Aston pensioner still packing a Punch
Daria Neklesa finds out about the highs and lows of life behind the Punch and Judy booth with Aston resident and ‘Punch Professor’ Des Turner.
It seems few can resist the lure of Punch - from small house parties to lavish soir�es in converted barns, traditional village f�tes to the deserts of Oman. As far as bookings go, Aston’s Des Turner has certainly played to a varied audience.
The 78-year-old has been a “Punch and Judy Professor” for nearly 30 years. His first show was arranged by a magician who spotted him during an amateur dramatics performance.
“He came up to me and said: ‘You’d make a great Punch and Judy man, have you ever thought about it?” A few minutes later he added: ‘I’ve got these puppets you can buy off me’”.
Punch and Judy have been a part of the Great British seaside tradition for generations. Thought to have been originally inspired by the Italian Comedia dell Arte, the show has evolved considerably since its first performance was recorded by Samuel Pepys in 1662. By the time Punch reached Victorian England, hand puppets had become common-place and the use of live animals, particularly smoking dogs, had also become fashionable. One performer even managed to train a live pig to dance with Punch.
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“There’s no such thing as a typical show,” Des said. “It’s a lot like jazz, you can improvise, do it a little differently each time. Usually you’ll find the children sat around the front whilst the parents stand at the back. They love to see their children’s expressions.”
Before retiring, Des worked as a draughtsman for British Aerospace in Stevenage. He used his skills to create a beautiful collection of puppets and other Punch and Judy paraphernalia. His collection comprises Punches with hooked noses, crocodiles that go snap and slapsticks. Hidden among some of the more traditional puppets is Margaret Thatcher as Punch. She has bulging eyes and she’s cradling a baby John major.
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The life of a Punch and Judy man is not without its dangers, Des said. Over the course of his career, he has swallowed no less then five swazzles - the device used to make Punch’s raspy voice.
“Many won’t use them now because of the dangers. I’ve switched from aluminium to silver. The aluminium ones used to come out all corroded.”
Then there’s the abuse. Once, when performing at Hertford Castle a group of teenagers rounded on his wife and assistant Mavis and hurled unpleasant language at her, Des remembered.
He has been thinking about retiring for a few years now, but hopes to make the 350th anniversary Punch and Judy convention held at Covent Garden next year.
But he is under no illusions as to his legacy: “You have to accept that your name’s not going to mean anything. Us Punch and Judy men, we’re not the celebrities. Mr Punch? Now he’s the celebrity.”