To the wonderful Victorian Devonshire Park Theatre (dating from 1883) to join a near-packed matinee house for Ian Hislop and Nick Newman's First World War review/play The Wipers Times (****). A rather appropriate show with which to begin a new venture such as this diary, as it is based on the true story of a newspaper set up in 1916 when a group of British soldiers with no publishing experience found an old printing press in a bombed out building in Ypres (or "Wipers" as the British knew it). It is however to be hoped that "Man about Eastbourne" will not be produced under enemy fire. Captain Fred Roberts (played by James Dutton) appointed himself Editor and his Subaltern, Lieutenant Jack Pearson (George Kemp) was Assistant Editor. They were given vital support by their Sergeant who had been a printer in peacetime (played to great effect by Dan Mersh to look a dead ringer for Old Bill, Bruce Bairnsfather's walrus-moustachioed First World War cartoon character).
The Wiper's Times was intended as as an irreverent antidote to the appalling conditions of life in the tranches. When Roberts suggests they set up a paper with the press they have found one of the soldiers says "a bit like the Daily Mail?". Pearson replies "I was thinking of something more accurate." This is of course in part a barbed riposte from Private Eye Editor Hislop (and Newman who also works for the magazine) against the Mail with which it has long running feuds. It also reflects the situation in the First World War when papers like the Mail also had a reputation for unreliability. Roberts saw the paper as more like Punch. Much of its humour is shown in the spoof advertisements printed in the programme and enacted on stage. Land is offered for sale on Hill 60, a notorious enemy gun emplacement: apply Bosch and Co, Menin. Many of the jibes were aimed at the senior officers living in comfort often in large chateaux well behind the lines. Some of the funniest scenes in the play concern two such officers, one of whom, Lieutenant Colonel Howfield (Sam Ducane), wishes to close down the Wipers Times, seeing it as encouraging a lack of respect and insubordination. Fortunately General Mitford (also Dan Mersh), his commander, finds the paper very amusing and foils all of Howfield's scheming. Howfield is particularly put out when, criticising Roberts and Pearson for their lack of patriotism, he finds out that they have both been awarded the Military Cross. Others who do not escape the paper's jibes are celebrity correspondents such as William Beach Thomas whose jingoistic articles making light of trench and battle conditions were parodied under the by-line of "Teech Bomas". Hilaire Belloc, who published a journal called Land and Water about the progress of the war got similar treatment in articles by purporting to be by "Bellary Helloc".
The lives of those producing the newspaper are filled out with scenes of a visit to one of Ypres' notorious brothels, a field hospital and Roberts home on leave, enthusiastic about producing the newspaper but unable to talk about what the conditions were really like in the trenches.
This entertaining play, ably directed by Caroline Leslie for the Watermill Theatre, perhaps lacks a little in narrative thread due to the nature of the source material, but it more than makes up for this with extracts from the paper acted out in character and is punctuated by songs of the time. I suspect it gives a much more realistic image of soldiers' real concerns than many an academic history of the war, as we approach the hundredth anniversary of the Armistice. Catch it at the Arts Theatre London from 16th October to 1st December.