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Friday, 31 May, 2002, 16:01 GMT 17:01 UK
Punch: Out for the count?
Mr Punch says farewell after 160 years
As Punch magazine finally folds after 160 years, Andrew Walker of the BBC's News Profiles Unit looks back on the often surprising history of the stalwart of a thousand dentists' waiting rooms.

One evening in June 1841, three men settled down for a round or two at a pub in the Strand, one of London's most famous thoroughfares.

Mark Lemon, a brewery manager who wanted to become a writer, Henry Mayhew, a lawyer-turned-journalist and the noted engraver Ebenezer Landells had decided to meet to discuss publishing a new magazine which would combine humour, stylish illustrations and political comment in a less aggressive and polemical manner than contemporary publications.

Punch is not as funny as it used to be - but then again it never was

The perennial joke
As the meeting progressed, one wag remarked that a publication of this type, like good punch, needed lemon. Mayhew replied: "A capital idea! Let's call the paper Punch."

Accordingly, the first edition appeared on 17 July of the same year, with Lemon as its editor and the villainous Mr Punch as its mascot. It cost three old pence and sold 10,000 copies.

Punch's early months were not particularly auspicious. Even then a shortfall in circulation threatened the magazine's existence.

The many incarnations of Mr Punch
Many incarnations: Mr Punch through the ages
But the introduction of an annual edition, combined with the talents of writers like William Makepeace Thackeray and illustrators of the calibre of John Tenniel - later to bring his considerable talents to bear on the early editions of Alice in Wonderland - made the magazine into a British institution.

John Tenniel's Alice in Wonderland drawing
John Tenniel penned the original Alice drawings
Liberal, enlightened, witty, Punch called for better conditions for workers and famously attacked what it saw as the UK's bungled military adventure in the Crimea.

Royalty, too, felt the cutting edge of Mr Punch's pen, with one article telling readers that, while Prince Albert's annual income was £30,000, the budget to educate all of England's poor was only £10,000.

The magazine even contributed to the English language: the terms Crystal Palace and "curate's egg" first appeared in its pages.

Its radical approach, fostered by editors like the Scots dramatist Tom Taylor, whose play, Our American Cousin, was playing at Ford's Theater in Washington the night Abraham Lincoln was assassinated there, caught the mood of the late Victorian era and thrust Punch confidently into the 20th Century.

Captured the mood

The magazine's illustrations were an integral part of Punch's charm. "Dropping the pilot", a 1890 Tenniel cartoon showing the young Kaiser Wilhelm II parting company with his chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, made a huge impact capturing, as it did, the mood of the time perfectly.

Punch through the years
Punch: Once the pick of the bunch
More recently, continuing its reputation as a showcase for the finest in cartooning, David Low, Bill Tidy and Larry have continued to provoke, amuse and inform readers.

Perhaps the most famous of all was Fougasse - real name Kenneth Bird - creator of the wartime Careless Talk Costs Lives poster, who edited the magazine from 1949 to 1953.

By the 1950s, even though it was still home to writers like PG Wodehouse, the old war horse was looking its age. Much of its humour was stale and circulation was plummeting. The old joke that, "Punch is not as funny as it used to be - but then again it never was" seemed not so funny.

A new editor, Malcolm Muggeridge, was appointed. An iconoclast who once said that English was the only language where the term "trying to be funny" was an insult.

Extraordinary attack

Muggeridge said he would "throw a firecracker into a mausoleum". This he did in spades, launching an extraordinary attack on the then prime minister, the 79-year-old Winston Churchill.

The magazine pulled no punches
In a profile of Churchill, accompanied by a telling portrait by Leslie Illingworth, Muggeridge mused about the aged premier in the style of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

"By this time he had reached an advanced age, and might have been expected to settle down to an honourable retirement. Instead he clung to power with tenacious intensity.

"His splendid faculties began to falter - a spectacle to his admirers infinitely sorrowful, and to his enemies, infinitely derisory."

Churchill, who had recently had a stroke, was horrified. Muggeridge - who was sacked in 1957 after running a series of satirical verses on Prince Charles's prep school, Cheam - was unrepentant. Punch was back in the game.

On the canvas

Regular pieces by Keith Waterhouse, Miles Kington and Frank Muir, together with cartoons and reviews, became a weekly staple for thousands of readers. The magazine was stylish, understated yet satirical, too.

Alan Coren
Alan Coren revived the magazine... briefly
But Mr Punch proved just as mortal as Mr Churchill.

Despite a strong blooming in the 1980s under the skilful leadership of Alan Coren - who once dressed as an Arab sheikh to test reaction to the 1974 oil crisis - the magazine gently faded away, folding for the first time in 1992 before being resurrected four years later by Mohamed al Fayed.

Under his auspices, Punch courted new controversy. Articles about personalities like Peter Mandelson and the former spy David Shayler brought notoriety and the occasional writ.

Even Mr Al Fayed's millions proved unable to secure the magazine's future and now, save for a website, Punch is no more.

In a magazine market dominated by lifestyle journals, the sobering fact is that Punch's genteel musings are no longer fashionable.

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30 May 02 | Business
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