Ian Hislop on new play about publisher arrested for libel three days running
PUBLISHED: 08:33 03 November 2018
Political satire has a long, distinguished history in this country. Arts editor Andrew Clarke spoke to Private Eye's Ian Hislop and Nick Newman about their new play which shines a spotlight on a publisher who survived three libel trials in three days
Ian Hislop, editor of satirical magazine Private Eye and regular panellist on the BBC’s Have I Got News For You, is no stranger to the inside of a court room but even he cannot match the legal derring-do of Georgian publisher and pamphleteer William Hone, who was placed on trial for libel three days running and at the end of that highly litigious week walked out of court a free man.
It’s a remarkable story which has been brought to the stage by Hislop and his long-term collaborator, Private Eye cartoonist Nick Newman, in a new satirical comedy Trial By Laughter.
Rather than being a life-time hero Hislop and Newman both admit to not knowing of Hone before their attention was drawn to him by a colleague at the BBC. However, having researched his life, Hislop is amazed that such a pioneer of free speech could have been forgotten by history.
“In 1817, he stood trial for ‘impious blasphemy and seditious libel’. The only crime he had committed was to be funny. Worse than that he was funny by parodying religious texts. And worst of all, he was funny about the despotic government and the libidinous monarchy.”
Clearly, Hislop feels a close kinship with William Hone and for Nick Newman he is pleased to see that
classic political cartoonist George Cruikshank was also in the dock.
Having had a huge hit with the play The Wipers Times last year, the pair decided to once again bring the fruit of their research before a theatrical audience.
It seems that art is mirroring life. When did you first encounter William Hone and when did you think that his story would make an entertaining play?
IH: “After we did The Wiper’s Times, the head of BBC2, who loves the Georgians, said to us: ‘You must do something on William Hone – and, of course, I hadn’t heard of him, which is quite embarrassing, – and so we went and had a look and we thought that this was simply the best story about press freedom that we had encountered for a long time.
NN: “He is the great unsung hero and champion of free speech and the more we looked into his life, the more we loved him.
IH: “Aside from his work as a publisher and satirist, he campaigned for universal suffrage, reform of the lunatic asylums and generally he was an all-round amazing philanthropist and good guy.”
It seems amazing that such a public figure could have disappeared from view
IH: “It is isn’t it? He was also the first person to write about a miscarriage of justice. He investigated a case where a girl was hanged, wrongly, and I thought: ‘How on earth have I, as a journalist, managed to avoid hearing about this man who, in effect, invented both satire and investigative journalism and was on trial for libel the whole time. It may explain why The Eye has frequently lost (its trials). It is the most brilliant story.
NN: “It’s a real David vs Goliath story because he really was an impoverished bookseller and pamphleteer and he took on the might of The Regency government. The context was the country was suffering crippling war debt and was ravaged by social division. It had just witnessed the Peterloo massacre while the government was surrounded by cronies and the Prince Regent was living this debauched, lavish lifestyle and so Hone and his friend, the brilliant cartoonist George Cruikshank took them to task over it.”
It seems that satire and cartoons are timeless...
IH: “Oh yes, a good cartoon will always puncture the over-inflated ego and that sense of self-importance that most politicians have. Hone and Cruikshank unceasingly mocked these self-important people and that is why they were prosecuted. They were prosecuted because the powers-that-be were not only stung by the criticism but they feared that people may be listening and taking note, so these undesirables had to be made an example of and, of course, it all backfired because William Hone was too clever for them – too eloquent and entertaining – and essentially talked himself into an acquittal not once but three times.
It must have been a wonderful thing to witness...
IH: “Nick and I thought we have to write this because it’s the story of a journalist and a cartoonist but more than that, Hone, like Oscar Wilde, wrote up his trial. We have the transcripts of the case. We have his jokes. It’s a fantastic resource and it’s all true. So most the dialogue on stage is actually William Hone. It was fascinating reading Hone’s account of the proceedings, which he comes out of remarkably well from – not surprisingly – but he does record that he showed the jury a cartoon by Mr Gilray, proving a tradition of political cartoons and satire, he notes the jury dissolved into laughter, provoking the judge to warn that the next person who laughs will go to jail. So the state were taking this incredibly seriously and when he was cleared on one set of charges he was immediately re-arrested on the steps of the court building and charged with something else and the whole thing started again. He was acquitted, again, and this whole procedure happened three times before they gave up.
“An indication of how frustrated the courts were was that the judge in the final trial threatened to have the entire court room thrown in jail because it had become so rowdy and Hone was playing to the gallery. The judge was literally looking around the court room saying: ‘Whose laughing? Are you laughing?’ And, of course, everyone started laughing. He ordered the sheriffs to arrest everyone but then they realised they couldn’t arrest a thousand people crammed into The Guildhall. They were made to look a laughing stock which added insult to injury.”
Trial By Laughter is at the New Wolsey Theatre from November 5-10.