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Ian Hislop and Nick Newman - The Wipers Times

Ian Hislop and Nick Newman are used to being in the frontline. As editor and cartoonist respectively of satirical bible Private Eye, they have spent many a year dodging metaphorical bullets from an outraged political establishment. As script-writers too, ever since they worked on revues together while at Ardingly College public school in West Sussex (also the alma mater of four Conservative MPs – so far), they have consistently bitten the hand that feeds them.

While Hislop is best known as long-standing team captain on satirical TV quiz show, Have I Got News For You, Newman's career as writer and cartoonist has seen his work appear in high-end publications such as Punch and The Spectator. Together as writers, they created the character of gormless toff and old Ardinglyian, Tim Nice-But-Dim, for The Harry Enfield Show on TV, and, among numerous radio works, in 1994 penned Gush, a satire based on the Gulf War and written in the style of Jeffrey Archer.

Despite such a collective armoury, one suspects that nothing has prepared Hislop and Newman for the conveyor belt style largesse of the latter day publicity trail they're currently embarking on. As we're talking, the pair are in Manchester, holding court to assorted representatives of the northern powerhouse's fourth estate. The moment we're finished, they'll be shoved into a cab and whisked off to the BBC for assorted radio spots. Broadcast may be as much Hislop and Newman's natural terrain as TV and print, but for such an urbane and wilfully square double act, such a high-profile junket sounds un-characteristically rock and roll.

“That's us,” says Hislop, with the gnomic sense of self-mockery and faux bewilderment familiar to viewers of Have I Got News For You, where he is all to willing to pastiche his own apparent old-school fuddy-duddiness.

The reason Hislop and Newman are being thrust gamely astride the showbiz treadmill enabled by the sort of zealous gusto worthy of W1A's super PR, Siobhan Sharpe, is the tour of The Wiper's Times. Adapted from their 2013 TV film of the same name, Hislop and Newman's play, which arrives in Glasgow tonight, charts a real life scenario that occurred during World War One.

While stationed in Ypres, Belgium, between 1916 and 1918, British army officers and soldiers of the 12th Battalion, Sherwood Foresters published their own satirical magazine from the frontline trenches after stumbling on an abandoned printing press. Given the wave of World War One based drama that has graced stages great and small over the last couple of years to mark the Great War's 100th anniversary, it's not hard to see the play's appeal on several counts.

“Ian first discovered the story about fifteen years ago, when he was doing a documentary for Radio 4,” says Newman. “It was such a brilliant story, and obviously with our backgrounds it was doubly of interest. We spent years after that knocking on people's doors, and we were told again and again that nobody was interested in watching anything about the First World War. We started writing it anyway, and while we were doing that, the BBC suddenly realised that it was the 100th anniversary, and we finally got it on. The film did very well, but it always felt to us that there was unfinished business there.”

“To be honest,” Hislop picks up, “TV can be quite a cold medium, but this is something about people in dug-outs dodging bullets, who somehow manage to put out this magazine. There are lots of references to music hall in there, because these men created their own theatre of war. What appealed to us wasn't a case of doing something like Oh What A Lovely War. These men looked at what they were in the thick of, and they subverted it.

“There's a tendency for us to patronise the past, but the people putting out the paper knew exactly what was going on, and they decided to laugh at it. This was printed in the middle of the war itself, remember. It wasn't written in the 1930s, looking back at what happened, and as a publication, it paints vivid snapshots of what life was like on a daily basis. We've never seen writing about war like that.”

All of this is dramatised through the figures of the magazine's editors, Fred Roberts and Jack Pearson, and is framed by a post-war Roberts trying to get a job on Fleet Street. The magazine itself was named after a mispronunciation of Ypres, which was then picked up and turned into Tommy slang. This set the tone for a publication full of trench-bound in-jokes, often involving references to local brothels, scurrilous lampoons of the situation those writing it were in and pseudo music hall pastiche ads. These are brought to life in the play as revue-like sketches. Also in the magazine, as one might expect from how World War One has in part been historicised, were poems. Lots and lots of poems.

“There's a view of the First World War that we have that comes in part from all these elegant poems by public schoolboys that were published later on,” says Hislop. “The stuff in The Wipers Times was different. There was a series of poems called My Mate, which were obviously about losing a friend on the battlefield, but these didn't come from the officers. They came from the Tommies in the trenches.”

As Newman points out, “That's a very different kind of writing. It's all about futility and loss, and that comes through in The Wipers Times, but again, these men had a very British way of dealing with things, in that they laughed at it.”

Hislop and Newman's stage version of The Wipers Times was first seen in 2016 at the Watermill Theatre, Newbury, before transferring to the West End following the production's first UK tour. As this latest tour should demonstrate, the appeal of the play comes from how it captures a very real idea of putting a brave face on things.

“It's heroism of a different sort to how we normally might think of it,” says Newman. “Pearson said he always took a friend with him into the trenches, and his name was Johnnie Walker. His grand-daughter asked him how he survived the war, and he said he had very long legs and ran away.”

Hislop is equally admiring of Roberts and Pearson's ability to get the magazine out in the most difficult of circumstances.

“These men were writing an editorial while sitting a muddy trench just before they're about to go over the top,” he says, incredulously. “Now, that's a proper editor. It's also something to think about when we're gadding about Soho sitting in pizza houses. We should be grateful we've only got people lobbing writs at us rather than grenades. I suppose in that way you might say the enemy have changed tactics.”

Some things, however, don't seem to have changed.

“The jokes are 100 years old,” says Newman. “We're very used to old jokes.”

“We've stolen everything,” says Hislop.

The Wiper's Times, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, November 7-11.
www.atgtickets.com


The Herald, November 7th 2017

ends

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