Archive for The Wipers Times

The Wipers Times

Posted in Theatre with tags , , , on September 13, 2017 by telescoper

Although I regularly go to the opera and concerts of various kinds in Cardiff I don’t often go to the theatre here, but I made an exception last night to go and see The Wipers Times at the New Theatre. I’m glad I did, as it was a marvellously entertaining evening. As an added bonus there was a short question-and-answer session with authors Nick Newman and Ian Hislop (both of Private Eye) on the stage after the performance:

Apologies for the crummy picture, but we were rather a long way away in the Upper Circle:  that’s Ian Hislop in the middle and Nick Newman on the left.

The play is based around the true story of a group of soldiers under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Roberts and Lieutenant Colonel Jack Pearson of the Nottinghamshire & Derbyshire Regiment (`The Sherwood Foresters’) who, while scavenging for material to reinforce trenches near Ypres in 1916, stumble across an old printing press. They decided to put this incongruous item to use by publishing a satirical newspaper called The Wipers Times, `Wipers’ being British Army slang for `Ypres’. The newspaper was a great success, running to 23 issues, and was not only hugely popular with troops but was also circulated widely at home, sometimes to the consternation of the authorities.

Here’s a sample clipping from one of the original issues:

And lest you think Roberts and Pearson were cynical malingerers, both served with distinction in battle. Roberts, for example, was awarded the Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry under fire during the Battle of the Somme. He also almost died in a gas attack, but insisted on rejoining his men after only a short period as an invalid. The humour of The Wipers Times was not at all meant to be seditious: it was just a way of using  humour to restore a bit of humanity to the inhumanity of the situation the soldiers found themselves in.

It’s not hard to see why this story appealed to Messrs Hislop and Newman: the humour of `The Wipers Times’ is fruit of the same tree of irreverent satirical humour  that produces Private Eye, even down to the spoof Christmas adverts! All the jokes in the play are taken directly from the original Wipers Times and they have endured exceedingly well, including some pointed references to the poor standard of journalism in the Daily Mail. Interestingly, apart from a few gags about sausages, the butt of the jokes is mostly not the Germany enemy, but the Top Brass of the British Army.  The assortment of puns,  musical-hall jokes and comic songs in among the pieces of biting satire is extremely funny in its own right, but gains extra power by its proximity to the awful reality of the trenches. In some ways it inhabits the same territory as Blackadder goes Fourth but the fact that it is based on real characters in a real situation gives it a different dimension. The authors have tried to keep everything as historically accurate as possible, and the authenticity adds to the comedy.  I am no military historian, but it happens that I do know, for example, that the Sherwood Foresters were involved in the Battle of the Somme in 1916; I wrote about it here. The script is very polished and an excellent ensemble cast keeps the show cracking along in brilliant style.

It’s worth mentioning the postscript to the story. Both Roberts and Pearson survived the War, but neither could find work when they came back to England and both emigrated, one to Argentina and the other to Canada. Both men died in the 1960s, unremembered in this country. It was only after the TV version of The Wipers Times was broadcast in 2013, and researchers were put to work finding out more about them, that their obituaries were published in the Times.

The Wipers Times is on in Cardiff until Saturday and I thoroughly recommend you catch it while you can, either here or elsewhere as it is currently on tour.

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