a laptop and a
You can introduce new things and ideas and if they have legs
theyíll be kept and if not they wonít. One performer
introduced a Chav into his Punch and Judy show and they got a
great laugh but I donít think it will be picked up by other
performers. But it was very interesting at the time. You can
introduce novel characters Ė Nelson was included while he
was alive and invited Punch to join the navy.
That IS fame.
You can have topical characters. In fact, during WWII several
showmen replaced their hangman puppet with Hitler and Punch
hanged Hitler at the end of the show.
I bet their names all appeared on a list!
And I re-introduced that routine for the VE celebrations about
fifteen years ago. I made a Hitler puppet and he got hanged.
When they were looking for Saddam Hussein he again popped up
and said ďNow you know where Iíve been hiding all this
time.Ē And wham, down he went.
Itís a bit like pantomime in that respect, isnít it?
Yes, the sausages are probably straight from pantomime.
You were invited to Italy to perform. How was this received?
Itís not just on this occasion, but a number of times when
Iíve worked abroad at puppet festivals and Iíve noticed
that Englishness itself was a thing that people were curious
about. They actually found the fact that I was English
intriguing. It went very well actually. I had great
audiences and went for five days and did three shows. It was
packed every time. They were worried about whether they were
allowed to have that many people in the theatre, which was
great. I did the show in English, with an introduction prior
to the show translated into Italian. But curiously enough the
audience responded just as well as an English audience. And
this is because Punch is spoken with a swazzle, which is a
special instrument to produce his voice. The performer is
forced to do actions. There are no long speeches in a Punch
and Judy show because that would just be boring and this forces
the show to be action-packed. The Italian audiences, and also
those in Ghent and Vienna, recognised the action and comic
business of the show which transcends language barriers anyway.
They responded just the same.
In the same way that Python and Bean and Benny Hill seem to
need no translation.
A little bit like that but not quite. When I was in Ghent, they
gave me the translator for the Belgian parliament and the Dutch
Royal Family who was a brilliant man who loved the
theatricality of working in the buskersí festival. He stood
outside the show in the old style and translated the show
simultaneously. I used to try and catch him out sometimes. We
did the show and after one had ended he said ďI canít
believe this. Do you know what the children were shouting?"
And I said ďNo.Ē He said ďThe
children were shouting to Punch Ė kill him where he is.
Belgian children arenít like that!Ē I just had to
laugh because it just showed you how engaged the children were
in the performance, even though they couldnít understand
what I was saying. Through the actions of the puppets they
understood the intent. And I think thatís what happened in Italy
They say that about communication, donít they? They say
itís mostly visual rather than verbal?
Puppetry is the language of gesture combined with your vocal performance
and they donít ever see your face. So you have to make it all happen
with your hands and with your voice and thatís part of the
skill of it. Another thing I noticed in Italy, and it was
quite sad in a way - in Sicily and Palermo thereís a very
strong tradition of marionette theatre. I did make it my
business to go and watch some Sicilian puppet shows which were
excellent. But they had very small audiences. In a way it was the novelty factor, I think.
Because it was on their doorstep they didnít really bother
to cherish it in the same way they lapped up a foreign
Digger: Itís often the case that people who live near a
famous landmark or attraction have never visited it. Thereís
a bit of that in human nature.
Geoff: Yes, taking it for granted.
Digger: Is Punch and Judy as relevant today to children from
the Internet and Playstation generation?
Geoff: Itís relevant because itís partly improvised and
can be adapted to the audience. You can change it to meet
their needs but also itís happening in front of them. Itís
also a collective experience and live theatre which you
canít get on a computer game.
Digger: I hate CGI. Itís so obviously generated by computer
and itís not realistic like in Cecil B DeMille's day!
Geoff: Interestingly enough, when they did a
computer-generated version of Jabba The Hut on Stars Wars IV,
it wasnít as successful as the puppet version on Return of
the Jedi. Yoda and Jabba were puppets on that and on subsequent
films they were CGI and I think a little bit of the soul was
missing. I just think you get that from a live performance.
Digger: Can you please tell us about your collaborations with
the V&A museum Geoff?
Geoff: I started to develop an archive and this started
because I was trying to write the memoirs of a friend of mine.
I was trying to track down an old performer. I went through
copies of the Worldís Fair of all the Punch and puppetry columns
written by Gerald Morice and I then found out that his archive had gone to The
Theatre Museum. This also houses the
archives of The British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild and the
historian George Speaight. When I went down there to look at
the stuff I found there were 192 boxes of unsorted puppet
material that had been taken from Morice's house
in about 1969. I started to write down
what was in all these different boxes and collate them all
together. When George Speaight died, his
collection went to the V&A and I was only partly instrumental
in cataloguing what was in there. I think itís very
important for puppet researchers to know these archives are available but as yet unsorted. My own archive is now
62 box files, sorted in alphabetical order. This arose because
I would have people visit me and I would find stuff. By the
end of the evening the whole place
was a mess. So now itís easily returned to a decent order.
My material was amassed from doing research to write about
Punch and Judy.
You've written a couple of books on the subject?
Iíve done two books Ė I ghost wrote the life story of Joe
Beeby who saw a show in 1926 and preserved it as a living time
capsule and I wrote his story down.
The second book I did was a series of interviews with Punch and Judy men about their lives and their influences,
again collectively they give you a taste of the tradition of
Punch and Judy.
Is there a third book on the way?
Maybe, but I need to earn a living. Itís very rewarding from other points of
view but itís doing the show that brings home some
money. Also, what itís about is doing the shows rather
than talking about them. Thatís very important.
Thatís a good point. What do you think the future holds for
Mr Punch and company and for you?
In 2012 there's going to be a big celebration because
that will be 350 years of Punch in this country and hopefully
there will be a big party and celebration in and around
Covent Garden and across the country in May. That is still in
the process of being organised. The future is literally in the
hands of the performers because with a really good performance
of Punch and Judy Ė thereís a glory in it and it will
rivet an audience to the spot and they almost canít move
away. There are some great performances out there.
Are there new people coming through?
Yes and weíre
hopeful. But, of course, itís hard work, having to make a
batch of puppets, take them to the venue and do the show and
deal with all the organising and the red tape. And still you
are trying to deliver a performance thatís memorable. Weíve
also got The Queenís Jubilee coming up and hopefully
that will be good for Punch as well. And letís hope the
tradition will long continue.
and Judy show at Kingston May Merrie
Felix - Puppeteer and Punch and Judy performer.
You can telephone
Geoff on: 0208
To make a booking or email Geoff at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Geoff's website is: www.geofffelix.com