phone mail2 facebook twitter play whatsapp
“A Defiant Flippancy”: An Interview with George Kemp
Image Credit: Kirsten McTernan

“A Defiant Flippancy”: An Interview with George Kemp

31 August 2018 | Emily May

You may have seen the television version of “The Wipers Times” on BBC2 back in 2016, but have you seen the stage show? Written by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, The Wipers Times tells the story of a band of extraordinary WW1 soldiers who found an old printing press and set up a satirical magazine in the midst of the trenches. Currently touring the UK, we chatted to actor George Kemp who plays Lieutenant Jack Pearson about his role in the play, the importance of performing it in this centennial year, and why it is important to, in times of unrest, laugh in the face of adversity.

Culture Calling: You play Lieutenant Jack Pearson. Can you tell us a bit more about the character and his role in the play?
George Kemp: He is one of the three or four characters in the play that we know were real, along with Captain Fred Roberts. He was a Lieutenant in the Sherwood Foresters, and was the second in command of their company. He is slightly cynical about the venture of starting up a paper when Roberts first suggests it, but quickly they become a great double act, and form a friendship that I think – from the little bits we’ve managed to read – lasted all their lives. I don’t think they saw each other much, but we’ve got a brief memoir of Pearson’s, and they write fondly of one another.

Image Credit: George Kemp photographed by Kirsten McTernan
 
CC: Did you read many sources or do much research to help you get into character?
GK: I tried to, we didn’t know that much about Pearson when it started. When Ian Hislop and Nick Newman first wrote the television version of the Wipers Times, they knew almost nothing about him. Ian managed to get some information from the researchers at Who do you think you are? But only the bare bones. By the time we came to rehearsals there was a little bit more, I tried to do some research, but there’s only so much you can find when someone’s not a public figure. I don’t know how he spoke, what his manner was, all we had to indicate what they were like was what they wrote in the paper. And actually, in the script that Nick and Ian had written, which uses a lot of their writing from the paper, it feels like you get quite a clear picture of who Roberts and Pearson were. That they were very flippant and witty, but also quite sensitive. There is some beautiful writing in the paper. It’s all very funny, but occasionally there are serious sections.
 
I have since met Pearson’s grandson and great grandson. They came to the show when we were in the Arts Theatre in the West End last year and said that we did him justice. That by adapting the paper we had found his voice… which generally involved talking about whisky! Which is pretty similar to me, so it felt like a natural fit. And I grew a moustache, that seemed to make some kind of headway towards resembling him. I have really come to love him. I’ll feel very sad when I have my last day with him.
 
CC: Was it nerve-racking performing in front of the character’s family?

GK: It is funny meeting someone’s family when you think “I’ve been trying to spend a lot of time inside your grandfather’s brain.” When Pearson’s family came to see it in London, I was nervous because you want them to feel proud, and feel like you’re presenting their family history in a fair and positive way. I think we do. It’s really a celebration of the paper, and what it took to write something like that during the horrors of the First World War.
 
CC: You mention it was written by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman. Were they involved in the rehearsal process?

GK: They are still very involved. We met them on the first day we were working on the project and they’re still very supportive. They come and do Q&As at the venues with us, and sometimes take us out for a drink – which is always very welcome! I think they feel proud to have had a part in keeping the story alive. It’s thanks to them that Roberts and Pearson finally managed to get obituaries in the Times, which were long overdue, because of their incredible work, and the amazing lives they led.

Image Credit: Chris Levens and Kevin Brewer photographed by Kirsten McTernan
 
CC: And obviously the Wipers Times almost feels like a forerunner to Private Eye, of which Hislop is the Editor, and for whom Nick Newman has regularly drawn satirical cartoons.
GK: It is! I think that’s why they related to the story so much. Ian and Nick have this wonderful phrase they use to describe what it’s all about which is “a defiant flippancy.” I think that sums it up perfectly. These men were defiant, would not be cowed in this awful situation, and found an outlet by using this printer they discovered in a bombed out school building. I think it kept people alive. In the same way as today we need voices like Ian and Nick’s to turn current affairs around and show us how ridiculous and indeed how hilarious they are.
 
CC: As you say, we are again, maybe not to the extent of the first World War, but comparably, in times of unrest. Do you think the play is trying to inspire people to question and laugh in the face of adversity?

GK: I hope so. It’s quite a British sensibility to have that instinct when things are going badly. We have a real bent towards laughing at ourselves, which the Wipers Times does a lot. Of course it pokes fun at the Germans a little, but it is characterised by how much they laugh at their own Staff HQ, the Generals, and the madness of their own situation. I hope we continue to do that. It’s a great survival tactic. I don’t always feel like laughing at things, but thankfully there are people like Ian and Nick around who show us how to.
 
CC: Whilst the play is first and foremost a comedy, are there still some serious and thought provoking moments that contrast the humour?

GK: There are – I don’t think we’d have got away with doing it without them! One of the joyful things about doing a comedy is that it makes the sadder moments sadder in comparison. Lives are lost during the show and the men inevitably go over the top. You go on this journey with them of the last two years of the war, and then it ends. It’s interesting to depict the ending of the war without the streamers and banners and tea in Trafalgar Square, but with a group of men getting a telegram at 6:00 am, and not knowing what to do with it. Britain had changed when these men came back, and that was a tricky situation. There’s a great song at the end called the De Mob dance which is about what happens when the characters come home. There are lots of songs in the show actually. There’s quite a bit of poetry in the paper which our wonderful composer Nick Green and Musical Director Paul Herbert were able to set to brilliant music. Which we then butcher every night.

Image Credit: James Dutton and Dan Mersh photographed by Kirsten McTernan
 
CC: 2018 marks 100 years since the end of WW1, does it feel particularly important to be performing the play in this centennial year?
GK: It does. We’re having a charity performance on the 11th November in London. And it will be surreal to get that telegram onstage 100 years to the day that the characters received it. The whole 2 years we’ve been doing the show have been filled with anniversaries. We went to Belgium last summer to do something with the BBC for Passchendaele. To go there and perform a bit of the show live on tele in the place where it actually happened, to walk around the town and see the arches where they had their offices felt very moving. It is a great privilege to be broadcasting this remarkable story, it would be a tragedy if it were lost, and if what they were fighting for, freedom of speech, wasn’t allowed to keep its place in our journalistic landscape. It’s essential.
 
The Wipers Times is touring the UK to venues including Nottingham Theatre Royal (28 August – 1 September), Oxford Playhouse (3 – 8 September), Exeter Northcott Theatre (10-15 September), Malvern Festival Theatre (17 – 22 September), Leicester Curve (24 – 29 September), Eastbourne Devonshire Park Theatre (1 – 6 October), Birmingham Rep (8 – 13 October) and Arts Theatre London (16 October – 1 December). 

Tell us what you think

You may also like

 How to Survive Blue Monday in Edinburgh

How to Survive Blue Monday in Edinburgh

Tomorrow is, according to a (not very scientific) mathematical equation, the most depressing day of the year, or ‘Blue Monday’ as they call it. As if…

This Class Works at 92 Burton Road, Sheffield

This Class Works at 92 Burton Road, Sheffield

Artist Pete Mckee presents his latest exhibition offering a personal perspective on the life of the working class

A Journey of Self-Discovery: An Interview with Filmmaker Arshad Khan

A Journey of Self-Discovery: An Interview with Filmmaker Arshad Khan

A deeply personal documentary, ‘ABU’ traces filmmaker Arshad Khan’s journey as a gay man, an unwelcome immigrant and a Pakistani Muslim. 'ABU' - father in Urdu – is…

Top 5 UK Independent Festivals 2018

Top 5 UK Independent Festivals 2018

Although we’re still a long way away from festival season, it’s never too early to start planning ahead (especially when you need something to look forward to…

Top 5 Escape Rooms

Top 5 Escape Rooms

Escape Rooms began online before being brought into real life in Japan in 2007. Ever since then Escape Rooms have grown in popularity all over…

The UK’s Top Summer Firework Displays

The UK’s Top Summer Firework Displays

Fireworks aren’t just for the 5th November, so if you want to set your summer off with a bang, check out our sparkling round up of…

“You want to try and come up with a universal Trunch for everybody…”

“You want to try and come up with a universal Trunch for everybody…”

She’s the number one villain of many of our childhoods. She’s the headmistress we’re glad we never had. She’s Miss. Trunchbull, and she’s making her way across…

Best Stand Up Tours Spring 2018

Best Stand Up Tours Spring 2018

It’s that time of the year where the best of the Edinburgh Fringe’s stand up shows embark on tours around the UK, hitting up arts centres,…

‘Above the Mealy-mouthed Sea’

‘Above the Mealy-mouthed Sea’

Don’t miss acclaimed performance poet and theatre maker Jemima Foxtrot’s one-woman show!

An Interview with Ali Taylor

An Interview with Ali Taylor

Cardboard Citizen’s production of Cathy has been touring the UK for two years, in theatres, at the Fringe, in prisons, community centres, and even at the…

Most popular

A Literature Lover’s Guide to Dorset

A Literature Lover’s Guide to Dorset

From Thomas Hardy to Enid Blyton, Lawrence of Arabia to Ian McEwan, many writers have been inspired by and sought solace in the beautiful Dorset countryside.
Go Green!: Environmentally Friendly Bristol

Go Green!: Environmentally Friendly Bristol

This week is Recycling Week, and what better way to observe it than to take part in some environmentally friendly activities in Bristol, the first UK city to be named the European Green Capital back in 2015!
FILM REVIEW: Bliss!

FILM REVIEW: Bliss!

The North of England meets Norway in Bliss! a bizarre tale in which a girl attempts to find her father. Out on VOD channels from 24 September.
“Art and life imitating each other”: An Interview with Richard Twyman

“Art and life imitating each other”: An Interview with Richard Twyman

We chatted to Director Richard Twyman, about English Touring Theatre’s latest production of Othello, which re-analyses the classic play through the lens of religion and spirituality.
“Radical, unconventional and international… much like the artists who lived here”

“Radical, unconventional and international… much like the artists who lived here”

The Bloomsbury Group may be a thing of the past, but that doesn’t mean their work and relevance has to be. In this spirit, Charleston House in East Sussex has opened an exhibition space filled with work inspired by the work of the renowned artistic group!
Windsor, Booze and Running Shoes: An Interview with Holly Light

Windsor, Booze and Running Shoes: An Interview with Holly Light

Think a beer (or two) at the finish line would make you run a bit faster? Then the British Beer Run is the event for you! We chatted to Holly Light from AAT Events about the upcoming race in Windsor on 13 October.
The Trocks on Tour!

The Trocks on Tour!

If you’re a fan of RuPaul’s drag race, and also a dance devotee, then you’ll love Les Ballet Trockadero de Monte Carlo. Catch the all-male comedic ballet company as they tour the UK through till November!
Films to look forward to from Venice Film Festival!

Films to look forward to from Venice Film Festival!

Why not check out our summary of what films to (and what not to!) look forward to from the Venice Biennale? With many of the films soon to be streamed on Netflix, you’ll soon be able to get a taste of the world’s oldest film festival right from your sofa!
Gardens just don’t lose their charm for artists!

Gardens just don’t lose their charm for artists!

The Enchanted Garden at Newcastle’s Laing Gallery explores how gardens have been an ongoing inspiration through 100 years of art history. We chatted to curator Amy Barker to learn more about the artists who have flirted with fauna and flora in their work.
Stones Rock! – Top 5 Shingle Beaches in the UK

Stones Rock! – Top 5 Shingle Beaches in the UK

Tomorrow (16 September) is collect rocks day, so why not become a geologist and pick up some pebbles from one of the UK’s Top 5 stone and shingle beaches in our handy guide? We’re sure they will rock your world!

Your inbox deserves a little culture!