Newspapers come in for a lot of stick. Printing fake news, spreading unfounded rumours, and causing disquiet in the corridors of power.
But, have I got news for you. The Wipers Times, successful in all those things, was responsible for motivating an army at war and now its story, hot off the press, has a new outlet on the West End stage.
You may have caught Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s subversive satire as a BBCTV drama in 2013. They came up with a second draft for the theatre which premiered last September at Newbury’s Watermill Theatre before taking off on an initial sortie into the nether regions of the UK.
It has now opened at the Arts Theatre, in the West End, ahead of second campaign in the trenches this September.
Astonishingly, this amazing true story, as vibrant, blackly funny, and fierecely scornful as the iconic Oh! What A Lovely War, took the celebrity writers 15 years to get anyone interested.
It’s not surprising. The Wipers Times, created by Captain Fred Roberts, Lieut Jack Pearson, and their civvy-street printer, Sgt Tyler, while under attack from enemy mortars and gas during World War One, was a thorn in the side of the authorities and they were glad to see it gone.
Censorship deemed that no facts about the war could be revealed so the men created a journal of jokes that satirised the situation, lampooned the generals and ridiculed governments, armies and conditions.
The whole newspaper was, in today’s terms, fake. Fake news and cheeky fake adverts, not there to inform but to make the fighting men smile. Needless to say, it proved a best seller.
Once the Armistice had been signed, and the last issue of The Wipers Times had been printed, the publication, which had done so much to boost the morale of Britain’s soldiers on the Front Lines, was quietly consigned to history along with its editors.
But this scurrilous rag, which spoofed the horrors of war, deserves this theatrical reissue.
Director Caroline Leslie has a light touch when it comes to dealing with gallows humour. This is Journey’s End with a twist. The lower part of Dora Schweitzer’s clever set is base camp and trench home to Cpt Roberts and the 24th Sherwood Foresters while the upper half provides a stage for a series of comic adverts played out by the men.
James Dutton gives a charismatic turn Roberts, a man who could rally his men to embark on suicidal advances at Ypres and the Somme while simulaneously composing front page leads and down page fillers in his head.
The play opens, post war, with Roberts being interviewed for a job on a national newspaper. “This is a very important newspaper,” says the editor. “So I read…in your newspaper,” says Roberts jovially.
But it soon becomes clear that his remarkable achievements in the field count for nothing.
The action then moves back to wartime Ypres where Roberts and his men find an abandoned printing press and Roberts hits on the idea of producing a newspaper for the troops.
“We are going to produce a newspaper,” announces Roberts. “What like the Daily Mail,” chirps up the naive Tommy, Dodds (Peter Losasso). “No, something a little bit more accurate.” You can just hear Ian Hislop’s input in the line.
Helping him, editorially, is George Kemp’s affable and supportive Pearson, and, with the printing of it, their sergeant, Tyler (and engaging Dan Tetsell who also proves a music hall star with the advert parodies) who, it turns out, was a printer by trade.
No matter where the Tommies are posted, they always seem to come up trumps in finding presses, blocks of type and paper, to come up with another edition.
Journey’s End author, RC Sheriff, it turns out, contributed, as did men in the trenches who all turned out to be budding poets.
Anarchic, darkly funny, beautifully played and thoughfully told.
The Wipers Times continues at the Arts Theatre until May 13.
The original trailer for the show:
2017 Tour Dates
September 12-16, New Theatre, Cardiff September 18-23, Oxford Playhouse September 25-30, Richmond Theatre October 9-14, Palace Theatre, Southend October 16-21, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford October 23-28, Salisbury Playhouse October 30-November 4, Manchester Opera House November 6-11, Theatre Royal, Glasgow November 13-18, Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham.
The Wipers Times
Read all about it. The Wipers Times is back, a vibrant, blackly funny satire that first won an army of readers but lost the circulation war in 1918.