‘The War is not funny, Sir.’ – Colonel Howfield.
‘I’ve a feeling that may be the point.’ – General Mitford.
Seema Syeda reviews Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s hit sensation, The Wipers Times.
Lovers of satire, puns, and slap-stick comedy will delight in this new gem of a play from writers Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, The Wipers Times. Based on the history of a real-life satirical newspaper printed from the trenches of Ypres during WWI (the title Wipers plays on British Tommies’ mispronunciation of the famous war-torn town), Hislop and Newman’s masterpiece brings to life the vicissitudes, mischief, and courage entailed in the running of a subversive newspaper from a warzone.
The play narrates the experiences of Captain Frederick J Roberts and Lieutenant Jack Pearson, the founders of the original Wipers Times, from the moment they established the paper in 1916, to the end of the First World War and its melancholy, sobering aftermath. Unfolding in a somewhat farcical manner, the plot highlights the absurdity of war with an irreverent yet comic nihilism.
The performance is filled with puns so terrible they are hilarious, alongside cuttingly poignant satire – often delivered in a Cockney accent – and a smattering of poorly composed French. The majority of gaffes are pulled straight from the real Wipers Times – Hislop and Newman unashamedly admit that very little in the play is their original work. In this sense, it truly is a historical drama.
Critics may question whether the comedic interpretation of a war that witnessed death on such a vast scale is tasteful, or indeed, appropriate. They may be missing the point. Laughter, as Hislop and Newman emphasise, is a fundamental element of the human experience.
‘Someone must have laughed between 1914 and 1918,’ Hislop quips, commenting on the inspiration behind the play. And indeed, they did – a fact that the existence of the original Wipers Times pays testament to. Publishing a running commentary of the War from 1916 onwards, the hilarious ditties, satire, and farce originating from the paper so too made a mockery of the conflict.
As Hislop and Newman highlight, the insubordinate optimism of soldiers on the Western front, voiced in the content of the original Wipers Times, was a natural coping mechanism against the drudgery, muck, and futility of war. This made the paper itself a topic of controversy. On the one hand, the paper was a subversive force, with its derisive take-downs of senior ranking officers, and total disregard for the army’s emphasis on discipline, decorum, and hierarchy. On the other, it was acknowledged that the Times acted as a sorely needed pick-me-up for downtrodden soldiers.
The dilemma this posed for the high command of the British army is brilliantly thrashed out throughout the play. In a series of tantalising sketches, one Lieutenant Colonel Howfield engages in a number of rapidly escalating tête à têtes with the superior ranking General Mitford.
Howfield contends that the Times is treasonous and should be supressed, only to be lampooned by his superior for failing to see the humorous side, and more importantly, the magazine’s role as an all-important morale-boost, the quashing of which would be even more fatal than allowing it to continue.
These sketches, rather reminiscent of the interchanges between Captain Darling and General Melchett in Richard Curtis and Ben Elton’s Blackadder Goes Forth (1989), succeed in teasing out the deeper controversies surrounding the newspaper and the War itself. The oft-criticized distance of the General Staff from the combat zone is captured, as is the absurd logic of ordering yet another drastically wasteful ‘big push’.
Thus, whilst the farce and satire characteristic of Hislop and Newman is plentiful and ripe, the play does not lack for serious subject matter. Often humour can bring out the most poignant social critiques. The themes of gender, class, and national identity – which reared their heads so forcefully in the aftermath of the First World War – are unpicked, be it through references to the women’s suffrage movement, ubiquitous digs at upper-class officers, and the contrasting of the German Army’s ‘Hymn of Hate’ with British soldiers’ alcohol based ditties.
Hislop and Newman have also peppered the play with self-referential mockery of the news industry itself. When one soldier questions his ability to write for the paper, given his inexperience, another retorts that ‘it can’t be that hard, journalists do it.’ William Beach Thomas, war correspondent for the Daily Mail; and Hilaire Belloc, editor of the jingoistic journal Land and Water; are lampooned relentlessly (as they were in the real Wipers Times), for their grossly optimistic and misleading coverage of the war.
As expected of a satire, many of the characters are highly caricatured, larger-than-life personalities. The production, though minimal, is effective. Even the set itself is caricatured – seemingly put together in a slap-dash sort of way, with no fine details, and jests built into the walls. One of the trenches, for instance, is labelled ‘Piccadilly Circus’. The set allows for a brilliant theatrical interpretation of the original newspaper: hilarious ‘adverts’, that would have run in print in the original Wipers Times, are performed on a mezzanine built into the stage background – showcasing some of the funniest moments of the show.
All in all, Hislop and Newman’s play, building on the successes of their earlier, film version of The Wipers Times (2013), is a brilliant and clever satire. A must-see for military history fans, it is also of wide appeal to the general public. This deeply revelatory and important, yet forgotten, history of The Wipers Times sheds insight into an aspect of the First World War that is oft-neglected: its humorous side.
On show until 13 May 2017 at the Arts Theatre, London. Tickets on sale at https://artstheatrewestend.co.uk/whats-on/the-wipers-times/ .