Punchman's tips

A Lightweight Frame by the late Tom Kemp

My first frame was based on the design in Percy de Hempsey's book, "How to do Punch and Judy". Very soon, I saw that this would not do for private houses, and most of my bookings are for performances in such. Lots of rooms would not accommodate a frame more than eight foot in height. In one of Whanslaw's books was shown a medieval frame that went only as high as the playboard. That settled it! I made one like that. It was so much more manageable. Lighter, quicker to erect. At first the occasional onlooker would mention the absence of the proscenium arch. I would just reply "This is a contemporary show. One must move with the times." At a factory, one man said "Where's the upper part?" I asked him, "Where would it go?" (There was a quite low ceiling) and he saw the point. Of recent years the matter has never arisen. Of course, for a Summer Season, I take a rigid outfit with plenty of nuts and bolts. It takes maybe thirty minutes to erect and dismantle. When I take it down on the last day I feel a little sad, though I have done so many seasons.

Of indoor portable frames I have made so many that I have no idea. Each one was an improvement on the one before. The present one has served me for many thousands of shows, but I may yet make another version.
The uprights are my height. They are tubular aluminium. 5/8 inch diameter. I got them from Coaley's yard in South London. On three sides are X pieces. Two crossed pieces of very light wood, quarter inch by three-quarters and 3ft.6 inches long. The bolts are eighth inch. These are much lighter than the usual quarter inch, but they have stood up to much hard wear. They are bolted to the uprights at the lower ends and to each other at the crossing point. The upper ends fix to the uprights with carpet
snaps. These are large versions of the familiar dress snaps, but the male part is on a screw. The female part is fixed to the wooden cross-piece. I used aluminium rivets. The four uprights and the X pieces fold into a slim bundle. Erecting is almost instantaneous, just six snaps to snap on. See that you get rigid plywood for the playboard. Some kinds of wood are too flexible. On it are fixed two bits of 1 x 1 timber. Mine are 2ft. 8ins. long. Each is fixed by a three-sixteenth bolt. I drilled right through timber and playboard and each bolt has washers each end and wingnuts. Very near the top of each upright is drilled a hole. These receive bolts (again three-sixteenth) fixed in the 1 x 1 timbers. When these bolts have been slipped in their holes the wingnuts are tightened. There stands your frame the erection of which is highly entertaining to the audience. I always do it in the middle of my show. The draperies on the body of the frame are fixed by more of the carpet snap devices. Where they were to screw in I pushed a bit of wood inside the tubing and drilled into metal and wood, using a tiny bit to drill into the wood to permit the screw to hold firmly.

I do not know what it weighs, 6 lbs., perhaps. It is incredibly lighter than the first frame which I used to lug round the London streets. How I needed it on one Saturday. I was booked at flat 12 in a West-end building. Was it six flights up? And long flights at that. There had been a power cut and the lift was out of action. I groped my way up towards the sky, peering at the door numbers in the gloom. With anything heavier I could not have got there.

And always, success in performance depends on getting there. You are no use to your public if you are without time enough to get up your framework, or are labouring in the muddy country roads with a van of heavy material. Nor if you are expected to get up six flights and into a very low-ceilinged room to which you can hardly carry your props, let alone erect them. The prime necessities are to be at the place required, at the time required and ready to perform. You may be Heaven's good gift to the suffering public, but if you do not fulfil the aforesaid requirements you cannot succeed.
I am often in the tiny residence in Chelsea. Only one guest room. Pinched corkscrew staircases. Often I enter when they are clearing away tea. As soon as there is floor space, I settle the audience and begin.
Another point. It takes me about one minute to pack and leave.
That means that I can fit in another booking and get another fee, when more cumbersome equipment would mean that my time would be spent in the unremunerative labours of striking the show.
Tom Kemp (1972)

Tom sent me this in photo-copy, written originally for The Puppet Master, journal of The British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild, and I made a frame trying to follow his directions. I seem to remember it wasn't as stable as I would have liked - and I feel that perhaps his description is lacking some details. CCS.

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