HOW much do we value free speech?

Don’t we have to be able to mock Prince Philip’s attitude to motoring laws, or poke fun at the politicians we believe to be moral and intellectual bankrupts?

Thankfully, we are, for the most part free to say what we like (although Twitter reaction suggest otherwise.)

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

Two hundred and two years ago, this bookseller, publisher and satirist stood trial in London 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.

William Hone’s place in history, however, has been forgotten. Until now.

Private Eye editor and Have I got News for You team captain 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. And 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 the Eye and co-writer with Hislop of the successful play and 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 thousand 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 nor Newman had ever heard of 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 Hone by former BBC 2 controller, Janice Hadlow, as a result of the trio working together on the film of the Wipers Times, the First World War tale of the satirical newspaper being produced in the trenches.

“We thought his was a fantastic David and Goliath tale,” says Hislop, “this play featuring a heroic publisher of satirical pamphlets.”

He laughs: “I thought, ‘That’s me!’ But no, the reality is we in Private Eye are just p*****g 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 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.”

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

Hislop and Newman, who met at Oxford, have written together for decades, including five years on ITV’s Spitting Image and Harry Enfield and Chums for BBC2.

The pair’s ease of conversation – they finish each other’s sentences – suggests a natural writing team.

“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?”

How can you not write a play with so much resonance, drama and humour?

“That’s so true,” says Newman.

The pair will host a Q&A [after the Monday show] but Hislop says “the truth is we’re coming up to see our 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.”

Trial by Laughter, the King’s Theatre, February 11-16