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September 14, 2017

AFTER the Paul Hollywood Nazi uniform storm and Jack Dee hitting out about DIM zealots policing comedy so much now that he is sick and tired of being told what he can NOT say, it was good to see that in the depths of the slaughter, grime and rat-infested British trenches occupied by privates and their officers in World War One these sensibilities didn’t really exist – when the chips are down you have to laugh or cry/die.

Nick Newman and Ian Hislop’s play the Wipers Times is at the New Theatre, Cardiff, the end of the week and on tour throughout the UK after that. It tells the story of how some spiky, spunky British troops had to fight two enemies – the Germans on the other side of no man’s land and the London-based military top brass, who understood that their joyous satire and subversive poetry and prose brought the weary warriors satisfaction and lifted morale but also carried explosive danger and offence by lampooning and lambasting (though the lambasting was very gentle in comparison to today’s tabloid terrors or internet warriors) those in power – a fantastic British tradition which Hislop’s Private Eye now very proudly continues.

The play is more of a string of comic sketches than anything else with some cheerful song and dance routines and a sharp acerbic script which concentrates on the humour rather than the blackness in the black humour necessary to survive in the senseless slaughter.

It is a wonderfully optimistic and zesty piece about how the British grasp irony better than their enemies and use it in dire circumstances to defuse tension and depression. The DIM zealots could learn a lot by seeing this.

The play is based on the true story of how officers and men came across a printing press in Belgium at the front and succeeded in publishing a satirical magazine which won favour among the troops, who looked forward to reading it on a regular basis.

It relieved boredom, gave them a useful outlet, brought upper and lower classes together on a level footing, encouraged creativity, and crucially, diverted attention from the gruesome horrors of war.

While the Germans sang songs of ire and hate against the English, our boys and men took to their typewriters to churn out some pearls of wit, wisdom and often poignant and tragic accounts of deep grief and loss and witty amateur wordsmiths eagerly and jubilantly sub-edited and laid out pages as the bombs and bullets flew in all directions nearby.

The cast of roughly eight men and two women interact well on stage in a carefully choreographed, action-packed two or so hours with an interval and it ends with a joyous routine involving them all.

This play highlighted how important the fact that it was a paper product printed by hand on an old-fashioned press was – perhaps paying tribute to Private Eye itself as it is one of the few print publications with a growing circulation in today’s mobile phone flickering screen world. In a week when I read that two former daily newspapers in Gloucestershire are now going weekly because the internet has hit printed products so badly, it seemed hugely significant.

“This war will be over by Christmas – but we don’t know which Christmas” was one of the many dry, sardonic jokes in this play. Perhaps the same can be said about print magazines and papers.



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