Sidmouth rector breaks Punch and Judy curse
06:00 06 July 2014
A crisis of conscience over a beloved but bloody seaside story may have saved Sidmouth’s new rector from the curse of a Punch and Judy puppet.
Before he took the cloth and became the Reverend Canon Dr Bourne, Philip Bourne was a 13-year-old boy intrigued by the workings of the time-honoured form of children’s entertainment.
He worked his way into the puppeteer’s inner sanctum, then when his mentor’s health declined he bought the Punch and Judy set-up, which he was told had once belonged to the comedian and actor Tony Hancock.
Encouraged by his parents and grandparents to pursue his passion for hand-puppetry, the teenage Philip built up a little business entertaining youngsters.
As with all amateurs in the art of Punch and Judy, he took the title of ‘uncle’. Professionals are traditionally known as ‘professors’.
But after going on to university to study religion, Philip found that as his faith developed his enthusiasm for sharing the story of the murderous Punch with an audience of innocent minds began to wane.
For the uninitiated, the eponymous male lead is almost the sole survivor after doing away with his baby, his partner Judy, the policeman who tries to arrest him, and the judge who condemns him.
So an 18-year-old Philip packed up his puppets and all but forgot about them.
They stayed with him, though, as he moved from house to house, from Brighton to Yorkshire, and then on to Exeter before heading overseas with his family to the Netherlands.
When the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow came to Amsterdam, his then wife Elizabeth decided at the last minute that she would take the puppets, along with some Deutschmarks from Germany’s pre-war period of hyperinflation.
The currency was damaged and proved near worthless, but the colourful Punch puppet caught the eye of doll expert Hilary Kay, and the possible connection to Tony Hancock was enough for Elizabeth to be whisked off to the green room and readied for filming.
The programme aired in the spring of 1996, and Philip was immediately inundated with inquiries from both Tony Hancock and Punch and Judy fans.
Long thought lost to posterity, he was offered thousands of pounds for the rosy-faced little man.
Bids came in from far and wide, most notably from the Tony Hancock Society, after the puppet’s appearance in Hancock’s film The Punch and Judy Man was revealed, but it was a private offer that won out.
Peter Crocker wanted the puppet for his grandson, David Wilde – now Professor Wilde – and his massive collection of Punch and Judy and puppetry memorabilia.
“I liked the story,” said Philip. “It reminded me of myself – my parents and grandparents helped me out, too.”
But then things took a sinister turn when the BBC shared some of the other calls that had come in.
The producers said that although it was probably nothing to worry about, a number of people had all said the same thing – the Punch puppet was cursed, and all its previous owners had come to a sticky end.
Curious, Philip tried to call up his former mentor, Dick Strange, only to find it was too late – shortly after selling the puppets he had collapsed, never to recover.
Dick’s story about buying them after the previous owner died in a house fire suddenly gained a new significance.
Hancock, meanwhile, had suffered from alcoholism and depression. Far from owning the puppet, Philip learned, the comedian was deeply superstitious of it. He wouldn’t even touch it, let alone have it in his house.
What’s more, the puppeteer who operated Mr Punch in the famous film, Joe Hastings, became gravely ill with cancer and died before the movie was released.
“I hoped I’d broken the curse by giving up doing it,” says Philip, who is now 53. “I don’t believe it anyway – maybe that’s how I got rid of it. I don’t miss it at all.”
The puppet is still in the hands of David Wilde, who is alive, well and today one of Britain’s leading Punch and Judy professors.