The Big Grin: Punch and Judy celebrations begin in sunny Worthing

By Ben Miller | 08 May 2012
A colour photo of a male puppet with a red wooden face grinning in front of the sea
© Courtesy Glyn Edwards
Exhibition: Punch and Judy, Worthing Museum and Art Gallery, Worthing, until September 1 2012

This Saturday, in the Covent Garden Piazza where Samuel Pepys first glimpsed the crimson features of Mr Punch in 1662, a giddy whirl of puppet “professors” from across the country will trade their vicarious art with visiting performers from as far away as Japan and Australia.

A black and white photo of crowds of people on a bygone beach being entertained
Punch and Judy entertain visitors to Worthing Pier during the 1950s
© Worthing Museum and Art Gallery collection
They’re planning to honour the 350th birthday of everyone’s favourite wooden seaside grump with a day of debauchery including a parade, a cake ceremony in a giant booth and a beggars’ banquet.

A shindig in Fleet Street’s famous Punch Tavern is also on the cards – as part of The Big Grin, a Heritage Lottery Fund-backed idea aimed at keeping the Punch and Judy alive (a message, they say, which pervades the programme “like the lettering in a stick of rock”.)

And the exhibition line-up represents a formidable curtain call, ranging from musicals at Norwich Puppet Theatre and a mini-season at the V&A Museum of Childhood to brass band parades at Weymouth (linked to the Cultural Olympiad) and Big Grin sojourns to Buxton, Bromley, Morecambe and various other coastal haunts.

Later this month, Brighton Fishing Museum hosts a birthday party celebrating 200 years of promenade entertainment on the Sussex coast as part of the city’s current fringe festival.

An image of a colourful illustration of people crowding around a puppet show on a beach
A year of Punch and Judy-inspired activities are taking place as part of The Big Grin
© Worthing Museum and Art Gallery collection
But just along the shore, Worthing is beating its noisier neighbour to the Punch with this hands-on show charting the life and times of the moody marionette in which you can peep behind the façade and try your hand at pulling the strings.

“Generations of holiday makers have been entertained in traditional seaside style near Worthing Pier,” says Glyn Edwards, a Punch expert who has organised the display.

He names Charlie Speller, a local devotee during the 1930s known for running paddle steamer trips along the south coast as well as pop-up theatre, as one of the forefathers of fun being honoured.

“It’s splendid to have the opportunity to display the history of Punch and Judy in such a celebrated resort as Sunny Worthing.”

  • Open Tuesday-Saturday 10am-5pm. Admission free. Visit www.thebiggrin350.com to see the full programme of events taking place this year.

Watch a video on the show:

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