In 2012 I held an exhibition of drawings and photos after meeting Punch and Judy Professor Leslie Press. He is sadly no longer with us, but the British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild has just published the feature I wrote in 2012, in Issue 624 of their newsletter. Mr Punch lives on …
MEETING MR PUNCH
In May 2002 I took a shortcut through St Paul’s Churchyard in Covent Garden, and stumbled on a scene of mayhem. Crocodiles’ jaws snapped, sausages defied gravity, and unearthly shrieks filled the air. I’d walked into a Punch and Judy festival. It’s held every year on or around Mr Punch’s birthday, May 9th, which is when diarist Samuel Pepys first recorded his Covent Garden appearance in 1662, three hundred and fifty years ago. Amongst all the Professorial activity – Punch and Judy operators are known as Professors – one cheeky-faced, elderly man with a marked resemblance to Mr Punch caught my attention. He unfolded what looked like an old fashioned wooden clothes-horse, slowly adjusted it, draped it with red and white striped cloth, and hey presto – it was transformed into a Punch and Judy booth, or fit-up as it’s known. On seaside holidays during my childhood I’d always found the booth and its puppet world scary but fascinating, and I was curious about this man and his small companions.
The man’s name was Leslie Press. As we got talking, Leslie told me that as a child he’d lived on my street, at 148 Gloucester Avenue, above what was then a dairy and grocer’s, before being evacuated to St Albans during WW2. 148 is now Lisa Hauck’s hairdressing salon. He and his sister were pupils at Primrose Hill School round the corner, where my daughter went many years later. We chatted for a while, and I didn’t see Leslie again for eight years.
In 2010 I rang Leslie and asked him if I could take some photographs of him and his puppets, and find out more about his life as a Punch and Judy man. Leslie invited me to his house in Cheshunt, where he offered me tea and biscuits. Later, he carefully arranged his puppet family on the sofa next to him.
Leslie looked pale at the start of my visit, before he took out assorted characters – Mr and Mrs Punch, the Baby, Devil, Ghost, Crocodile, Clown and Executioner – from travel-worn suitcases inherited from his father Percy. As he affectionately brought his puppets to life, his face began to glow. Wondering how much a puppet operator’s character is reflected in his or her puppets, I commented on the battered and patched appearance of Mr Punch and his associates. “Yes,” said Leslie shyly, “I’m a very violent Punch and Judy man – they certainly got a bashing!”
The wooden figures were strangely compelling. I felt they were just as curious about me as I was about them, and seemed to return my gaze with unnerving confidence. Every Professor has a slightly different version of events in the show, perhaps reflecting his or her personality. I wondered if the puppets sometimes demand to act and speak in the same way that my own drawn characters, especially in my comic strips and children’s books, often insist on doing or saying something surprising.
Leslie’s puppets were carved by Fred Tickner, whose most famous creation was Muffin the Mule in the 1950s, wooden star of one of the first television programmes I’d ever watched. The Punch puppets are usually carved from lime or beech wood, though traditionally Mr. Punch’s nose is made of oak. “I paid £6 for these,” said Leslie, gently lifting up Mrs Punch, whose face was painted with a look of outrage. “They’re a nice working weight.”
Leslie, like his father before him, started out as a magician. He’d once performed for Tommy Cooper’s children, who’d wandered off leaving their father intently watching the show. “I always wanted to go on stage,” Leslie said a bit wistfully. He doesn’t perform much nowadays as he can’t move the puppets very easily. “It’s due to the weight of the crocodile,” he explained, “Don’t have the strength in my wrist any more.” Perhaps Professors eventually get a form of crocodile induced RSI?
Leslie’s father Percy was involved in music hall, before working as a magician on the London streets and then becoming a famous Punch and Judy man. He performed at Madame Tussauds, appeared in Carol Reed’s film “Oliver”, and was a guest on Desert Island Discs in 1974. His commemorative plaque is in St Paul’s church, Covent Garden. Percy’s son Percy II, born at 148 Gloucester Avenue, and his brother Leslie followed in their father’s footsteps. I asked Leslie if his family – he has four daughters – would do the same? His daughters aren’t interested, but his niece Adrienne now performs in schools with her own Punch and Judy show, so the Press tradition carries on.
I was wary of asking Leslie to do the distinctive voice of Mr Punch that day. Punch’s voice is made by inserting a reed-like item called a swazzle into your mouth, and apparently it’s tricky to use, or ‘troublesome’ as Leslie put it. I wasn’t sure about the Health and Safety implications of using one and eating biscuits at the same time. Another Professor told me you can’t call yourself a Professor until you’ve swallowed your first swazzle. ”You can ask me anything you like about being a Punch and Judy man,” said Leslie with a smile, “But I won’t tell you the secret of the swazzle!”