Rod Burnett. A tribute.

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Rod Burnett. A tribute.

Postby professorstreet » 21 May 2017, 10:34

Professor Rod Burnett 1954 - 2017 Martin Bridle. Friday, 19 May 2017

The big man is gone and there is a big hole in the world of Punch and puppets.
My long time friend and co-conspirator died suddenly and unexpectedly in the early hours of May 1st, leaving his wife, author Tanya Landman and his five children.

The turnout to his remarkable funeral was testament to Rod’s broad range of influence in many fields over the years - sculpture, teaching, puppet theatre in general. His coffin, painted with blue sky and white clouds received an extended and final round of applause as the doors closed in the crematorium.

So although he spent the bulk of his creative life innovating and performing aesthetically beautiful and deceptively simple fairy stories for schools and theatres, we are of course concerned here with his contribution to Punch and Judy.

Neither of us ever thought there was any kind of future beyond the local beaches, fairs and fetes of Devon when we put on our first shows in Exeter. We had previously shown no interest or ambition in Punch or puppets throughout our schooldays together or art college, and we put the first show together as a bit of a laugh, based mainly on Vernon Rose’s show, faded memories of Frank Edmond’s show at Weymouth, and with the spirit of Punch in mind rather than any specific traditional routines or methods. During our first year of shows we were influenced by those who could be termed “the revival” - Major Mustard and Caz, The Greatest Show on Legs, Dan Bishop, and Cornwall’s Doc Shiels, rather than the shows that were often an adjunct to magic acts and had their roots in Supreme magic company, or family shows that were unvaried from generation to generation. In that first year we performed on local beaches, often without permission, and I presented the show and bottled. Over the next winter I made my own show, with the idea that I would do a different set of routines and we would alternate as bottlers. And indeed we did exactly that on Devon beaches the following year. For any in the Punch community who have watched our respective Punch offerings, this might go some way to explaining some similarities in later shows because we basically took our favourite bits and pieces from each other and constructed composite acts. We shared a lot of ideas in the early days, although later on after we went our separate ways, we were both guilty of being possessive and mis-remembering who originated what!

Rod’s style evolved into one where he became the centre of attention, before and after the show (and sometimes during!). His big voice, charming manner and handsome presence ensured that everyone came away remembering who it was who had performed the show. This was his solution to one of the many paradoxes of professional Punch, which is that although a good show relies on a good performer, the audience rarely remembers the showman. His international reputation was, by the time of his death, considerable. Twenty six years ago the imminent birth of my second child meant I was unable to fulfil an invitation I had to return to Segovia in Spain to perform at the Titerimundi festival, so I passed it to Rod. It was his first show abroad, and he performed there annually ever since. Indeed he was due to perform there again this year, a week after he died.

Along the way he picked up shows all over the world, including South America, but it was in Europe that he was particularly influential. Over those years he must have performed at towards a hundred foreign festivals. Another Punch paradox is that although in this country the show is over-familiar and often not valued, it is a real novelty in other places, and a good strong performance creates quite a stir. From a financial point of view, festivals would often pay fees that are were line with the main acts, and wouldn’t by any means regard Punch as an afterthought. This paradox also meant that for Rod he was his own worst enemy in that he would have loved to perform his other more delicate and artistic shows abroad much more often than he did, but the attraction of Punch, and his presentation in particular, was overwhelming from the bookers point of view. He embraced this position, especially in later years, and proudly made his Punch show a celebration of a particular image of the eccentric Englishman abroad.

Tanya said at the funeral that Rod had joked that on his tombstone he’d like the words “That was the way to do it”. I’d guess that all who encountered Rod and his show would agree with that !
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Re: Rod Burnett. A tribute.

Postby Chris » 21 May 2017, 18:14

Thank you Martin. As well as being a tribute to Rod on the sad occasion of his death this is also an interesting record which made me wish I had seen more of the man. I know absolutely nothing about his non-Punch puppetry and evidently this was my loss.

I was remarking during the Mayfayre, to a French puppeteer I think, that Punch performers in general did not automatically come from the puppetry community and that while most puppeteers make their own puppets most Punch men buy their figures. In many ways a Punch show breaks many of the rules of good glove puppetry and is all the better for it. There have been many very good puppeteers who have tried to perform Punch & Judy and have failed. They are is good company, the great Sergei Obraztsov reports in his autobiography how he tried to present a traditional Petrushka show and failed miserably. He did not feel it, and the show was false was his analysis of the failure.

Rod, along with yourself, did/do successfully combine Punch with other approaches to puppetry. I too share my love of Punch with that of the marionette stage, and Geoff Felix and Richard Coombs are both talented in TV and film puppetry, but we are not typical. Many of my Punch friends are Specialists, they have no desire to do any other form of puppetry. My feeling is that Punch is so different to all other forms of puppetry that it needs to be "caught" like a disease. Once caught it's almost incurable.
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Re: Rod Burnett. A tribute.

Postby Richard Coombs » 21 May 2017, 22:53

A lovely and fitting Tribute Martin , from a man lucky enough to have known Rod far better than any of us.

Forgive me for not talking of Rods passing to you at the Mayfayre .
It was not that I did not want to , it just felt too soon and too raw.
So the subject sat between us like an 'elephant in the room' ( with Rod it would have been a plate spinning , tambourine playing , Purple Elephant with huge charm !)

It was lovely to see you at Covent Garden, and again Thank You so much for your insightful and loving tribute to a smashing fellah and one heck of a performer !

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