HOW much do we value free speech? Don’t we have to be able to be able to make jokes even if some deem them to be offensive?

We have to be able to mock Prince Philip’s mocking of motoring laws, or poke fun at the politicians we believe to be moral and intellectual bankrupts.

Thankfully, we live in an age, in a country where we can take umbrage with those who think Twitter is the place to argue Churchill was a white supremacist.

But this is in part due to the bravery, boldness, and perhaps a slight madness, of a man called William Hone.

Two hundred and two years ago, bookseller, publisher and satirist William Hone stood trial for “parodying religion, the despotic government and the libidinous monarchy.”

He was charged with Blasphemy and Sedition, faced time in jail and deportation to Australia.

In essence, he was having a laugh at the expense of the Establishment. But Hone chose not to hire expensive lawyers to make the expected legal arguments. Instead, he represented himself in court by telling a series of jokes.

His plan was to illustrate that satire has to be allowed in a democracy, that fun has its essential place.

Hone’s place in history however has been forgotten. Until now. Private Eye editor and Have I Got News For You presenter Ian Hislop and cartoonist Nick Newman have come up with a new play Trial By Laughter, which details Hone’s courtroom dramas.

“Hone dared to ask ‘Is laughter treason?’ - raising issues which are as relevant now as they were then,” says Hislop.

“He was a man to whom we have an incredible amount to be thankful for. But his is a great story, a tale of lawyers, lechers and libel - with added sedition and blasphemy.”

But as well as revealing Hone’s gag assault of the judiciary, the play is packed full of drama.

“The stakes were certainly high,” says Newman, a cartoonist with Private Eye and co-writer with Hislop of the successful play/TV drama The Wipers Times.

“He was charged with Blasphemy and then Sedition. There was a real concerted movement to have this man thrown in jail and then sent to Australia.”

“Yet, his plan was to say to the judge ‘You’re being ludicrous. I’m going to make you laugh.’”

Hislop continues; “The phrase he used to describe his defence was ‘Laugh our rulers to scorn.’

“His trial argument was essentially ‘Is laughter treason.’ And those in the public gallery shouted ‘No’.”

A 1000 people squeezed into the Guildhall courtroom, becoming an audience, as Hone read out satirical scripts from down the ages, “and some terrible old jokes, from Martin Luther onwards.

“Those in the courtroom thought it incredibly funny and the Regency Tory Government came across as humourless while the Prince of Wales came across as plain vindictive.”

Neither Hislop or Newman had ever heard of William Hone. “There’s something of a mystery about why Hone isn’t remembered or studied,” says Hislop. “It could be because the Peterloo Massacre came about 18 months later. While Hone was advocating reform by peaceful means – essentially sticking his tongue out and blowing raspberries – it perhaps doesn’t linger as much as news stories about heads being cut off.”

The pair were introduced to William Hone as a result of working on the film of the Wipers Times. (The WW1 tale of the satirial newspaper being produced in the trenches.) “Janice Hadlow (the former BBC2 Controller) is an expert in Regency history and she directed us towards Hone so we can’t claim credit for discovering him,” says Hislop grinning. “Janice realised that here was a man forgotten by history and demands a huge amount of recognition.

But he and Newman did see immediate play potential in this David versus Goliath story.

“We thought his was a fantastic tale. Here was play idea featuring a heroic publisher of satirical pamphlets.” He laughs; “I though ‘That’s me!’ But no, the reality is we in Private Eye are just pissing about in Soho, and you may get fined or the damages may be high. But Hone faced far worse.”

Two hundred years on Hone’s story still resonates given the continuing debate over press freedom. “In an age of ‘fake news’ and increased censorship, free speech and press freedom are still under threat as they were when William Hone took on the might of Royalty and a bullying Tory government,” says Newman.

Hislop agrees; “In Turkey, or Saudi Arabia now if you disagree with the government you can be accused of Blasphemy. When Hone’s charge of Blasphemy didn’t work the next court moved on to seditious libel against the Prince Regent. This is a charge being levelled at cartoonists today, especially in Malaysia. Zunar faced 43 years in jail for making jokes about the Prime Minister. until he went back and fought the case.”

Ian Hislop maintains the battle for freedom to poke fun still exists in the UK. Last year, a man was found guilty under the Communications Act after posting a video of a pug making a Nazi salute.

“Yes, and at Christmas we did an ‘adoration of Theresa May’, and we used a religious picture. We got complains about this but I had to say in defence the Church Times did this gag as well.

“We also need to be able to make jokes about the royalty. When we ran a joke about the Duke of Edinburgh turning his car over we got complaints saying ‘That’s very unfair. He can’t answer back!’ Well, yes he can. And he does.’”

Hislop and Newman, who met at Oxford, have written together over decades, including five years on ITV’s Spitting Image and Harry Enfield and Chums for BBC Two).

Their successful plays, A Bunch of Amateurs and The Wipers Times, which won the Broadcast Press Guild Award for single drama, and was nominated for a BAFTA, were developed with the Watermill Theatre, as is their latest effort.

The pair’s ease of conversation suggests a natural writing team; they finish each other’s sentences. The friendship clearly allows for writing ideas to flow. But how does the writing process work? “We sit in a room and try and plot it scene by scene, generally over lunch,” explains Newman, smiling. “Once we know the key scenes. We can work out the dialogue. But we were helped immensely with this play because we had Hone’s own transcripts. And the key dramatic moments screamed out at us.

“For example, there is one moment in the trial when Home is causing the courtroom to erupt with laughter and one of the sheriffs comes in and yells; ‘The next man who laughs in this courtroom will go to jail!’ We knew we had to include this moment.”

Hislop finishes the tale, grinning; “It’ s like a headmaster at school assembly telling the pupils the next person to laugh gets caned. How can you not laugh at such a time?”

Did the friends and writing partners ever face friction. Was there the odd disagreement, an angry digestive thrown across the room? “No, not really,” says Hislop. “We’ve worked so long together we can say to each other ‘No, that’s not funny,’ and move on. That means we can speed up the process. We’re both used to deciding quickly.”

Hislop and Newman don’t, for the most part, get to hear the bigger audience reactions from published material or even Have I Got News For You. How important is it to hear a theatre audience erupt?

“It’s a huge pleasure,” says Hislop. “We’re coming up to Glasgow to do a Q&A but the truth is we’re coming up to see your own play.”

Newman agrees. “As a cartoonist you don’t hear the laughter. It’s great to hear people laugh at jokes Hone came up with 200 years ago.”

Hislop cuts in, laughing; “We really are stealing his best material. But the really great thing is there is no copyright problem because he’s dead.”

Trial By Laughter, The King’s Theatre Glasgow, February 11 - 16.