“The Wipers Times”, on all this week at the Richmond theatre will be a classic. If you want to hear the authentic voice of the men on the trenches this is the play for you. Written by two of our most creative comic sketch writers, Ian Hislop & Nick Newman ( Editor & cartoonist on Private Eye , creators of Tim Nice but Dim for Harry Enfield and much else), the Wipers Times is based on fact.
In 1916 a group of soldiers led by Capt Fred Roberts (wonderfully realised by the comic brilliance of James Dutton) discovered a printing press in Ypres, unable to pronounce “Ypres”, the Tommies said “Wipers”. Roberts & his Lieutenant Jack Pearson (the dashing George Kemp) decided to print a newspaper called “The Wipers Times”. But here’s the point – not a newspaper of record, but a series of running jokes. They did that quintessentially English trick of turning everything into a joke. They were using humour as a coping mechanism.
Indeed the play goes as far as to say that humour and the ability to laugh both at oneself and one’s country is what defines civilisation and distinguishes “us” from the Germans. In one poignant scene the Tommies hear the “Bosch ” singing “The Hymn of Hate” and someone says “that’s not very nice” and makes the point that “we don’t sings songs like that”.
The question I kept asking myself through out the evening was “where goes this instinct to laugh at ourselves and say how useless we are come from?” “The Wipers Times” shows no interest in the “Bosch ” – all the energy is in debunking our own side. It satirised the press, especially the Daily Mail, (Captain Roberts responds to a doubt about their ability to produce a newspaper by saying: “it can’t be that hard – journalists do it! “). The high command and the absurdity of the war, using spoof advertisements, agony aunt columns and the sketch “are you suffering from Optimism?” is pure genius – and musical hall routines.
Again and again they turn horror into humour. My favourite was when they were attacked with flame throwers and they produced an advertisement for a Christmas toy for the “Flammenwerfer” – ideal for the boy with a “mechanical turn of mind”. It’s a unique way of looking at the world which turns a minus into a plus.
How did they get away with it? There is a fascinating dialogue within the high command, called the Brass Hats by the Tommies, between the outraged of Tunbridge Wells, Lieutenant Colonel Howfield (superbly rendered by Sam Ducane) and the liberal General Mitford the excellent Dan Marsh) – the former wants these men shot for “scurrilous insubordination”, the latter says “nonsense these men are letting off steam and raising morale not lowering it.” It’s a real insight into the debates that must have gone on within the ruling elite of the time.
The experiment of the ruling elite garnered over many generations of global empire had given the British the understanding that you must give the people some space and let me, up to a point Lord Copper, bite the hand that feeds them. That, I think, explains how the “Wipers Times” got away with it. Plus the fact that it was very popular back home in Britain. “The Wipers Times” is a salutary reminder that the voices of the little people are often not heard and that they have things to say that are just as pertinent and valid as the officially sanctioned discourse. This is a lesson we keep needing to learn, as the recent Brexit & Trump events have shown. Captain Roberts couldn’t get a job in Fleet Street after the war, he so presciently said of the “Bosch” at the wars end, “you have been an army of occupation, now you will be an army of no occupation”!), as he had no relevant experience.
Due to the wonderful efforts of Hislop & Nesmam, both Roberts & Pearson were given posthumous obituaries in The Times. If life is a tragedy to those those that feel and a comedy to those that think, (as Horace Walpole had it) then “The Wipers Times” compels us all to see that it is both a tragedy and a comedy simultaneously.
Tears & Laughter.
This play is beyond praise and it demonstrates the triumph of the resilience of man in the face of seemingly overwhelming adversity.