Private Eye editor Ian Hislop resurrects a forgotten hero of free speech in Brighton

Trial By Laughter. Photo by Philip Tull
Trial By Laughter. Photo by Philip Tull

A forgotten hero of free speech lives again in Trial By Laughter by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman which tours to the Theatre Royal Brighton from November 19-24.


William Hone was a bookseller, publisher and satirist. 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.


Along with his great ally, political cartoonist George Cruikshank, Hone sought vindication for his laughable offences and fought for freedom in one of the most remarkable legal cases of its time – one which Ian and Nick are recreating.


“We did a film for the BBC called The Wipers Times,” Ian says, “which we turned into a play which came to Chichester. The head of history at BBC2 said ‘What you should do now is write about Hone.’ To my shame, I said ‘Who is that?’ She is a great expert on the period. We went and looked up the details and just thought this was the most brilliant untold story.


“He was a pamphleteer and bookseller, and there was enough going on for him to be busy, and the Regency just got fed up with it. They just decided that they had had enough of him being embarrassing and funny, and they decided that they were going to nail him. What they decided they would do was get him for blasphemy which is one of the great interests of the story. It is what governments around the world are still doing. If you don’t like what someone is saying, you just say that it is blasphemous when basically the fact is that you just don’t like the fact that they don’t like you.”


And so they went for him: “They had three trials in three days, and by the end of it there were 20,000 people outside.”


Hone’s response was to conduct his defence simply by being funny: “He was just incredibly funny, and the jury were just dissolving in laughter all the time. The judge brought in the sheriffs and said the next person who laughs would have to leave the trial, but everyone laughed.


“And it all happened! We barely had to make up anything for the trial. People would be saying to each other ‘You’re not laughing, are you?’ and I think that is why he won. He made the government and the judicial system look ridiculous.”


“It is a brilliant story in its own right, but I think the important thing for us is that these battles are never won. We have had to fight these battles every generation. We have just seen a woman acquitted of blasphemy in Pakistan. There are writers in Saudi Arabia that are being accused of being blasphemous. It is a reminder how brave these people are to fight these battles. We wouldn’t perhaps have had the freedom we have in this country today if it hadn’t been for people like William Hone.”


As Nick says: “We have no idea why he is in such obscurity now. He was very well connected at the time. But we were lucky to have the transcripts of the trial. Hone published them himself. It’s a slightly one-sided view of the trial!”


His defence was to reduce the jury to paroxysm of laughter.


“Home was a very humble man, but what was absolutely fantastic about him was that he rose to the occasion. He started off quite nervously, didn’t really know what he was doing, but in the end had them under his control. It was wit on his feet.”

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