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When I told the Russians that where they were standing was the very centre of the
puppet world, I wasn't joking. Yes, there are festivals - Charleville, Ghent and
others - but at that moment, within the walls of St. Paul's church, here was where
it was at.
For me the May Fayre was where I finally 'got' what it was about Punch and Judy. I had seen the show and been inspired as a child, but when I watched Joe Beeby for the first time and had then been captivated by the charismatic and slightly dangerous Sergeant Stone, all the pieces somehow fell into place. That ephemeral flame that old showmen keep burning ignites a fire in others. You can see it in the eyes of children when they say, "That is what I want to do." and mean it.
There is a glory in a true Punch show and those enthusiasts who attend these festivals recognise this. Evidence of this was the very respectable turnout two years ago when, unremittingly, it poured with rain: they came, watched, got very, very, wet and stayed to the bitter end, satisfied.
I would say that this year was a vintage one. The sun shone and there were no less
than twenty shows. For me, the highlight was the Russian Petrushka show of Elena
Slonimskaya and Alexander Gref. Konrad Fredericks on one of his many trips abroad
had met these and had told them about the event.
Their show had a traditional type booth with Alexander outside acting as bottler, interpreter and musician. The puppetry was particularly good with what appeared to be a European, Italian style. The swazzling was clear and, like the Portuguese and Italian shows last year, they had a large audience in spite of no amplification.
I got the feeling I was watching the genuine article rather than something that had been recreated from books. It was particularly opportune that Chris van der Craats, here again from Australia, was planning to visit Russia on his way home. I particularly enjoyed the horse sequence where Petrushka buys an animal that was barely able to stand. When she emerged from the booth, Elena Slonimskaya seemed entirely unruffled after such an exciting performance
Another high point was the presence of several young performers. Twelve-year-old Martin Battey performed two shows and six-year-old Joseph Peek even did a counting routine! Seventeen-year-old Joe Burns by all accounts gave a very creditable performance. Katey Wilde (daughter of Glyn Edwards) was one of a number of 'children of Punch families' along with Pete Maggs and his wonderfully anarchic show, Martin as before, and Robert Styles with his 'Shakespearian' Devil routine.
Another highlight for me was Bryan Clarke's performance at 3.00 p.m. This year he confined it to a spirited boxing match and his Chinese Jugglers with Chung Lun One and Chung Lun Two. Bryan had to work hands above head for this and had been practicing with a shooting stick (don't ask). Not only did the audience appreciate the skill with which he spun the glass of water in the metal triangle, but also the fun that was to be had in the stupid comments of Chung Lun One and his exasperated brother.
The May Fayre is the brainchild of Alternative Arts, a community group who wanted to bring live entertainment to Covent Garden in an effort to rejuvenate the area and prevent the demolition of the old market. It has now become a much-cherished institution and a permanent feature on the international calendar.
They were encouraged from the start by the vicar of St. Paul's the remarkably Christian and generous John Arrowsmith. He devised a special interdenominational service with Punch in the pulpit and welcomed the showmen. The performers who worked only for the ‘bottle’ and modest expenses met this generosity. On one occasion when it rained, he even allowed some of the shows to set up inside the church. Unfortunately, this year the service was changed, but the sermon was given by Bill Haslett, an entirely appropriate choice, and Peter Charlton, Chairman of the British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild and Alix Booth with her Samuel Pepys puppet, read the lessons.
This year Punch's health was toasted with a cappuccino in honour of his Italian origins. Not a bad piece of inspiration seeing as Glyn Edwards had five minutes notice to do it and no props!
Outside Donna Maria led her girls as they danced around the maypole. The Superior Brass Band, Pearly Kings and Queens, Clowns and various other quirks of the Fayre - Randolph the Remarkable, Richard Robinson with his Oggle Oggle box and Lady Cristobel with her faithful retainer - I've come to cherish these eccentric delights.
Around the church on the west were 'Flotsam and Jetsam', a company from Denmark with
tabletop puppets next to Paul Tuck and Leslie King, while on the east were 'Tangled
Tales'. Parading around with walkabout puppets were a number of people in spectacular
costumes with marionettes, designed especially for the event by Dean Blunkell.
The British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild had its own stall manned by Peter Charlton, as did Everett's Toy Theatres and a stall of modern puppets. On the green, David Wilde and James Arnott managed their second-hand puppet emporium. Wilma Tucker and Gary Trimby staffed the PJF stand. Both James and David had new booths for this event and they looked like two splendid bookends either side of their stall.
On the other green were puppet workshops led by Drew Colby. There was interest from the media too, with a radio broadcast by BBC Radio London on the Leslie Joseph Show and two television documentary crews led by Jamie Taylor and Peter Steadman.
For the record the full list of performers is: Bryan Clarke, Justin Tai, John Stoate (making his debut), Geoff Felix, Glyn and Mary Edwards, Katey Wilde, Robert Styles, James Arnott, David Wilde, Joe Burnes, Joseph Peek (making his debut), Pete Maggs, Philip Dann, Alix Booth, Martin Battey (Making his debut), Bryan Baggs, Brian and Alison Davey,
Paul Tuck and Leslie King, Chris Gasper, Martyn Cooper, 'Vagrant Booth' (Alexander Gref and Elena Slonimskaya) and Colonel Custard. Clowns Salvo, Gingernutt and Professor Crump attended along with Len Belmont demonstrating ventriloquism, Little Jo, The Winged Cranes and Ozzie McLean.
The Superior Brass Band led the Procession and the 'Lost Marbles' string band played in the afternoon, whilst on the steps of the church, a search for The Most Promising Young Prof was formally launched. This is the first to be held this century/millennium and is the first joint project between the College and PJF leading up to Punch’s 350th birthday celebrations in 2012.
Seen in the audience were: David Leach representing Pelham Puppets and Puppeteers U.K. along with Dr. Pelham (Keith Jury, puppet maker in the Pelham style), Darryl Worbey (puppet maker), Ian Allen (director of Playboard Puppets), Martin Reeve (actor and researcher into Punch), Simon Buckley (TV puppeteer and minister), Bill Haslett (Punch man, ventriloquist and minister), Peter Crocker (Grandfather of David Wilde),
John Alexander (oldest Punch man still performing), Konrad Fredericks (globe-trotting Punch man and keeper of the busking tradition), Clive Chandler (Punch man and Chairman of PUK), Paul Jackson (Punch man and former Secretary of the PJF), Pete Milsom (Punch man and PJF Membership Secretary), Phil Fletcher (puppeteer), Carl Chadd (puppeteer), David Hellyer (Fluppets), Warwick Brownlow (puppeteer), Eef Straub (Dutch puppet collector), David Ross (actor and puppeteer), Izzy Somer-Smith (puppeteer), Jan King (puppeteer on Captain Scarlet), Ted Beresford (puppeteer), John Field (actor and erstwhile agent for puppeteers), Gary Wilson (Punch man and actor), Chippy Wood (Punch man),
Steve and Chris Clarke (Puppeteers), Richard Robinson (founder member of the Covent Garden Community Theatre), Randolph the remarkable (from the Julian Clary Show), Mark Andrews (Punch man and Secretary of the PJF), 'Mr. Chris' Smith (Punch man and ventriloquist), Prof. Lazarus (Punch man), Leslie Press (Punch man and brother to Percy), Lee Redwood (Punch man), Sebastian Goffin (ex. youngest Punch man), Carl Durbin (Clown and Punch man), John Garland (cabaret puppeteer), Chris van der Craats (Punch man and maker from Australia), Pat Plant (Punch enthusiast), Teddy Corden (Punch man and Punch figure maker) and Ronnie Le Drew (television puppeteer). My thanks to James Arnott who placed this original list on the Internet and my apologies for anyone left out.
Finally, I must thank Maggie Pinhorn, one of the original organisers from Alternative
Arts who made the event happen. As I have got to know Maggie over the years, I have
learnt of the many hurdles she has to jump to make these events happen. Her task
is largely unsung and at times, heroic. So well done and thank you!