“A Defiant Flippancy”: An Interview with George Kemp

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Kirsten McTernan

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.

Our interview with George Kemp

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).