Over the summer my brother and I made a short film about the man who was once Britain’s youngest Punch and Judy performer: Professor Jingles. He was a fixture of our childhood growing up by the sea, and I’d also come across his puppets on holiday in Sicily at the International Museum of Marionettes in Palermo. I had been keen to speak to him about his life as an entertainer for a long time, and when he was featured in the 350th anniversary of Mr Punch exhibition at the V&A’s Museum of Childhood earlier this year I knew I should put it off no longer.
That’s the way to do it! My brother Toby and I filming in Lowestoft; Professor Jingles with his first home-made Punch puppet in the 1950s
When we returned to Kessingland to interview Professor Jingles we were met by a charismatic and very dapper gentlemen and his glamorous wife Dorothy (who creates the clothing for the puppets he makes). We were lucky enough to be treated to a host of inspirational stories from a man who has spent 6 decades performing with puppets and entertaining crowds. I learnt a lot that day, from the history of Punch and Judy to how he was influential in improving the sartorial standards of performers. It was also a great excuse to wear my trusty seafaring dress from the Rodnik Band‘s Cod Save the Sea collection. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…
Beside the Seaside with Professor Jingles. By Amber and Toby Butchart, 2012
Far from an obsolete folk art, puppets are still making headlines today, whether it’s from their appropriation by huge corporations or their use as a marketing tool by fashion brands (Missoni/Target). Shortly after I interviewed Professor Jingles, Dolce and Gabbana showed their S/S 2013 collection which drew heavily on the Sicilian heritage of Domenico Dolce. While some aspects of the collection were undeniably problematic for a global audience, it’s clear that a celebration of Sicilian heritage was the key message; the designs also incorporated traditional Sicilian ceramics and motifs of the carrettu sicilianu (horse drawn carts) that are particular to the island.
Sicilian puppet theatre in the designs of Dolce and Gabbana S/S 2013
What interested me the most was the incorporation of Sicilian puppet theatre into their designs. The marionette tradition in Sicily has been designated as one of the world’s ‘Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ by UNESCO, which makes it even more significant that Professor Jingles’ puppets are on display at the International Museum of Marionettes in Palermo. An important part of folk culture stretching back to the 15th century, the shows enact medieval tales and legendary events using string puppets that stand up to a metre tall. While they lacked some of the anarchic spirit of Mr Punch – the stories were often used to uphold the feudal hierarchy and venerate the nobility – they could be just as violent, with limbs and heads able to dislocate during frantic fight scenes. They reached a crescendo of popularity in the mid-19th century, just as Punch and Judy were drawing their biggest crowds on the beaches of Britain.
Sicilian marionettes and backdrops from Sicily Guide; Dolce and Gabbana S/S 2013
Beside the Seaside with Professor Jingles: illustrated by Rob Flowers
Dolce and Gabbana S/S 2013 was an homage to the Sicilian heritage of Domenico Dolce, but is in part also reminiscent of the deck chairs found on British beaches
Percy Press, mentor to Professor Jingles, commemorated at the Actor’s Church in Covent Garden; Professor Jingles with his handiwork
If you’re keen to see more, Mr Punch’s birthday is celebrated in Covent Garden every year in St. Paul’s Churchyard, also known as the Actor’s Church. And for puppet commissions I highly recommend you check out Professor Jingles’ website.