The Tribune - Spectrum

, June 16, 2002

The coup de grace that did Punch in
R.K. Murthi

Live today. Have fun time now. Who knows what tomorrow has in store!

THAT summarises the philosophy of Punch, the British humour magazine that has downed the shutters with the issue of May 27. It has given up the ghost, if one may say. But the ghost of the Punch shall be around. Thanks to the advancement in the field of Information Technology, Punch will be available in its electronic avtar.

"Better a virtual issue than no issue at all!" one hears the voices of wood engraver Ebenezer Landells and writer Henry Mayhew to whom Punch owes its all. The two, endowed with a sense of humour, were tickled no end when they read the issues of a satirical French daily, Charivari, that used to appear in the 1850s. The French, they felt, had scored a march over Britain in many fields, including the field of humour.

That hurt them. They bemoaned the fact that the native sense of humour of the Islanders, so ably served by a host of great writers like Swift, Addison and Lamb, had not been kept fully alive. Then came the gem of an idea. Why should not they bring out a magazine exclusively dedicated to humour?


The two were dare-devils. They held between them just about 25 pounds. A meagre sum, considering the challenge they had resolved to take on. But it did not deter them. Landells insisted that they would come up with a publication that would be "less bitter than other British comic publications and of a higher literary standard." Mayhew agreed on the need to add punch to British humour and pitched on the title Punch for the magazine. The two added the subtitle, Londonís Charivari, clearly indicating the objective of the magazine to draw mirth and merriment all around by taking potshots at one and all, especially the leaders of society. The magazine set out to conquer the world, armed with the prickly lance of humour under the editorship of Mark Lemon, who had burnt his fingers running a London pub, and decided that the pen could be the tool to decoct the spirit he wished to serve to the people.

The first issue appeared on July 17, 1841.

It did not set the Thames on fire. Initially there was some enthusiasm, marked more by curiosity than by genuine support. This did not last long. Circulation didnít spiral upwards by leaps and bounds. It remained almost stagnant. Funds were hard to come by. It looked as if Punch would add to the records of infant mortality that nagged several new publications. The future looked grim.

Grim situations demand unusual steps. Mark Lemon suggested to Landells and Mayhew that they risk their all and bring out a big annual issue titled Almanack. It was a gamble. If it failed to take off, they would go bust. Their gamble paid off. About 90,000 copies were sold soon after it appeared. That was the moment when Punch truly arrived.

Not that circulation peaked dramatically. It limped on, swinging from one financial crisis to another, till it was taken over by the Bradbury and Evans, later renamed Bradbury and Agnew. Under the new management, the magazine thrived and became the epicentre of the best of humour, conveyed through fine words and finer cartoons, week after week. The failings and foibles of the leaders of society came in for lampooning. The best of wits (among them Thackeray, Wodehouse, Milne and Muggeridge), flocked to parade their wares in the magazine. The finest cartoonists like Tenniel, du Maurier. Bateman, Emmett and Heath presented their work through it.

Thanks to such rich talent to draw upon, the magazine could bring out the oddities and idiosyncracies of well-known people with tongue-in-cheek insouciance and whipped up laughter all around. The frothy, frisky touch of humour gave a distinct flavour to Punch. (This is distinctly carried by Thomas Hoodís "Song of the Shirt", which moved peopleís consciences over sweated labour). Later, three great humour classics of English literature, including The Diary of Nobody, 1066 and All That and Down with School, appeared in the magazine.

Sweet indeed was the smell of public approval. The magazine rode the crest of success up to the mid 1940s. The circulation rose to 1,75,000. It looked as if the magazine would scale new heights of glory. Nobody sensed that this was the final flash in the pan.

The end of the Second World War marked a change in the composition and attitude of society. Social differences blurred. Nobility fell into bad days. A new class of entrepreneurs surfaced. They held more economic power than the conventional rich. Jokes about class and social differences became less relevant. Laughing at the poor or sneering at colour began to be considered petty piffle unworthy of a civilised society.

Malcolm Muggeridge took over as the Editor in 1952. He had the right qualifications to lead the magazine. He had a good sense of social history, a clear eye on social change. He was expected to inject dynamism into the magazine. "Unfortunately," says W.F. Deedes, a keen observer of the fortunes of Punch, "Muggeridge was a satirist. A satirist let loose on a humorous magazine is risky. Punchís loyal readers rapidly found themselves outwitted. And when Muggeridge went so far as to satirise Churchill, for whom he had no very high regard, they were enraged."

This appears too simplistic a response to the faltering fortunes of Punch. Not even Muggeridge, despite his talent, could have done Punch in. The rot that set in had its roots in the change in the attitude and reflexes of British society. Punch tried to keep up with the times, but failed. The management revolted against the idea of turning away from the essential character of the magazine. It would have totally destroyed its character, reduced it to the levels of a caricature of the newly emerging humour magazines like Viz and Private Eye. By refusing to be reduced to a caricature, Punch maintained its dignity. But this cost the magazine heavily.

Circulation began to dip. The losses mounted. Finally, the magazine was up for grabs. United Newspapers bought the magazine from Bradbury and Agnew in 1969. Much hype followed. Three editors came and went. But Punch never regained its glory. For about 25 years, the magazine limped on. Finally, hit by heavy loss, United decided to suspend publication in 1992.

It looked, then, as if Punch had gone the way of the Dodo. But interest in the magazine revived when Al Fayed, the Egyptian multi-millionaire and owner of Londonís Harrods Departmental store, stepped in. He pumped in 40,000 pounds per issue and kept Punch alive. But it failed to breathe strength into Punch. All the gimmicks and ad campaigns could not make a dent into public indifference to Punch. It had outlived its times.

That message has now been read by Al Fayed. He has decided to remove the life-supporting funds that kept Punch alive for nearly six year.

The disappearance of Punch marks the end of yet another link with the Victorian era.

Mark Lemonís editorial in Punchís first ever edition declared its goal, "Punch hangs the devil". Today devil has hanged Punch.

"My God, youíve had trouble with vandals?"

1. Punch never carried Charles Dickens or Thomas Hardy or equally well-known writers though Mark Lemon held them among his circle of friends. He felt that the flippancy of the magazine might seriously damage the image of the great writers and decided to keep them out.

2. It was around a dinner table that all major policy decisions on how to run Punch were taken. Here the men who held the fate of the magazine in their hands "ate agreeable meals, drank tolerable wine, puffed at good cigars, and chuckled at their own amusing jokes. And, during the idle moments in between, they published a magazine." For four years, the dinner took place at restaurants and bars. In 1855, Punch moved into a new building. A new dinner table too claimed room for itself. Here the editor, the writers and the cartoonists met. The burning issues of the day and the style of handling the issues by the leaders of society came in for clinical analysis. The scene reads, "As the brandy was passed around and the cigars were lit up, the editor would call, ĎGentlemen, the cartoon!í One of the writers would then suggest what a wheeze it would be to draw Disraeli in the style of a sphinx or Gladstone, the lion, fighting the Russian bear and the unfortunate artist would have to do the best job he could."

3. Margaret Thatcher was the first woman Prime Minister invited to join at the table. She was the first woman to attend a Punch Lunch. She was a guest in 1975, breaking a male-only tradition of more than 130 years.

4. The diners when not gainfully engaged, took to the knife to carve their initials on the table top. The table became pockmarked, all over, with the embossing left behind by the patrons who sat around it and worked with knife or some other sharp tool to leave their imprints. Someone who noticed the table top screamed: "My God, youíve had trouble with vandals?.

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