A courtroom battle for free speech from Ian Hislop and Nick Newman

Trial By Laughter authors Hisplop and Newman
Trial By Laughter authors Hisplop and Newman

First Wipers Times, and now Trial By Laughter. Ian Hislop and Nick Newman bring their latest theatrical triumph to Eastbourne next week – and the Devonshire Park Theatre will be brimming with laughter.

Catching up with the writers, I should have known better. It is this reviewer’s privilege to talk with actors, musicians, directors, writers: all engaging, all genial, sometimes in performance mode offstage as well as on it. And then you have Hislop and Newman.

Performance mode? Sunk in a sofa. Self-promoting? Self-deprecating. Hislop and Newman have been friends ever since school in Sussex – Ardingly, since you ask – and there is still a hint of the subversive sixth-formers about their partnership. I risk sharing that The Wipers Times attracted the best ever Devonshire Park audience figures, second only to the last night of the pantomime. “Well, thank you, that’s categorised us nicely,” comes the response.

But now, what is this Trial By Laughter? “It’s a story about press freedom and a battle for freedom and free speech,” explains Nick. “It’s the story of a trial, in 1817, of a man called William Hone, who was a sort of shy bookseller and publisher of cartoons and satirical pamphlets. The Regency government took him to court to stifle his jokes about the monarchy.”

“It’s a courtroom thriller,” adds Ian, “but it’s a historical courtroom thriller with jokes, which means it’s three different genres in one – for just one ticket price.” Nick: “I think we’d describe it as The Madness Of King George meets A Few Good Men...” Ian: “...meets Crown Court!”

Hislop, reputedly the “most sued man in England”, is editor of Private Eye, with a sense of mischief shared by cartoonist Newman. The Eye has been a thorn in Establishment flesh for well over a generation of fearless journalism. But while Ian has to dodge the occasional law suit, his forbear Hone faced far more dreadful threats.

“Without giving spoilers, it’s incredible that they tried him three times in three days. At the end of each day when the jury found him innocent, they just tried him again the next morning, until there were 20,000 people outside the Guildhall and they thought - we’re going to have a riot now.”

There is actually a slight, chuckling disbelief that Nick and Ian have made the bridge from writing and broadcasting to theatre.

“We’d just finished The Wipers Times,” says Nick, “and head of BBC2 Janice Hadlow mailed us asking if we’d heard of William Hone. We both said - who? But we started doing research and suddenly out came this amazing man - a complete nobody, but who took on the might of the government in this landmark case.”

Ian found the story compelling. “It’s incredible. He had his moment when history beckoned and then fell into obscurity, to our shame really. One critic called our play a celebration of dissent, and I think we are content with that.”

What turns it into successful theatre? “Courtrooms are great theatre, and Hone realised that playing to the gallery is not a bad thing in a big trial. He and his ally, the cartoonist Cruikshank, set out to make the jury laugh.”

“Hone was probably our first investigative journalist,” says Newman. “He witnessed the execution of a young serving girl, a maid called Eliza Fenning, and was absolutely appalled by it...He was an amazing philanthropist. There was the reform of juries, too. He never stopped working.”

“History written by the victors!” observes Hislop. And splendid theatre, written by the good guys. Trial by Laughter opens the Spring Season at the Devonshire Park Theatre from Tuesday March 5. By Kevin Anderson.

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