Britain's once-lively 'Punch' is nearly dead and no longer funny

March 25, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

London -- Punch, Britain's 150-year-old satirical magazine, was taken off life support yesterday.

Death is expected within a month.

Employees and contributors of the magazine that once rejected the submissions of Charles Dickens as a bit too gloomy, trickled out of its offices in Blackfriars near Fleet Street and were said to have adjourned to a nearby establishment to drown their grief in pizza.

Financial and media experts pointed to several likely causes of the journal's decline: Market forces. It was no longer funny. The English have lost their sense of humor. All three.

P. G. Wodehouse wrote for it. John Tenniel, illustrator of Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland," enlivened its pages. Its cartoons were lavish. Its satire mordant.

Its jokes, well, in recent years they have come under some criticism.

"It's not as funny as it used to be," one reader complained to the editor.

"It never was," said the editor.

Particularly unfunny to its owner, United Newspapers, was a decline in sales and advertising averaging about $2.6 million a year.

Circulation has fallen from a high of 175,000 in the 1940s, during and after the war, to the current 33,000.

Graham Wilson, managing director of the company, said, "Plans for closure of the title have been prepared and are now being brought into effect, since we can no longer continue to publish at such a loss."

Ian Hislop, the editor of a competing unfunny humor magazine, Private Eye, said generously: "The readers have been dying away for years and now the magazine has at last died of boredom."

Death, though expected, is not inevitable. The Press Association reports that United Newspapers, owner of the equally unfunny Daily Express newspaper, says it is trying to find a buyer.

It doesn't sound optimistic. If no buyer is found, the last issue of Punch will come out April 8, one day before the British election, an event the current issue of Punch has attempted with little success to satirize.

According to Sean Macaulay, one of the editors of the magazine, the staff responded to the bad news with silence and one bad joke. "Then we found that the bottle of whiskey kept for just such an eventuality had already been got at," he added.

If Punch disappears, it is likely that its identifying logo, the Punchinello character, the humped-back clown with a nose like a garden scythe, will fade from the memory of what remains of Britain's reading public.

But not necessarily from that of its drinking public. Not as long as Punch Tavern remains open for business at 99 Fleet St. Punch still grins devilishly in the vestibule of that saloon where the magazine was conceived in 1841 by Mark Lemon.

The pub, in fact, is a museum in which many of the original drawings and cartoons from Punch, as well of photographs of various of its editors, are on display.

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