Punchly origins, the seaside and the bottle.Mr Punch came to us as a puppet on strings, a marionette, probably from Italy via France, and much influenced by the latter. His heyday as a marionette was in the 17th Century marionette theatres where Punchinello was principal clown in many and varied productions. It was when he became a glove puppet and developed his own story that his career in The Punch and Judy Show began. This began as a Victorian street entertainment, but was quickly followed by Punch finding his way to the newly fashionable coastal resorts - the Seaside.
Today Punchmen mainly work for a fee, for private and corporate bookings - birthday parties,schools and promotional work. In private work a large proportion of the effort is in travelling, finding the venue, unloading and erecting the equipment, coping with a variety of often unsatisfactory conditions, and having to be pleasant to frequently unsympathetic bookers. But there are some performers still enjoying the adventures of performing at the seaside. Theirs is a less secure but perhaps more romantic life. Of course there are fewer and fewer financially viable pitches in Britain.
On the beach once you have dug in for the season you have all the advantages of a residency. You are to a large extent your own master. You choose your site, pitch as you think best, and have the feeling that its all up to you - you have control.
Instead of a fee this style of performance depends upon persuading the watching public to freely contribute - to drop a reasonable amount of money into the performer's hat or other collecting receptacle. This is known as the bottle - a word which refers to both the amount of money itself and also the container. This is said to derive from an old style leather collecting bag, bottle shaped so that the coins once dropped inside could not be silently extracted by a dishonest collector. This collector is not the performer himself, since he is occupied inside the booth performing the show. The collector is known as the bottler.
For seaside work a good bottler is essential. From a financial point of view an experienced bottler is probably as important, if not more important, than the Punch man. A good show is useless without a competant front man, whereas an indifferent show can be rescued financially, if not artistically, by the clever bottler.
There is a style of bottling derived from the early street shows where the show was performing to a standing, moving audience. The bottler would go round frequently since people were forever joining and leaving the crowd. On busy days the shows would be virtually continuous with no real storyline but just a series of sequences which could be cycled as long as there was a pitch to play to. Bert Codman told me how his father and grandfather work the Liverpool street show, swapping places as performer or bottler with the show continually in progress.
I remember the Green's show at Rhyl, it was not a beach show but a promenade show, and consequently had a standing, changing audience. People would stop to watch for five minutes, then move on. Of course some would stay for longer. Mrs Green was the bottler. She was superb - very few got away without paying. Even with a big crowd she knew who had contributed and who had not. She would never approach someone who had already dropped, but newcomers had only to linger a few minutes and she was there!
A beach show is rather different. Usually it is a set times, and has a beginning and an end. Often there is provision for children to sit on the sands - and there may even be nearby seating for the adults.
Some performers make a collection before the show, some after, some both.Sometimes they actually make a set fee - this is when there is some form of enclosure so that you can actually charge a fee for the select vantage point. But there is less need in this type of work to have the collection going on throughout the show. Even so, you still need a good bottler - otherwise people will drift away at the end without paying.
Other forms of busking performer can, if skilful enough, manage without a bottler. Jugglers, magicians, musicians etc. can persuade, charm or shame people into paying up at the end. This is much more difficult for the punch prof who's personality is not on display since he is hidden away in the booth. If people think they can drift away unseen they will do so. People give far more readily if there is someone there to smile and acknowledge their generosity!
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