hone wins

Joseph Prowen as William Hone and Peter Losasso as George Cruikshank celebrate the first acquittal in front of  Nicholas Murchie's Mr Justice Abbott . Pictures: Philip Tull

Trial by Laughter

Malvern Theatres


I must confess that until Ian Hislop and Nick Newman came along with Trial By Laughter I had never heard of William Hone, which is a sad admission from someone with nigh on half a century as a professional journalist behind him.

Hone, if not the father of freedom of the Press, was certainly one of its close relatives and his battle with the Crown and Regency establishment in 1817, and his David and Goliath victories in court, marked a turning point in Press freedom.

His crime was to parody and mock the rotund, hedonistic Prince of Wales and his allies, the corrupt, self-serving Tory government. In short, he made people laugh. The result was three separate trials on three consecutive days on trumped-up charges which even today are the go to indictments of despotic regimes - blasphemy and seditious libel.

It might have been a very large sledgehammer to crack an awfully small nut but Hone, a writer, bookseller and satirist, was also dangerous as far as the Establishment were concerned.

For a start he campaigned for universal suffrage and social justice, which with Europe still reverberating to the echoes of the French Revolution which had ended less than 20 years earlier, meant that the ruling elite were paranoid about anything that might encourage the lower orders to insurgency.

And he meddled in things the Establishment would rather were left to them, such his fight to save Elizabeth Fenning, a cook accused of poisoning her employers – they all lived, suffering little harm, but we can’t be seen to allow mere workers to attempt to harm employers, can we, so she was hanged in a notorious miscarriage of justice.

Hone’s 240 page book, The Important Results of an Elaborate Investigation into the Mysterious Case of Eliza Fenning, was a remarkable piece of investigative journalism and blew the prosecution case to smithereens.

So, his latest attack, a collection of parodies from the Book of Common Prayer, making political points at the expense of the Prince of Wales and the Government by using the likes of the Catechism, the Litany and the Athanasian creed was all the excuse the powers that be needed to crush him, by jailing him or, even better, transporting him to Australia.

Hone, penniless having been held in jail for months, could not afford a lawyer, so defended himself, quite brilliantly it was to turn out. His ally in his defence was the caricaturist George Cruikshank, whose scurrilous cartoons Hone happily published.

And it is this background and the three trials which are the basis of the play and remarkably, much of the dialogue, the essence of the trials, are as they happened, from the court records.


Jeremy Lloyd as Prince Regent with his, ahem. ladies, Eva Scott as Conyngam and Helena Antoniou as Hertford, with, kneeling, Peter Losasso (again) as the flunky and, lounging, Nicholas Murchie (again) as the grand old Duke of York

Joseph Prowen is superb as Hone, an idealist, a libertarian, who at first wants to challenge the prosecution’s case by intellectual argument, but is dissuaded from that dry and dusty defence by his irreverent friend Cruikshank, a fine, cheeky portrayal by Peter Losasso. He convinces Hone that he should do what he did best, make people laugh at the preposterousness of the charges.

A sound call as it turns out with a huge crowd inside enjoying a courtroom comedy and some 10,000 souls outside the Guildhall awaiting the verdict by the time of the third trial – with dragoons on standby in case Hone lost, the authorities realising they may have bitten off somewhat more than they could chew. Hone had become a celebrity.

Jeremy Lloyd is a delight as Prinny, the Prince Regent, the somewhat rotund, extravagant, and debauched future George IV, usually to be seen with Eva Scott’s buxom Lady Conyngham or Helena Antoniou’s equally endowed Lady Hertford helping him with affairs of state, or affairs of some kind, at any rate.

Scott also doubles up as Hone’s long suffering wife, and mother of his 12 children, Sarah – every man needs a hobby – while Antoniou also appears as the doomed Eliza Fenning and the court clerk, required to read the offending passages . . . without laughing.

The Prince’s main gripe about Hone, apart from a pathological fear of the F word – France – and revolution, was his being depicted as fat. The Government’s objections were both personal and protectionist with the likes of the Chief Justice Lord Ellenborough, son of the Bishop of Carlisle, played with a northern lack of charm by Dan Mersh, and the Home Secretary, Viscount Sidmouth, played with a more pragmatic approach, by Phillippe Edwards, desperately trying to silence Hone, and what he represented, dissent.

Ellenborough’s parentage was to play a major part in the trial after he had replaced Justice Abbott who was deemed to have failed quite miserably after Hone was acquitted at his first trial. Abbott, played by Nicholas Murchie, was hardly sympathetic by modern standards, but did give Hone a chance. Murchie also popped up as the mildly acerbic Frederick, Duke of York – of 10,000 men fame.

While Cruikshank took the King’s shilling, or at least a Government pension, to moderate his artistic output along more traditional, Establishment lines, Hone was not to change, producing pamphlets and fighting for causes for another 25 years until his death in 1842.

Incidentally, while Hone faced possible deportation to Australia, his older brother, by six years, Joseph, was already there, ironically, as a High Court judge in Tasmania.

Hislop, editor of Private Eye since 1986, and Newman, a cartoonist and writer on the same publication, created The Wipers Times, bringing another piece of journalistic history to light.

Now they have added another scion to the journalistic family tree in bringing an important episode in both legal and political history to sparkling life in a fast paced production cleverly directed by Caroline Leslie. She moves scenes from the street to jail, shop to court, to Southampton Arms to Royal Palace all in a heartbeat with the cast changing characters at a breakneck pace.

Losasso, for instance walks off as Cruicshank only to reappear moments later at Prinny’s put-upon flunky, and, to the credit of the cast, none of them are recognisable in their quick change, doubled up roles, which is no small skill in itself.

The pace is aided by a clever setting from Dora Schweitzer with the judges bench and desks sliding in and out of a flexible set that could be interior or exterior with a whizzing clockface symbolizing the passage of time.

The court exchanges were lively enough but Steve Mayo’s sound design moved them up another notch with speakers around the auditorium to provide shouts and jeers in surroundsound from the crowd of a thousand or so in the Guildhall and the verdict of the 1817 jury.

The result is a fascinating look at a forgotten moment in history full of laughs and no little drama, especially as the exhausted and ill Hone, flounders to find a defence for the third time in three days.

And Hone’s fight still goes on. The more sensational national Press hardly helped themselves, or the profession of journalism, with their phone hacking abuses, but that was not a failure of the law, it was a failure of application of the law.

But it muddied the waters of what Freedom of the Press actually was and why it is needed - and it opened the door to those who want to at best control and at worse muzzle the Press.

It is sobering to think that two centuries after William Hone’s memorable victory in the cause of Press freedom, the United Kingdom languishes in 40th place, behind the likes of Chile, Ghana, South Africa, and pretty well the whole of Europe in the Reporters Without Borders 2018 World Press Freedom Index. Makes you think, doesn’t it. To 26-01-19

Roger Clarke


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