Saturday, 02 July 2022

Story behind newspaper printed in trenches

ACCORDING to the excellently written programme notes, Ian Hislop and Nick Newman had great difficulty in

ACCORDING to the excellently written programme notes, Ian Hislop and Nick Newman had great difficulty in making anyone take their proposed play The Wipers Times seriously.

The play would be based on a true story that Hislop had discovered when working on a documentary for Radio 4, and the argument was that no one was interested in the First World War.

Then the 2014 Great War anniversary came along, and they found themselves commissioned to write a 90-minute film for the BBC, which was ultimately voted the Best single Drama in the 2014 Broadcasting Press Guild Awards and received a BAFTA nomination.

But the story was written originally as a play, and Hislop and Newman wanted audiences to have the opportunity to see it performed as such, with the result that The Wipers Times is now running at The Watermill Theatre, Bagnor, to a rapturous reception.

It is an amazing, evocative, funny and poignant account of the human spirit overcoming enormous odds under appalling circumstances.

Captain Fred Roberts (James Dutton) discovered a printing press in the bombed-out ruins at Ypres, and aided by his Lieutenant Jack Pearson (George Kemp) and his Sergeant (Dan Tetsell) who had been a printer before being called up, they started a newspaper to boost morale among the troops.

No one had any writing experience, but they concentrated on satire with bad poems, jokes, puns, and subversive parodies of head office staff and officers.

Needless to say, they met opposition from these quarters, and also from the Temperance Society back at home, who accused the publication of promoting drunkenness.

But their publication proved itself on many levels, and provided a much-needed antidote to the Germans’ Hymn of Hate that could be heard being sung in the German trenches.

This production is outstanding in that it effectively combines the poignancy of the story of these remarkable men and their attitude to the war in which they find themselves reluctantly caught up with funny and extremely well-executed entertainment.

Much of the copy in the newspaper parodied the music hall, and director Caroline Leslie has used this to excellent effect in the play.

The dogged British spirit is wonderfully captured in the soldiers’ wartime choruses, with very effective music by Nick Green under the musical direction of Paul Herbert, and the cast, set, sound and lighting design are all superb.

Roberts was decorated for bravery at the Battle of the Somme, but he never lost sight of the futility of war or his responsibility to inspire his men. Yet he went unrecognized in post-war Britain until Hislop righted that wrong.

The Wipers Times is a great and very entertaining evening out, but it is also a tribute to the production that you leave the theatre with a sneaking feeling that were it not for a hiccup of the calendar, those fine young men might not be actors, but real-life soldiers living through hell for the sake of their country.

The Wipers Times runs at the Watermill until October 29. For tickets call the box office on 01635 46044 or visit

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