The Wipers Times
Ian Hislop and Nick Newman
A Trademark and Watermill Theatre Production
There is no doubt that the British have a continuing ‘nostalgie de la guerre’ inspired by the grim fortitude of soldiers fighting in horrifying conditions in the trenches of WW1.
In 1961, Charles Chilton, working for BBC radio, re-discovered the satirical songs, often set to hymn tunes or popular music hall numbers, which allowed the troops to let off steam by lampooning Kaiser Bill, their military superiors in the British Army or the tragically inefficient management of the war. It was humour and camaraderie in sharing it that made the appalling experience more bearable.
Satirical journalist Ian Hislop, long-term editor of Private Eye, came across The Wipers Times 15 years ago while working on a documentary for Radio 4. It transpired that a century ago, in the ruins of Ypres, Captain Fred Roberts had discovered a battered printing press. Aided by Lieutenant Jack Pearson and their Sergeant, a civvy-street printer, he decided to print a newspaper, not a serious informational journal but one which poked fun at the military establishment, included spoof adverts and jokes, contributions by the soldiers and tributes to fallen comrades.
In collaboration with Nick Newman, cartoonist and co-writer, also a member of the Private Eye team, a BBC commissioned film version of the story appeared in 2014 which has now been adapted as a touring play.
Dora Schweitzer’s set is a ramshackle hut with fallen beams on the front line. This adapts to suggest alternative office areas, provides a space for the performance of music hall routines and shows the troops under bombardment.
The action takes us through the discovery of the printing press, the decision to make the content humorous and the christening of the paper as The Wipers Times (after the men’s name for Ypres).
James Dutton as Roberts and George Kemp as Pearson, ably supported by Dan Tetsell as Sergeant Tyler, provide a dramatised commentary on the stages of the paper’s development, give a taste of the jokes, poems and parodies included and the particular difficulties involved in attempting to produce a newspaper under fire.
There is also prejudice to overcome. Sam Ducane enjoys himself in the role of Lieutenant Colonel Howfield, who regards the paper as subversive, bad for discipline, a threat to the officer class and at worst treasonable.
This point of view is countered by Dan Tetsell’s General Mitford, a senior officer with a much greater understanding of the value of humour in deflating resentment, building solidarity and providing an emotional safety valve for men under intolerable strain.
Excellent support is provided by other members of the cast, who, as well as singing the linking songs, performing the music hall routines, and facilitating swift scene changes, breathe life into the lowlier members of the troop. As the only woman in the cast, Eleanor Brown, with a number of roles, is memorable as a glamorous Madame Fifi.
The programme reflects the co-writers’ current experience of publishing a subversive satirical magazine in which cartoons and written humour address serious issues of the day and includes items taken from the 23 issues of The Wipers Times.
Audiences are likely to be familiar with Joan Littlewood’s inclusion of the wartime songs in her arresting treatment of the subject, Oh What A Lovely War, as well as the chilling ending of Blackadder Goes Forth when the humour dissolves as the troops throw themselves out of the trench into a hail of gunfire. Though its scope is more limited, The Wipers Times is a worthy addition to this canon.
Reviewer: Velda Harris