Writers: Ian Hislop & Nick Newman
Director: Caroline Leslie
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
1916. Ypres. A unit of the Sherwood Foresters, led by mining engineer Captain Frederick John Roberts, is looking to salvage timber or metal with which to shore up the trenches. They come across an abandoned printing press and, in a flash of eccentric British brilliance, Roberts, an engineer with no previous experience of writing but a sharp and dry wit, decides to salvage the press and produce a comic paper, The Wipers Times, that will prove a release for the frustrations of the men at the front line and, occasionally, an embarrassment to the brass hats of the military command.
Over two years and with three different presses, 23 issues were published, helping maintain the morale of the Tommies in the trenches with its satirical, often gallows, humour. Then, after the war, almost nothing. Facsimile editions of the paper were produced but it was largely forgotten, a footnote to history.
The Wipers Times gave Tommies a voice, pricking the egos of those in power; it started a tradition of satire that continues to this day and Private Eye could be considered a successor so it is not surprising that it was Ian Hislop who, on learning of the journal, would see the potential in its story and seek to tell it. Together with Nick Newman, he pitched the idea repeatedly, making a BAFTA-winning TV drama that paved the way to the current stage production.
In the intervening years, there have been dramas that have sought to deal with the issues The Wipers Times addressed: Oh What a Lovely War! and Blackadder Goes Forth immediately spring to mind, and their influences in the current production are clear. What separates The Wipers Times from these is the fact that it is a story about real men who took part in some of the most gruesome battles with true heroism – Captain Roberts was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry – and who responded not with pessimism and fear but with courage.
The show itself is a mixture of extracts from the paper, sometimes performed as songs or music hall sketches, together with the story of the men involved and the brass hats who either feared or encouraged them in their morale-boosting efforts. Central to the story are, of course, Roberts (James Dutton) and his assistant, Lieutenant Pearson (George Kemp). Their relationship, optimism and good humour shine through every moment onstage as they flesh out the characters behind the paper. Dutton is cheerfully irreverent almost to the point of insubordination, so that he often appears to be on the verge of laughter at the absurdities of the war they are fighting – a memorable illustration of this being when they are visited by Sam Ducane’s stuffed-shirt Lieutenant Colonel Howfield who berates them for not undergoing enough sorties asking, ‘Are You Offensive Enough?’ … the men certainly agree they could be more offensive. Ducane’s Howfield does stray rather into caricature, especially when contrasted with his commanding officer, General Mitford (Dan Mersh) who shows how well some of the bureaucracy understood the need for such a safety valve as The Wipers Times; Mersh is also delightfully down-to-earth as Sergeant Tyler, the peacetime printer who keeps the presses running.
It’s not all belly laughs: there are poignant moments when the men go over the top and also when, on leave in London with his wife, we see another side to Roberts and the impact of the war on the population at home.
But this is primarily the story of a remarkable newspaper so one can forgive the two-dimensionality of many of the supporting characters, an inspirational story of British eccentricity and pluck under fire, a source of some national pride. As it comes to the end of its 2018 tour it’s a piece well worth catching.
Runs Until 13 October 2018 and on tour | Image: Philip Tull