A sunny Swanage Bank Holiday? That’s the way to do it!

Weather forecasts for a mini heatwave to end August 2023 will – if they hold true – be welcome news to many beach businesses in Swanage, but perhaps to one man more than most.

Punch and Judy Professor Joe Burns has already had to cancel a whole week’s worth of shows in the first half of his summer season thanks to storms, high winds and heavy rain in July and August.

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Mr Punch does like to be beside the seaside – especially when the sun shines!

Just three seaside shows left in England

And as yet more thunderstorms were set to sweep over Dorset on Friday, 18th August, Professor Joe was praying that the Met Office forecast for the last week of August and the Bank Holiday – for warm, settled weather with highs in the mid 20s – would be correct.

He operates one of just three full time beach Punch and Judy shows left in England and is very dependent on fine weather in a two month window to make a living, especially in the six week school summer holiday season.

Despite the historic place Mr Punch has at the seaside, the number of performers has fallen away to dangerously low levels in the 21st century thanks to claims of political incorrectness, violence and suggestions that a new smartphone generation of children has no interest in puppet shows.

Professor Joe Burns on Swanage sands with his Punch and Judy booth

“A real danger of it being lost”

Professor Joe said:

“There are not many of us beach Punch and Judy Professors left now – just here at Swanage, down the Jurassic Coast at Weymouth and in North Wales at Llandudno.

“It’s a hard life, you are reliant on the weather and also on people putting money in the box – so far this year they have been good about supporting the show and even when the card reader failed and payments didn’t go through, they came back with cash or paid online.

“We do get people who photograph the booth without thinking to make a little contribution to its upkeep, but the sad truth is that public contributions are the only payment I get for performing the show, and covering my costs, so there is a real danger of it being lost.

“I have to pay for a beach operating licence, to maintain the booth and the puppets and also for insurance. The season only lasts for eight weeks or so, and to have lost a week of shows by mid August is not a good sign.”

THE VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM

The Italian Puppet Show, an engraving from St Paul’s Churchyard, London, dating to 1875

The danger of swallowing a swazzle

Punch and Judy has been recognised for at least 361 years in England – diarist Samuel Pepys wrote in 1662 about seeing a show in London’s Covent Garden after touring Italian puppeteers brought the tale of Punchinello to this country.

King Charles II – nicknamed the Merry Monarch – enjoyed the shows so much that he allowed the Punch and Judy men to call themselves professors, a tradition which continues to this day.

In the following two centuries, Mr Punch became a common sight in city taverns and started to evolve from a marionette show which needed several men to operate to a one man puppet show in a booth.

At about the same time Judy entered the show, at first being called Joan. Part of the reason for her name change was because ‘Judy’ was so much easier for Mr Punch to squawk than ‘Joan’ without danger of the puppeteer swallowing his swazzle – a small reed kept in the roof of the mouth.

PROFESSOR JOE BURNS

Stormy weather in July and August has forced the cancellation of many shows…

PROFESSOR JOE BURNS

… while a storm on 3rd August 2023 threatened to wash out all the sand from underneath the booth

First show on Swanage beach was in 1904

The entertainment was strictly for adults, acting out the major news stories of the day – it was only in Victorian times when railways made beach holidays possible for many Brits that Mr Punch followed tourists to the seaside and began to make the show more suitable for children.

The first recorded instance of a Punch and Judy booth on Swanage beach was in 1904 and professors have entertained children through most summers ever since.

By the 1950s, most English beaches had their own professor and his bottler – the assistant who collects money from the audience.

Even as late as 2006 Punch and Judy appeared in a list of the top 12 British icons alongside a cup of tea and Stonehenge, in a survey commissioned by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

And judging by the number of children who sit still on Swanage beach for Mr Punch’s half hour shows, never once looking for a smartphone or wandering off to do other things, there must still be a place in the modern world for such a naughty national treasure.

PROFESSOR JOE BURNS

Professor Joe Burns at Swanage with the naughty national treasure himself, Mr Punch

No more violent than The Simpsons

Professor Joe said:

“Punch and Judy has been criticised for being violent, but in reality it is no more violent than Tom and Jerry, or The Simpsons which are shows in a very similar slapstick style.

“In my show, Punch never hits Judy – although she hits him – but as we say at every performance, it’s a good job that all this rubbish is make believe!

“Children are smart enough to know the difference and love seeing puppets knocked down and get up again – and it’s also good having a mischievous puppet who can get away with outrageous behaviour and make people of all ages laugh.

“I do this show for the love of it and keeping a traditional part of the seaside holiday alive – even if the British weather sometimes tries its best to stop me!”

PROFESSOR JOE BURNS

A Punch and Judy show at Swanage dating to the 1960s

PROFESSOR JOE BURNS

And 30 years earlier, fathers would wear their suits to the beach, or perhaps just a waistcoat in warm weather!

Warmer weather for the rest of August

Rebekah Sherwin, deputy chief meteorologist at the Met Office, said:

“The UK provisionally recorded its sixth wettest July on record and August started off unsettled in Dorset, but our computer models are starting to signal some warmer and more settled weather developing in Swanage from Saturday 19th August 2023 onwards.

“The most likely scenario is for high pressure to the east and low pressure to the west, which would allow a southerly flow to develop and draw warmer air from continental Europe over the south and south east.”

Settled and largely sunny weather with maximum temperatures of 23 or 24 degrees C (73 to 75 degrees F) has been forecast for Swanage right through to the end of August, including the Bank Holiday weekend.

Weather permitting, there will be three Punch and Judy shows on Swanage beach every day, at 12 noon, 1.30pm and 3pm, as well as evening shows at 8pm on Fridays.

Further information

  • Donations to help keep Mr Punch on the beach can be made at the online home of Swanage Professor Joe Burns
  • Keep a weather eye out for conditions in Swanage at the Met Office website
  • Read a full history of Punch and Judy at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s website

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