Review of Buxton Puppet Festival 2012

This year’s Buxton Puppet Festival came upon us at a very difficult time but amongst the sorrow and in true Funny Wonders style we had another successful Festival for us: it was sunny for the puppet parade, the participants of our ‘Music and Shadows’ workshop all came back to perform with us in our ‘Funny Wonders and Friends’ evening and our chaperones survived our hyperactive Puppet Club. The evening itself was the usual blend of kids, chaos and crazy puppets. The Olympic gigante puppets looked great in the Pavilion Arts Centre and gave our audience the opportunity to look at them closely. The Buxton Infants School Puppet Club performance was charmingly creative demonstrating the true imagination of a six-year old child and the audience wholly joined in with the closing song. Jilla Burgess-Allen gave a short informative talk about Transition Buxton and the origins of our atmospheric show piece ‘Urashima’Taró: a transition tale’ which was then performed by Funny Wonders’ puppeteers accompanied by our musicians playing recycled instruments.

We also took on ‘The Big Grin’ this year with the party for Mr Punch’s 350th birthday coming to Buxton to celebrate, in particular, the life of a Buxton-based performer from the turn of the 19th Century; one Henry Bailey.

The celebrations took the form of a small exhibition at the Buxton Museum & Art Gallery, an accompanying talk given by Geoff Felix who has researched the Bailey family and the first public screening of what it believed to be the first ever film of a Punch & Judy performance, performed by Henry Bailey in 1901. The delightful little film allows today’s performers and audience to see the skills of a Victorian Punch Professor at the top of the game: it still entertains despite being silent. The accompanying talk told the fascinating story of Henry Bailey and his father James who was regarded as the best Punch-man of the Victorian Era.

The celebrations also involved a Town Heritage Trail taking people around Buxton to sites of interest of the Bailey family, to recreate photographs of the show taken in Buxton in the 19th Century and around other ‘The Big Grin’ events. These included a workshop, street performances and a visit from ‘The Big Grin’ Roadshow.

There were lots of participants for the workshop where we made glove puppets of some of the Punch characters – I recall some wonderful Mr Punchs, Judys, clowns, devils, ghosts and crocodiles. There was also the opportunity to perform in a show tent although this often declined into a boxing match in true Punch & Judy style.

The street performances, given by Geoff Felix outside the Buxton Opera House, attracted large audiences and he gave an extra show to appease the demand which he dedicated to Bailey. The screaming delight of the children and begrudged laughter of the adults shows Punch & Judy is still able to entertain all ages and is seemingly, refreshingly so, untouched by political correctness or censoring and long may that continue.

The Roadshow enabled Buxton residents to sign Mr Punch’s six-foot-tall 350th birthday card and see the longest string of sausages one might ever see. As part of the Heritage Trail and to promote the events within the town we installed some shadow puppet light boxes in shop windows around the town with different Punch characters and scenes. Trail-walkers were invited to find the boxes with their locations only indicated by a dot on the map. We thank the participating shops which can now be revealed: Scriveners, Potters, Mr Simms Olde Sweet Shoppe, David Russell, Edinburgh Woollen Mill, W Appleyard & Son, C R Clowes & Son.

Overall it went very well with lots of participation and interest and we hope ‘The Big Grin’ enjoyed its trip inland and up north. Due to the Bailey family and film, Buxton now takes its place as an important town in the heritage of Punch & Judy in the UK. We hope for more of the story to be revealed such as the location of the Bailey puppets and unique, booth proscenium board which are currently lost to the world.

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