8 Feb 2019

Theatre Review: Trial By Laughter


So, today's post is a long one but hopefully a goodie! Last week I was kindly gifted tickets to see A Trial By Laughter which is the glorious new play by Private Eye’s Ian Hislop and Nick Newman. After the sell-out success of ‘The Wipers Times’ in the West End and across the country, Hislop and Newman have once again joined forces and taken inspiration from real life events for their new play Trial by Laughter, based on their critically acclaimed original BBC Radio 4 drama of the same name.

In 1817 bookseller, publisher and satirist William Hone stood trial for parodying religion, the despotic government and the lustful monarchy. The only crime he had committed was to be funny. In 2018, satirists Ian Hislop and Nick Newman rediscover this forgotten hero of free speech and ask if just over two hundred years later our press has any greater freedom.

After the play, I got to sit down with some of the cast and was treated to a brilliant Q&A that gave some insight into the madness.

Dan Tetsell: It’s about an artist and a cartoonist that find themselves on the wrong end of the libel laws… where on earth did you get the idea to do that? (Laughter from the audience)

Nick Newman: Well, we were spoon-fed the story by the then head of BBC 2, we’d just done a film called The Wipers Times, and when that came out it went down quite well, and she contacted us to see if we’d ever thought of doing something like William Hone? But neither of us had ever heard of him. Which is quite shameful for those of us who actually studied that period at university. He completely passed under the radar. The more we started to research, the more we discovered these areas of activity. Particularly the relationship between him and the cartoonist. Ian rather softly saw himself as this noble editor writing wrongs when I thought Cruickshank was a lot more fun, he may be drunk, but he’s more fun. So, there was an interest in it. But most of all it’s just a cracking story that no-one seems to have done anything about at all.

DT: When I came to this I think I had never heard of him either. Why do you think Hone has sort of disappeared when Cruickshank can still be remembered?

NN: Well, that’s a very good question, there is a point where he was very famous, the song which is featured at the end, that is a song that was written at the time. Hone wrote a very brief autobiography before he died to justify why he wrote these jokes about religion and by that point, I think he sort of knew he was about to meet his maker and so started retracting a bit. Saying in his earlier days he believed in unbelief. Which I think is quite a good description. I think after all of that, he and Cruickshank had this golden period of about five years where they poured out a series of very strong satirical pamphlets, after the judgement and they were sort of lorded, but the Cruickshank took the crown's money and became an illustrator, and everything just went off the boil. I think Hone felt he’d done the wrong thing in terms of parodying religious texts. By all accounts, Hone was a very charming, modest man, and that’s quite endearing.

DT: You have this knack of finding stories in history that have somehow been lost.

NN: Well if anybody has any? (Laughter) Yes, we’ve been very lucky. The Hone story is baffling because even in the Peterloo film, the Mike Leigh film. Virtually all the characters that we’ve written about are in that. Well they’re all there bar Hone.

DT: And Charles Dickens really was at his funeral?

NN: Well yes everything that we wrote is true basically, we’ve imagined the dialogue obviously but the more we researched we couldn’t believe these bits and pieces.

Nicholas Murchie: And Dicken’s account of the funeral is a great piece of comic writing in itself, it was like every person’s nightmare funeral where everything went wrong, and it wasn’t about this great man at all. Maybe that’s something about his personal modesty that he managed even in death to step behind what was going on.

NN: But Dickens was very keen to meet him before his death, Dickens was a huge admirer. Dickens writes this essay about his funeral and he says he got a fit of the giggles and it was like often when something terribly tragic happens you know that you shouldn’t laugh but Dickens couldn’t stop laughing. He tried to cover it up by saying he was laughing at Cruikshank at his absurdity because it was raining, and Cruikshank dyed his hair and there were black streaks running down his face. Cruikshank did get into a fight with the reverend and Dickens did recount it in a great little comic masterpiece.

NM: I always think in that scene Dickens is feeding to the journalist exactly what he is going to write.

NN: As soon as we’d read that Dickens turned up be knew it would be the perfect punch line.

DT: It’s a tremendously relevant story even know with a time of fake news, I know that you and Ian have had issues with Private Eye and the libel laws and in other countries even more severe punishment.

NN: Well Ian’s record isn’t quite as good as William Hone’s. Hone played three, won three and Ian’s played 40, won one. I think he’d be sacked if he was England’s manager. But that was one of the appeals, why do you enjoy writing about freedom of the press? That was what Hone fought for and should we still be banging on about it? The truth is that stories like this go on around the world and it’s only by reminding people of what it was like before we had freedom of the press that you can appreciate the freedoms we have. It’s a fact that satirical comedy drives in periods of great trauma, the last couple of years have been fantastic and the end of the world is quite great to start making jokes.

NM: That is one of the startling things about the play I realised when I first read it how each scene reminds one of something that is happening in the current world, and even in places you think even in 1817 it wasn’t as bad as it is just two hours flight away.

NN: Just the lack of political imagination as well is very similar to what we’ve got at the moment. Trial one is a failure, so they come up with plan B which is trial 2 and then plan B which is trial three and they’re all basically the same principal and of course they’re all thrown out.

DT: If you look at the current paradigm where reality and satire seem to be indistinguishable at times and where reality can be dismissed as fake news how do you think future writers will portray where we are today?

NN: Well what is already happening is that in America the view of the world is so warped that even Private Eye was approached by an American university and they thought it was a straight down the line news magazine, they didn’t get they were joke pieces. So basically, I would love to know looking back. We can look back at Hone’s time and see that the government’s view of reality was completely different then and we can luckily have the distance of history to sort out the fact from fiction. Although after the trials Hone recounted his experience, of which you can read online, however, because he has written them he comes out incredibly well, it’s full of very amusing asides such as “at this point the jury collapsed in tears of laughter”.

DT: Were the laws of libel effected by Hone’s case or just used as a precedent?

NN: I think it was just used as a precedent for that sort of thing. But the libel laws up until quite recently were pretty draconian. What he was doing were parody and satire and I think now well, Private Eye never gets sued for its jokes, you just say it’s satire and that’s ok. I think what was far more dangerous was the Cruikshank cartoons, you wouldn’t be able to get away with that now.

NM: When you look through a book of cartoons from the period they are, well, hair raising. You would not see them today.

DT: What was Hone’s background in terms of getting into what he did?

NN: Well his father was a teacher and he was brought up near Warren Street and his description of his childhood in this wonderful bucolic, “the fields around Warren Street stretching out” and you could see Fleet Street from Warren Street. So yeah, he was educated and writing poetry from the age of twelve, he was published by twelve, that poem he quotes about the revolution in France he had published. Where his satirical bent came from I have no idea.

NM: Joe who plays Hone, said that from his research he didn’t have the typical southern accent he had a London accent so that despite his education he came from humble enough routes that he didn’t talk like one of the toffs and had that common touch in his dialect.

NN: Even before we get to 1817 he has already made quite a name for himself as he went around the lunatic asylums and got Cruikshank to draw this man who was appallingly treated, kept in chains with a metal restraint around his neck, and Cruikshank drew this, and it caused a great outcry. So, he was stirring things up about prisons and lunatic asylums and then started banging on about universal suffrage which was pretty incendiary then. Then, as soon as the Eliza Fenning case, he saw that and never let it go. Furious about it he left the court and went to the theatre which then inspired him to go away and write a document about the case. He was obsessed, but it did make money.

DT: Did he really have 10 children?

NN: Yes, he had 12. We’ve also found that he has this enormous family in Australia as his brother went out there and became a judge. Quite why he didn’t ask his brother for help defending himself I don’t know.


NM: I don’t think they had email or Skype back then.

Have you been to the theatre recently? What would you recommend?

Lauren Eliza x 

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