From a base deep in the Dales, Ron Wood has been running old-fashioned Punch and Judy Shows for 25 years. But his knack for do-it-yourself extends beyond the brightly-striped booths and strings of sausages that are his props. His latest production is a phone app that throws a 16th century theatrical concoction forward by 500 years.
“Children love having their picture taken with Mr Punch, but as they can’t see him in person this summer, I’ve built an app that lets them put their faces next to his,” said Mr Wood, a Punch and Judy “professor” whose regular touring work across North Yorkshire’s schools from his base in Richmond has dried up to such an extent that he is having to raid his life savings in order to stay afloat.
“I don’t seem to qualify for any aid and at 63 I don’t know what I’m going to do now. I’m not going to get any work until next year,” he said.
“Our bank account is dwindling and I’m having to use my savings. I’m not like someone in the public sector who has a nice pension to look forward to.”
He was, however in public service with the Army in Belfast, retiring from the Green Howards with the rank of Major, before retreating to the safety of a puppet theatre.
“It was at the time of the IRA hunger strikes and all hell was breaking loose,” he said. “We would drive down the Falls Road being petrol bombed.
“On one night I was lying under a table in camp on the edge of the Ballymurphy Estate during a mortar attack while the IRA dropped 10 bombs into the camp and flattened it. That was what life on the front line was like.”
His experiences offer some perspective, he says, on the argument advanced by some that Mr Punch is a misogynist and his actions too violent.
“His stick is just two pieces of flat wood which come together and make a slapping sound. That’s why it’s called a slap stick. It’s a comedy prop, like putting your foot in a bucket of water. Nobody gets hurt,” he said.
But the theatrics – whose roots can be traced back to Italian commedia dell’arte – do serve an educational purpose, he insists.
“It’s almost a mirror into the past, to a time when women had no rights,” he said. “Many of the details are lost in time. One child asked me why the policeman carried a whistle.”
He chose to become a Punch and Judy professor – the unofficial title assumed by practitioners – after seeing children entranced by similar shows on holiday, and with his wife, Hazel, set up an informal production company.
He taught himself computer coding in order to build a website for it and, when work began to dry up, decided to extend his knowledge to include app development.
“It’s a nice way for children who are a bit shy to still have a picture with the puppet,” he said. “And if they shake the phone they can hear Mr Punch’s voice.”
Little will hinder the dedicated Punch and Judy man in the pursuit of entertainment, insists “Professor” Ron Wood.
“I was once nearly blown into the Manchester Ship Canal whilst performing at the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester,” he said. “In Wales I performed during a thunderstorm because one little boy refused to run for cover. He stood and watched even in the pouring rain.”
His tip for a successful show is having a good “swazzle” – the reed device placed at the back of the puppeteer’s throat which produces Mr Punch’s distinctive rasping sound.
The app can be downloaded to Android phones from the Google Play store.
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