Friday, 07 October 2016

The Wiper Times

The story of the darkly comic newspaper that boosted morale in the trenches during the First World War

Written by Robert Gore-Langton


One hundred years ago, an extraordinary thing happened on the Western Front. Two maverick officers with a shared sense of the lunacy of the war found a small printing press. From their trench, they decided to produce a comic newspaper – without any news. They called it The Wipers Times (‘Wipers’ being the Tommies’ slang for Ypres). Each issue was stuffed with spoof items, groaning puns and a wholesale lack of respect for high command. It offered medical advice – ‘are you suffering from optimism?’ – put a ban on war poetry (unless it was very silly and rhymed) and asked its readers preparing for the next attack ‘are you sufficiently offensive?’ Robert-Gore-Langton-176

Not surprisingly, The Wipers Times appealed hugely to Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye, and his co-writer Nick Newman. They’ve already told this story in a BBC dramatisation, but in a way the stage is its natural medium. It’s set (like all good war plays) in a trench, and it features lots of lovely musical- hall skits and a soundtrack of shellfire. There are also scenes in a French brothel and at Army HQ – where one priggish brass hat does his best to get the paper closed down.

It helps hugely that the two officers who edited the mag – Captain Fred Roberts and Lieutenant Jack Pearson – are played here with effortless charm and an air of constant insubordination by James Dutton and George Kemp. Their determined flippancy under fire comes across as truly heroic. The rest of the cast (with Dan Tetsell expertly occupying several roles) serve to enhance an evening that is very generous with the jokes. Occasionally the denunciations of the futility of war sound anachronistically modern, but the script is a refreshing change from the satirical savagery of Oh! What A Lovely War and the sitcomishness of Blackadder. The comedy is at times surprisingly dark, too. After a heavy chlorine attack, for example, The Wipers Times’ ‘review’ was ‘it’s a gas!’

Both officer-editors were decorated for their great courage in combat. But their real achievement was to help the men briefly forget their homesickness and fear. Roberts and Pearson received no obituaries when they died and their reward after the war was utter obscurity. So this touching and very funny show will have to serve as their memorial.

Until 29 October at The Watermill Theatre, Bagnor, Newbury: 01635-46044, www.watermill.org.uk

Then on tour: 3 to 5 November in Sheffield, 7 to 12 Nov in Ipswich and 14 to 19 Nov in Salisbury


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