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A Wild Idea

It started on March 21st with an email between PJF committee officers under the heading ‘Wild Ideas Dept.’ The world was rapidly changing. Glastonbury had just cancelled its 50th anniversary season and Boris Johnson was suggesting that people should stay away from pubs and restaurants. Mr. Punch’s nose was big enough to sniff which way the wind was blowing and sense that It was time to think about the May Fayre. If it were to be cancelled, how about the wild idea of doing it online? Within the week a lockdown had been put in place, the May Fayre had indeed been cancelled but May Fayre Online was in the pipeline.

We sought the approval of Alternative Arts who organise the regular event and incorporated their 2020 poster into an iPhone held in Punch’s hand to create our online logo. It seemed the clearest way to explain the plan.

We assembled an online team from volunteers within the PJF committee and then invited any other interested PJF members to join. Team leaders were Paul Temple and Will Cousins assisted by Tom Arnold, Peter Dann, Glyn Edwards, Jamie Riding and Robert Styles. Between us we knew enough about Zoom, Facebook, Youtube and Instagram to choose these as the platforms we would deliver on.

The initial idea was to replicate the running order of the regular event as best as we could, to include as many of the familiar May Fayre items as possible and to have a performance or two. However the announcement that we were in business drew such an enthusiastic response that it expanded to become a celebration of the history of the May Fayre itself, even to the unveiling of the plaque to Punch in 1962 which had kick started the whole modern era of Covent Garden’s association with Punch & Judy.

More and more ideas flooded in. A competition with the winning entry drawn live on the day? Definitely. A performance streamed live from a Prof in Australia? Why ever not. A live ‘Ask A Prof’ Q&A session? Certainly. A joint competition with the BPMTG? Yes please.

Offers of shows – live and pre-recorded – were also coming in thick and fast, as were offers of archive photos, videos and specially recorded collaborations. In the spirit of the May Fayre we were accepting all comers: no-one would be excluded. We also dipped into our own archives for glimpses of past milestone May Fayres and of Profs no longer with us.

Our Patron, Harry Hill, recorded a message of welcome with a vent doll of Chris Whitty – the government’s chief scientist. Our President, John Styles, recorded a tea party with his staggering collection of vent dolls and Punch figures and sang an lockdown version of ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’. The Rector of the Actors’ Church – in whose bucolic churchyard the May Fayre is held – sent his own message and Paul Goddard (Prof. Crump) who regularly leads to the toast to Mr. Punch in Covent Garden piazza, led a specially re-created one in his back garden.

From overseas came video greetings from Pulcinella, Polichinelle and Jan Klaasen as well as greetings from Punch Profs in America, Australia and New Zealand.

We ran a ten day countdown to blast off on the May Fayre Online page accompanied by a competition with a puppet prize donated by Miraiker’s World of Puppets. On Bank Holiday Friday when national V.E. Day celebrations began we posted a’ Punch in WW2’ video and Robert Styles performed a full show outside his home to a socially distancing street audience. This was posted online on the day and shown again on the Sunday. The following day was Saturday May 9th - Punch’s 358th ‘birthday’ – and Will Cousins fronted a birthday cake celebration for Punch with Judy and the cast singing Happy Birthday via Zoom. And then suddenly it was Sunday!

Paul and Will were in the hot seat as Mission Control page admins with Tom Arnold and Glyn Edwards as backup. Jamie Riding was running the Instagram feed. The videos had been pre-loaded into the May Fayre Online Youtube channel and key posts pre-scheduled into Facebook. Then it was all go between 9.30 am and 5.30 pm

Yes there were some technical hitches. Why wouldn’t there have been? This was a seat of the pants experimental interactive event. Mr. Punch always has the buzz of excitement and adrenalin around him. But any glitches accounted for less than 1% of the whole programme and the sheer exhilaration of all the engagement and the performances by Profs young (even very, very young) and old made it more than worthwhile.

After UK close down at 5.30 BST a relay of page admins in Australia, New Zealand and coast-to-coast USA took over Mission Control so that we could run May Fayre Online On Tour and take the event round the world for 24 hours. An overall total of 10,000 interactive engagements. We’re keeping the page online as an archive to browse.

Mr. Punch has always adapted to changing times. He once cut his strings to become a hand puppet. He later rode the rails to the seaside. And now he sends himself about online. He scorns attempts to shackle him by guardians of morality or custodians of culture and he certainly won’t let himself be held back by the limitations of lockdown. That’s what his Profs are for - to lend not just a hand, but very many pairs of hands reaching down the generations.

Glyn Edwards (Chair: The Punch & Judy Fellowship.)

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