Britons Prepare for One Last Punch

Some say the celebrated humor magazine has fallen victim to changing patterns in journalism

PUNCH - the weekly magazine widely seen to have embodied the English sense of humor for 150 years - is facing closure.

Unless a last-minute savior turns up, says editor David Thomas, tomorrow's issue would provide the dwindling readership of Punch with its last laugh.

The steady decline of Punch's circulation from 175,000 in the 1940s to under 40,000 today has had more to do with changing patterns in British journalism, Mr. Thomas claims, than with the quality of the magazine, which counts among its past luminaries William Makepeace Thackeray, P.G. Wodehouse, and James Thurber.

"There has been a huge increase in the size of Sunday newspapers in the last few years, with so much to read in them. This has affected most weekly magazines. There is also a lot of humor on television. Our sales started declining gradually over a 10-year period, starting in the mid-1970s," Thomas says.

In 1988 the magazine's owners, United Newspapers, decided to pump new life into Punch, then losing 1 million pounds a year ($1,730,000 under the current exchange rate) and more likely to be found in dentists' waiting rooms than on the coffee tables of private subscribers.

The owners eased out Alan Coren, editor for the previous decade, and gave Thomas, 33, orders to give the magazine a fresh identity and to seek new, younger readers.

Critics of Thomas's wooing of the "yuppie" generation say it was a fatal error. "They lost the audience they had and failed to acquire a new one," says Keith Waterhouse, who wrote for Punch 30 years before departing, along with Mr. Coren.

Mr. Waterhouse notes that Britain's population is getting older. "To have made a play for the yuppie market at a time when the over-55s have so much money to spend was stupid," he says.

It can be argued, though, that Punch was undermined by changes in the English sense of humor. "It lost its way a long time ago," says Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye, one of a growing number of magazines that make a specialty of biting satire and have little in common with Punch's tradition of leisurely essays and subtle cartoons.

Thomas agrees. "The current style of popular humor," he admits, "is rough and ready, crude and libelous. We could not go down that road."

It was along that road, however, that Private Eye attracted its current readership of 200,000.

Graham Wilson, managing director of United Newspapers, says his company had tried hard to keep Punch alive but "falling sales and a slump in advertising revenue, much of which had moved to the Sunday newspapers" had finally defeated it.

Through much of its long life Punch has been accused of not being as good as it used to be. Successive editors have tended to believe that it was amazing the magazine had lasted for so long.

Humorist Malcolm Muggeridge, editor from 1953 to 1957, recorded in his diary that he found issues before he took over "depressing and feeble." He once said that there was "no occupation more miserable than trying to make the English laugh."

Punch was founded with a capital investment of 25 pounds in July 1841. Its first editor was Mark Lemon, a publican, who used a lot of cartoons, which remained the magazine's strongest feature. Punch was the first magazine to call its drawings "cartoons." Mr. Lemon did not hesitate to print Thomas Hood's "Song of the Shirt," a poetic plea for social justice, and later editors continued to make serious comments about politics.

One of its most famous cartoons, "Dropping the Pilot," depicted Prince Otto von Bismarck stepping off a ship commanded by the German Kaiser. Others were just plain wacky, somewhat in the New Yorker magazine tradition. A tiny man apologizes to his enormous female tennis partner: "I'm a little stiff from badminton."

Class differences were another steady theme. In a pre-1939 issue, two elegant women are taking tea. One says: "She was not a bad cook, as cooks go; but as cooks go, she went."

Most recent issues have cartoons depicting sharp-suited young businessmen clutching mobile phones and driving fast cars.

As Punch heads for extinction, there has been speculation about what should be done with the famous table around which weekly Punch lunches have been held throughout most of the magazine's life. The tabletop is heavily carved with the initials of famous contributors and guests, including Thackeray and the present Prince of Wales.

Thomas has said that he was thinking of chopping the table up into small pieces and sending a bit to every subscriber, but one of his colleagues thought that was "probably a joke."

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