You are in the Special Features section - Geoff Felix Punch and Judy man

Geoff Felix Punch and Judy man

 



 

 

 

 

Geoff Felix - Puppeteer and Punch and Judy performer

 

Geoff Felix - Puppeteer and Punch and Judy performer - image courtesy of and copyright © Ned Dyke-Coombes

Punch and Geoff 
(image courtesy of and copyright © Ned Dyke-Coombes)

 

Here Digger 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.


 

Geoff Felix - Puppeteer and Punch and Judy performer (image from Geoff Felix archive)

 Punch in the park
(image from 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?

Geoff: 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.

Digger: Any movies that we'd recognise?

Geoff: My first film was one called Return To Oz.

Digger: Ah! A favourite of my two daughters. They watched that before they saw the original, time and time again.

Geoff: I was the wings of the chicken - Dorothy didn't take Toto this time, she took a chicken.

Digger: 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.

Geoff: I learned a lot on that film because I was there for almost every take.

Digger: Was that Elstree studios? Pinewood?

Geoff: 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.

Digger: Yes, I can see them all in my mind's eye now.

Geoff: 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...

Digger: Some good films.

Geoff: 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.

Digger: Punch and Judy is a great link with the past. Why is it so perennially popular with children and adults?

Geoff: 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.

Digger: Is there much inclination to improvise?

Geoff: 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 of shows.

Digger: 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?

Geoff: 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.

Digger: We saw a show near Warwick and our granddaughter was scared because one of the characters was a big spider.

Geoff: How old was she?

Digger: She was about five at the time.

Geoff: 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 money.

Digger: And they'd take the best spots.

Geoff: Yes, and follow you around. But, of course, children are programmed to laugh at puppet shows, thank goodness.

Digger: It's almost as if they like being scared sometimes.

Geoff: 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. 

Digger: 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 chronologically?
 
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.

 

 

Geoff Felix - Puppeteer and Punch and Judy performer

Geoff's show - Punch, the sausages and the crocodile

 

 

Digger: Obviously both in the UK? What about other English-speaking countries?

Geoff: 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 Chris 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 occasions.

Digger: Whatís the European connection with Punch?

Geoff: 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.

Digger: So if we went around the world weíd be able to spot characters that weíd instantly recognise as Mr Punch?

Geoff: 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 would recognise.

Digger: I bet theyíre thrilled when you do?

Geoff: 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 speak English.

Digger: 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.

Digger: Yes, I can also remember doing papier mache at school.

Geoff: 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 up.

Digger: Very satisfying.

Geoff: 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.

Digger: How inspirational.

Geoff: 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.

Digger: Is there much maintenance required?

Geoff: 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 the audience.

Digger: Do you ever record the show so you can see how it looks?

Geoff: 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.

Digger: I suppose it goes without saying that you need some gaps and silences to create more tension?

Geoff: Yes. In fact, some of the most rewarding parts are those moments of silence when the audience is holding its breath.

Digger: Yes, I know exactly what you mean.

Geoff: Because that shows that the audience really are engaged and are hanging on every move.

Digger: Children and adults alike.

Geoff: Yes.

Digger: 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 late.

Geoff: 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 Italy.

Digger: 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.

Digger: If it was a dramatic play theyíd had Punch intervening?

Geoff: 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.

Digger: How did the association with the seaside come about?

Geoff: 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.

Digger: I remember all of these although I donít know where I saw them.

Geoff: 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 mobile phone!

Geoff: 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.

Digger: That IS fame.

Geoff: 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.

Digger: I bet their names all appeared on a list!

Geoff: 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.

Digger: Itís a bit like pantomime in that respect, isnít it?

Geoff: Yes, the sausages are probably straight from pantomime.

Digger: You were invited to Italy to perform. How was this received?

Geoff: 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.

Digger: In the same way that Python and Bean and Benny Hill seem to need no translation.

Geoff: 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 as well.

Digger: They say that about communication, donít they? They say itís mostly visual rather than verbal?

Geoff: 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 visitor.
 

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. 

Digger: You've written a couple of books on the subject?

Geoff: 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.

Digger: Is there a third book on the way?

Geoff: 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.

Digger: Thatís a good point. What do you think the future holds for Mr Punch and company and for you?

Geoff: 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.

Digger: Are there new people coming through?

Geoff: 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.
 

 
 

 

Geoff Felix - Puppeteer and Punch and Judy performer

Geoff's Punch and Judy show at Kingston May Merrie


 

Geoff Felix - Puppeteer and Punch and Judy performer.  

 

You can telephone Geoff on: 0208 903 3869

To make a booking or email Geoff at: geoffreyfelix@hotmail.com

Geoff's website is:
www.geofffelix.com

 

 

 

 


This page layout and content  is the intellectual property of www.retrosellers.com and cannot be reproduced without express permission. 

We are not responsible for the content of external websites.

If we have inadvertently used any image on this web site which is in copyright and for which we, or our retailers on our behalf, do not have permission for use, please contact us so that we can rectify the situation immediately. Images in this article are, to the best of our knowledge, either in the public domain or copyrighted where indicated. 


 

www.retrosellers.com 

Home Page | About | Contact | Terms & Conditions | Privacy Policy