The Wipers Time, Salisbury Playhouse

revwipers2NO-ONE is interested in the First World War. That’s what Ian Hislop and Nick Newman were told when they pitched the idea of The Wipers Times to a film company back at the start of the 21st century.

In the annals of stupid, short-sighted decisions, that is right up there with the publishers who turned down JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter book. Not that the brilliantly clever and witty Messrs Hislop and Newman have made a massive fortune out of their efforts – but the play, which they developed from the BBC television documentary that they produced, drawing on Hislop’s original 15 minute radio talk, is now playing to packed theatres, with extra matinees slotted in to try to meet the demand.

The Wipers Times was a real newspaper – real like a proper paper of its day, with advertisements on the front page, news from the front, cartoons, letters to the editor, comment columns (now inelegantly known as op-eds) and a black humour that still makes us laugh.

The paper was produced by members of the Sherwood Foresters, and took its title from the Tommies’ name for the Belgian town of Ypres, where a former printer, serving as a sergeant with the Nottinghamshire regiment, found an old but functional printing press in a bombed out building.

revwipersOver the last two years of the war, Captain Roberts (James Dutton) as editor, Lieutenant Pearson (George Kemp) as sub-editor, and printer Sgt Tyler (Dan Tetsell) produced regular copies of the newspaper, including contributions from men who would go on to be famous in the literary world – poet Gilbert Frankau and playwright RC Sherriff (best known for Journey’s End).

The paper was a quixotic and utterly British response to some of the worst wartime horrors experienced by any army on any battlefield in history. Its defiant spirit and  subversive humour were a tribute to the resilience of human beings in times of overwhelming adversity.

The Wipers Times was a constant thorn in the flesh of the general staff (embodied in the character of Lt Col Howfield, played to the nth degree of pomposity by Sam Ducane), but Roberts and Pearson were protected by a wiser and more experienced senior officer (General Mitford – Dan Tetsell).

Hislop and Newman have drawn on much of the actual reporting, adverts, poetry, songs and humour of the paper to create a play which is achingly funny, black as the night-time sky over the mud-filled trenches, poignant, sometimes tragic and a pertinent, topical reminder of the appalling consequences of the exercise of military and political power based on ideology and prejudice and fuelled by fear.

Perhaps one of the saddest comments on the ensuing century is that the idea of a free, fearless press is now a joke. Loud, hollow laughter rippled round the theatre at references to today’s newspapers and the claim of a post-war editor to Roberts, who had applied for a job, that his paper was only interested in truthful reporting not humour.

The Watermill Theatre production, which ended its tour at Salisbury, is directed by Caroline Leslie, and the pitch-perfect music and songs were composed by Nick Green.  FC

Pictured: Roberts (James Dutton) and Pearson  (George Kemp) at work on the Wipers Times; the full cast with the rescued printing press. Photographs by Philip Tull.

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