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“Even in war, blessed are the piss takers”

8 September 2018 | Emily May

There is a certain version of WW1 that we’re all used to seeing. We’ve all seen graphic photographs from the trenches, and are all familiar with the horrendous statistics from battles such as The Somme, and whilst these are all important depictions of “the war to end all wars”, they sometimes fail to remind us that the men behind the bayonets were people just like you and me. And what do people like to do? They love to laugh. Especially in times of adversity.

The Wipers Times, a play by Ian Hislop (Editor of Private Eye) and Nick Newman, is an account of war that shines a different light on trench experiences. Following the true story of Captain Roberts and Lieutenant Pearson, the play details how the Sherwood Foresters division discovered a printing press and decided to make a humorous, satirical paper that detailed a more realistic account of life in the trenches, and often poked fun at British Generals, and the German enemy alike, causing much contention with some members of the high command in their offices a safe distance away from No Man’s Land.

Image Credit: The Wipers Times Play via Facebook
 
The play is set within a frame of Roberts looking for a job at a paper after the war, and struggling due to what the Editor sees as his lack of experience, though Roberts quips that his past career as a miner and time in the trenches is the perfect preparation for journalism and “digging up all that mud”. Of course, the play then flashes back to all his exploits as Editor of the Wipers Times, which not only highlights how for many years Roberts and Pearson’s work was unrecognised (they only received obituaries in the Times in 2013 thanks to the efforts of Hislop and Newman), but also the difficulty soldiers have to find work/ adjust to the civilian world, even today.
 
Despite its sombre context, The Wipers Times is a laugh a minute, or even second, as Hislop’s cheeky and ingenious wit that we’re all familiar with from BBC’s Have I Got News for You is a clear, directive voice in the script. There’s quick witted word play (such as the soldiers humorously intentionally misinterpreting an order to be more “offensive” in battle as to be more offensive and rude in the paper) and even clever allusions that draw parallels to the 21st Century, like Roberts responding to one of the soldiers asking if their paper would be like the Daily Mail by saying “No! I was thinking of something slightly more accurate”. Other moments that are particularly comical are sketches in which the characters farcically act out the fake adverts they dream up for the paper, such as one for the best taxi services back to Blighty from the Western Front being the Red Cross Ambulance.

Image Credit: Kirsten McTernan 
 
Whilst not a musical, The Wipers Times is interspersed with songs by composer Nick Green, many of which have lyrics that are inspired by text from the original paper. From trench marching songs to boost morale, to comedic musical hall numbers, all of the lyrics match the script in comedic value and also perfectly conjure the context of the WW1 trenches. Many of the marching songs are used to aid scene and set changes, but this is not the only purpose music serves, as there are many stand-alone songs that are part of the action rather than just a tool to move the play along. We particularly enjoyed Roberts and Pearson singing an ode to whisky (which apparently “hands the courage which is Dutch”), whilst tapping away on their typewriters like musical instruments.
 
But aside from all the laughs there are of course many serious moments, as George Kemp who plays Lieutenant Pearson said in our interview “I don’t think we’d have got away with doing it without them!” You witness the division lose hope, lose men, and in a spine chilling moment of dramatic irony, get posted to The Somme. Once they arrive at the infamous battlefield, remembered for seeing the bloodiest battle of WW1, the characters all line up for the big push. The tragedy of their situation and empathy you feel is elevated due to the light hearted scenes that have preceded it, which have humanized the characters, so that instead of seeing soldiers lined up to do their job, you see a printer, a former miner, your dad or brother, a group of friends who liked mucking around and creating a paper, lined up to face the unimaginable.

Image Credit: Kirsten McTernan
 
But despite horrors such as these, when the armistice telegram comes at the end of the play, it is not met with the raucous celebrations one might expect. “Shouldn’t we be celebrating” Pearson asks confused. This depiction of the end of the war contrasts all that is usually broadcast on TV, the archetypal Union Jack bunting, street parties and smiling faces, and reveals that even though these characters had been occupying a living hell, they had still (as Roberts mentioned in a scene with his wife whilst on leave) had some good times, and that the most terrible situations can often bring out the best of human attributes; stoicism, camaraderie, and the ability to laugh in the face of adversity.
 
The Wipers Times is tour of the UK to venues continues at 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). 
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