The Wipers Times is a true tale of a muddy satirical newspaper dreamt into glorious piss-taking life by local Notts regiment the Sherwood Foresters in WW1.
Champion of satire Ian Hislop, of Private Eye and Have I Got News for You fame, teamed up with cartoonist chum Neil Newman to lovingly breathe life back into the papers story for the BBC back in 2014. Since winning a bunch of TV awards the story has been stage adapted and is now on a UK tour opening at the Theatre Royal. A good Notts start for a fascinating page of Foresters history then.
The show kicks off in a post war editors office, freshly demobbed officer Fred Roberts (played with cheeky aplomb by James Dutton) is trying to land a job for a fleet street daily, up against an unsympathetic civvy editor who has had none of his recent trench experiences. No journalistic experience you say? Well there was this newspaper I set up and edited, back in the mud…
And so the tale of the Wipers Times unfolds, a publication born of a chance find of a printing press in a bombed out Belgian basement while scrounging for building materials. Blessed with an ex-fleet street printer Sergeant, jovial officers Captain Fred Roberts and Lieutenant Jack Pearson decide to have an amateur stab at making a Punch style 'tell it how it is' magazine for the trenches. And as your average soldier just couldn’t say 'Ypres', we get 'Wipers' and lo' a paper was born. From it’s birth in a dank dugout we follow the publication and it's editorial team through two years of war, a lot more dank dugouts, battles, acclaim from the ranks and even national attention.
You can feel Mssrs Hislop and Newmans knowing appreciation for turning out a satirical paper in difficult conditions here. By ‘difficult’ we mean in the front line, scrounging paper in between shellfire and gas attacks, bringing their print operation along with them as they fight across Flanders and France at the Somme, Vimy Ridge, Cambrai and other grim battles.
It’s through the bleak grimness we marvel at that very British soldierly reaction in the face of death, relentless piss-taking. Lampooning the general staff in charge, poking fun at the press reports, spoof-ads, poems, drawings, cartoons alongside endless darkly humoured gags. The pace is fast and much of the paper's content is served up via musical hall routines via Caroline Leslies slickly crafted set, complete with witty advertisement interludes popping up over no mans land.
Producing this barrage of soul food for the troops soon becomes an obsession for the editorial team and is much in demand with the khaki clad lads suffering out in the mud. Though trying to convey this obsession and the life it describes is nigh impossible to those not experiencing it, whether newspaper editors or Fred's wife back home. As seen in a touching scene when Fred struggles to explain what he's doing over dinner back in Blighty while recovering from being gassed.
Much of the show’s material is lifted directly from the original pages, as Ian Hislop was proud to point out in the interval bar. These are real voices speaking to us, which is poignant. The small cast do an admirable job in bringing them to life, from the wonderfully understated Lieutenant Jack Pearson (George Kemp), to the steady hand and worldly moustache of ex fleet street Sergeant Tyler (Dan Mersh) who also plays the robust and supportive General Mitford (with more than a touch of the Melchett, albeit in a more capable fashion). His nasal aide-de-camp Lieutenant Colonel Howfield (Sam Ducane) takes the ribbing rather more personally and has to be regularly restrained from dealing with 'the subversives', who are oft to push the boundaries.
It's an extraordinary story and full of interesting facts, darkly witty with some quite moving moments. Those with a taste for history and satire will lap this up, along with much knowing nods from ex-forces folk who will appreciate the gallows humour. The noisy applause from a packed house was well deserved.
The Wipers Times plays at the Theatre Royal Nottingham until Saturday 1 September 2018.