Ian Hislop’s Wipers Times proves that the pen is mightier than the sword
- Credit: Archant
In the midst of the horrors of the First World War, a satirical magazine was born that proved to be something of a fore-runner for Private Eye and other hard-edged satirical magazines like Punch and even 60’s counter-culture magazine Oz.
While the soldiers were up to their ears in mud, blood and shell-fire, a group of enterprising men from the 12th Battalion, Sherwood Foresters, led by Captain Fred Roberts and Lieutenant Jack Pearson, discovered an abandoned printing press and decided to put it to good use.
The result was The Wipers Times, a monthly magazine which celebrated the British love of satire, the surreal and black gallows humour. It was resolutely unofficial and even prompted complaints from senior army officers for making them look foolish or not treating them with sufficient respect. Happily, the very senior staff could see the value in boosting morale and allowed publication to continue.
The Wipers Times, so called because the British troops couldn’t get their tongue around the name of Ypres, the Belgian town they were stationed near, was published from February 1916 to December 1918.
It was a hugely popular part of life in the trenches, who endured long periods of tedium in between the battles and the barrages and it helped pass the time but after the war, The Wipers Times faded into history – that is until Private Eye editor and Have I Got News For You regular Ian Hislop and cartoonist Nick Newman started researching life in the trenches for a documentary on World War One.
Hislop and Newman turned the story of the magazine into a critically acclaimed TV movie and now that same story has been transformed into a wonderfully irreverent stage play which Ian Hislop says he hopes reflects the spirit of the original magazine.
The play, The Wipers Times, is being staged at The New Wolsey Theatre, in Ipswich, next week and I spoke to Ian Hislop and Nick Newman at the Private Eye offices about the 15 years it has taken to get the story of this amazing publication into public view.
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Nick takes up the story. “Ian discovered this story about 15 years ago while researching material for a TV documentary and as far as we could tell, nobody knew about Wipers Times at all. We spent the next 10 years trying to flog it to film companies, the BBC and anyone else we could get an interview with and the prevailing view was that nobody was interested in the First World War. Then War Horse came out, so we went back and said ‘See people are interested in the First World War and their response was: ‘Yeah, well, it’s been done now’
Ian jumps in at this point: “We said: ‘ No this is different because it hasn’t got a horse in it – it’s got a magazine that you will really like. There’s no puppets in ours, we have real people fighting for their lives and eventually just as the anniversary approached we managed to get it on television but we were always keen to stage it as a play.”
He says that in the very beginning they started writing it as a stage play rather than a television movie because the claustrophobic settings of trenches, dug-outs and small rooms suit the way that theatre works.
“The stage is the perfect place to tell their story because in the theatre we could turn all the written spoofs and parodies that they had written into sketches. In a theatre you can turn a dug out into a bar or a music hall in an instant simply by harnessing people’s imagination. For me the action works best on stage. When you write it originally, you write it in the hope that other people find it as funny as we did when we stumbled upon the original source material.
“As far the TV version was concerned you are never quite sure if the audience are really laughing. The joy of doing it on stage is that you get that immediate reaction. The stuff that those soldiers came up with was incredibly funny and we can tell that the material has survived. We opened the play at The Watermill Theatre in Newbury, playing to packed audiences, who are laughing their heads off. It’s nothing to do with us, it’s entirely to do with the two men, who 100 years ago, responded to the horrors of war by making light of it which is an act of heroism in itself.”
Nick comes in with the observation that the magazine had the ability to make you think and to make you cry as well as having an unerring ability to make you laugh. “They could make you laugh and cry on the same page. It was brilliant. You could be reading a poem, one man’s lament to his moustache which he had had to shave off and then just underneath it, there’s a little thing saying: ‘People we remember, followed by a list of names and you know that these are people who have died since the last issue. It really does bring a tear to the eye.”
Ian warms to the theme: “We hope that the show reflects the spirit of the magazine. One reviewer wrote: ‘it’s a laugh a minute in a very touching play’ and I hope we have done both those things. We wanted to show how funny their black gallows humour was but also how there was an underlying melancholy and a recognition of the horror of what was happening. They coped with the horror of war by what someone described as determined flippancy, which I love.”
There are clearly obvious echoes of both Oh, What A Lovely War and Blackadder Goes Forth in the subject matter. Did they seek to embrace the similarities or try and ignore them?
Ian jumps in to tackle the question: “I think we wanted to avoid comparisons simply because the tone of Oh What A Lovely War was wrong, it’s pure 1960s. It’s essentially an anti-Vietnam piece which was couched in an historical backdrop – so it’s a film and a play with its own sub-text – whereas we have produced a play about the First World War which is coming from 1916,.
“Blackadder is different again. We both loved Blackadder and that last episode was a remarkable piece of work. The difference for us was that the events in the play were real, they actually happened. We are not putting modern humour into a historic setting we are just doing the same jokes that they were telling at the time, on the front lines.
“I love the fact that they take the mickey out of war poets. As editor, Robert published a piece complaining about the outbreak of poetry. ‘Everyone’s a bloody poet’ he complains, a paper can’t survive by poetry alone and then you get a poem about poetry. The author basically says ‘I see poetry in everything. I just can’t help myself and so I am going to write a poem about it.’ It’s brilliant post-modern stuff. It’s an incredibly funny joke about a joke and it dates from 1917.”
The Wipers Times, a play by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, is at The New Wolsey Theatre from November 7-12.