“The war is not funny, Sir”.
“I’ve a feeling that may be the point”.
What is funnier than Punch magazine, and more accurate than the Daily Mail?
‘The Wipers Times’, by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, is based on the remarkable true story of the creation of a satirical newspaper by British soldiers fighting in the First World War.
When two officers discover a printing press in a bombed out building in Ypres, Belgium, they come up with the idea to begin printing a newspaper, one that would appeal to the British sense of humour – a newspaper by the troops, for the troops. Little did they know, this paper, entitled The Wipers Times (named after the British soldiers’ mispronunciation of Ypres), would continue to run for two years, despite constant bombardment from the enemy, and the disapproval of the military staff, who viewed it as “impertinent unpatriotic rag”.
Directed by Caroline Leslie, ‘The Wipers Times’ provides a satirical look at war, finding comedy in moments of utter despair, all the while maintaining a profound respect for subject matter.
Dora Schweitzer’s set explicitly recreates the devastation wrought by warfare – the remains of a bombed out building line the back of the stage, underneath which the men take shelter from the ongoing bombardment. However, highlighting the necessity for practicality in war, and the British make-do-and-mend attitude, it is this same set that doubles as the men’s ‘theatre’. When performing sketches, as with their mock advertisements, members of the cast would pop up atop this building or, as with their music hall numbers, the cast would come forward, the barbed wire illuminated with lights, resembling the traditional stage of a music hall.
Despite the dire, desperate circumstances of these men, they made, and continued to make, the best of what little they had. Their lack of resources did not hinder the efforts to produce this paper, a paper that ran for two years. Their trench became their theatre – a platform from which they were free to express themselves, free from the confines of censorship. Trapped, pressed in, under constant bombardment and with seemingly no escape from the war, this paper gave them the means by which they might find some form of escapism, and bring this to others. A show bursting with uplifting theatricality, perhaps hinting at the theatricality of war itself, the meaningless showy displays of might and national strength that the top brass decide upon, drawing millions into, as an excessively dramatic, yet completely unnecessary, answer – one with devastating consequences.
The cast is made up of a truly fine company of actors, each and every one so perfectly suited to their character, and so full of personality. In James Dutton’s charmingly likeable Captain Roberts and George Kemp’s dashing Lieutenant Pearson, we see the kind of likeable leaders that were held in great admiration by their men, the relationship between the two testament to the bonds that formed between these men, these brothers in arms. In Dan Mersh’s Sergeant Tyler, we see a practical, reassuring, paternal figure, as with the character of Osborne in R.C Sherriff’s (whose name is mentioned several times in the production, and who contributed to the paper himself) Journey’s End, whilst his General Mitford, alongside Sam Ducane’s Lieutenant Colonel Howfield, remind us of Stephen Fry’s General Melchett and Tim McInnerny’s Captain Darling in Blackadder Goes Forth, the blissfully ignorant top brass – the General, blind to the true horrors of the war, and the Lieutenant, forever accusing men of not following orders. All cast members – Kevin Brewer (Henderson), Amar Aggoun (Barnes), Chris Levens (Dodd), Joseph Reed (Chaplain/Bobbing Bobby), Clio Davies (Lady Somersby/Madame Fifi) and Emilia Williams (Kate Roberts) – truly excelled, each one so very likeable. Great performances from a strong cast.
Writers Hislop and Newman have sourced much material from the original newspapers, recognising the strength, the power, and the humour, already present. This material very much takes the driver’s seat in the production, steering the action. Their added material works perfectly around these extracts, laying foundations from which to set up jokes, open sketches, or begin songs. The production is littered with sketches, spoofs, parodies, mock advertisements and musical all numbers, all of which are steeped in a gallows humour.
However, this production not only makes, but stresses, the point, that the war is not funny. However, what this show does is cleverly expose those aspects of war – from the overwhelming futility, to the general ignorance of the staff, to the pitiful rum rations – that are so ridiculous, so nonsensical, so absurd, as to become laughable. ‘The Wipers Times’ takes the outrageous, and pushes it even further, so that it becomes outrageously funny. It extracts humour where there appears to be none – napoo. And yet, the seriousness of war is not once undermined.
Although on the whole, this is one funny show, there are moments of such poignancy, such solemnity, moments so serious that, when juxtaposed with the show’s general black humour, such moments are so powerful, so hard-hitting. The stark difference in mood and tone these moments bring serves a great purpose, as this moments are thus given more gravity, bearing much more weight than they might otherwise do.
The constant threat of war is not forgotten: rapid gunfire and exploding shells pierce the laughter of the men – and the audience – debris falling onto the stage. The bittersweet receiving of letters from home, the inability of those at home to understand, the military disasters, the Germans killed by their own gas, the staff acting far from the battlefield, commanders discussing which of their men they have lost, men afraid of being the only one of their battalion to survive, the struggle soldiers faced at finding work after the war – all are given voice in this honest production.
At one point, when Lieutenant Pearson was visiting a wounded Captain Roberts in hospital (he was forced to remove his gas mask during a gas attack, choked by the gas), a VAD nurse appears, and wipes the name of one of six soldiers from a blackboard that sits strategically in the centre of the stage, immediately writing another name in its place. The optimist in us hopes that this man will have recovered, and perhaps been sent home to Blighty for a much-needed, and well-deserved, rest. However, the reality is that, like so many others, this man has probably died, his bed cleared immediately, his name erased, to make space for the next injured soldier, who is perhaps just as unlikely to recover. This gesture, although small, is hugely significant, a disturbing testament to the vicious cycle of ceaseless casualties, and deaths, war brings.
Before going over the top to face the Germans, the men line up along the trench floor, beneath the ruins of the large Ypres buildings, Captain Roberts and Lieutenant Pearson among them – all equal now, united, a touching show of solidarity, in the moments where rank does not matter, and certainly does not make a difference. The men share a drink, laugh together – the drink dulling their senses, the laughter raising their spirits. However, there is a brief moment, one of complete silence, immediately prior to their going over the top – a moment where gunfire ceases and laughter dies down, a moment where the young soldiers tremble with fear, a moment where there is no humour to be had. Writers Hislop and Newman recognise such moments, when humour is not appropriate, and would therefore not be welcome, and adjust the mood accordingly. This play, for all its black humour, recognises the need to be serious, to be respectful, and the play remains so throughout. The general cheerfulness of the play is permeated with such harrowing moments of solemnity, that the bitter truth of the war continues to shine through. There is a time to laugh, but there is also a time at which to be serious, and ‘The Wipers Times’ skilfully acknowledges both.
“There is a time for everything… a time to be born and a time to die… a time to kill and a time to heal… a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance… a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8).
The production explores the fact that most of the copy offered to the paper was poetry. Particularly towards the latter half of the production, there appears to be “a serious outbreak of poet-itus” among the men. In one touching scene in the production, after Roberts complains about the bombardment of poetry he has received, stating that “the paper cannot live by poems alone”, young Private Barnes steps forward, and offers a poem that he wrote after the death of Henderson, fellow soldier and, it seems, good friend, the death of whom clearly affected him deeply. As war raged on, and the brutality, the bitter reality, set in, there seemed to be a marked change in the literature of the time – the early, optimistic, patriotic poetry was exchanged for poetry that was infinitely more sorrowful, more despairing, and more honest. Poetry became a way for men to express themselves, and to highlight the full extent of the horror of war. Not surprising, as war poet Wilfred Owen stated that “the poetry is in the pity”.
In terms of honesty, The Wipers Times certainly is more accurate than most modern-day newspapers, as is this production. Both unashamedly expose the sheer folly of the war, and such folly can be generalised to include, not just this war, but all war. Unabashed, unflinching, fearless, this bold production brutally exposes, not the war, but the pitifully unreasonable causes of war, the very notion of war itself, and the pitiful situation this leads to.
The chief concern of this paper was laughter – to make people laugh to raise spirits, and to boost morale, and this attitude pervades the production. Audiences are brought together, united in their laughter, joining cast and creatives in collectively mocking something that is so unfunny, it becomes funny by default. Humour is used here, not as a defence mechanism, but rather, as an offence mechanism, attacking that which would otherwise make us weep.
American humorist Erma Louise Bombeck once wrote that “there is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humour and hurt”. This production boldly crosses that line more than once, highlighting the similarities, whilst exposing the differences, between these seemingly polar opposite of feelings, and helps us see that, through the one, we might achieve the other.
This irresistibly offensive production, although taking a different approach to other forms of artistic portrayals of the Great War, whose sole purpose is to show the horrors of war, still succeeds in highlighting the war as it was, raising awareness of many issues that were raised as a direct result. Despite its humour, ‘The Wipers Times’ is just as moving, just as affecting, as those other portrayals. The honesty of the newspaper in its offensive attack of certain aspects of the war gained many readers in the trenches, and this production has similarly gained many audiences, and deservedly so. Although not engaged in trench warfare ourselves, politically, the world does not seem to advanced, and so audiences today can draw many parallels between the things that were mocked during the war, and the things that are mocked today, things that are similarly laughable.
At the end of the production, Roberts and Pearson stand tall above a parapet, and it is declared that, upon their deaths, they received no recognition for their creation of The Wipers Times, no public obituary, and no legacy.
‘The Wipers Times’ serves as a very worthy legacy to this extraordinary group of men, who managed to find comedy in moments of utter despair, to bring laughter both to themselves and others, and to create an unbelievable joy, however brief. This was, and is, their lasting legacy, and thanks to this fitting production, these men can, and will, be remembered.
Despite mocking those “suffering from cheerfulness”, cheerfulness was the primary aim of this newspaper, just as it is in this production, a production that celebrates these remarkable men, and their remarkable ability to keep calm and carry on laughing, displaying a resilient cheerfulness that no war could destroy. These men who, in the face of world war,held their heads high and sang, “never mind”.
‘The Wipers Times’ reminds us that laughter can go a long way. In fact, it can take you further than the British troops advanced in 18 months.
The war might not be funny. But this production certainly is.