This extraordinary tale of a group of soldiers who produce a satirical newspaper in the heat of battle in the middle of the First World War is the perfect tribute to the to the British Tommy.
The story sums up both the courage and humour which abounded amidst the conflict and the futility and tragedy of war. As writer Ian Hislop said afterwards in a Q and A with the audience it was the soldiers’ insistence on laughing in the face of death which made the story all the more incredible.
Penned by Private Eye Editor Hislop and collaborator, Nick Newman this is the true story of how the 24th Division of the Sherwood Foresters, find a printing press and set about producing their own newspaper in warn-torn Ypres – Wipers to the squaddies.
The paper, some copies of which still survive, had firmly in their sights the, the general staff and those who organised the senseless slaughter from a safe vantage point.
Whilst the content of the paper was frowned upon by some quarters of the army top brass as subversive, the Wipers Times was well received by the Tommies. As one character observes, the outlook of the ranks is best summed up by those who insisted on singing about a drunk Irishman longing to get back to Tipperary whilst their military bosses tried to get them to sing patriotic songs.
But there is no doubt that this is a story about courage, making the point that whilst the paper exposes the absurdity of the war, editor Captain Fred Roberts wins the Military Cross for bravery and gallantry in the Battle of the Somme.
There is a touch of the Blackadder Goes Fourth about the production at times with the same mix of humour and poignancy. But as Hislop admitted, the best stuff comes straight from the soldiers themselves, with the jokes and fake adverts brilliantly recreated on stage as music hall routines, spinning down the decades to be as funny now as they were when first produced.
The interplay between James Dutton, as editor, Captain Roberts, and sub-editor Lieutenant Pearson, played by George Kemp is superb is superb. Dutton especially manages to convincingly convey the grim defiance mixed with vulnerability in the face of despair.
Sam Ducane as Lieutenant Colonel Howfield is also worth a mention as the senior officer who fails to see the funny side of the soldiers’ editorial efforts and attempts unsuccessfully to pull the plug.
Although copies of the Wipers Times survived, the heroes of the story were largely forgotten after the war until Messrs Hislop and Newman brought them to life. For that, they deserve our salutations at a time when we are encouraged to remember.
Runs till Saturday November 4