Theatre interview: Ian Hislop on his First World War drama, The Wipers Times

The Wipers Times  PIC: Kirsten McTernan
The Wipers Times PIC: Kirsten McTernan
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Ian Hislop’s play The Wipers Times, which will be at the Theatre Royal Glasgow on Armistice Day, celebrates the satirical newspaper produced by soldiers in the trenches during the First World War. It is also a tribute to their bravery, he tells Jay Richardson

As one of Britain’s most acerbically forthright and unforgiving satirists, you don’t tend to associate Ian Hislop with outpourings of emotion. Yet he recalls the recent centenary commemoration of the Battle of Passchendaele as “tremendously moving” and feels “great affinity” for the men who fought and died in the trenches.

Born in Ayr, his paternal grandfather, Murdoch David Hislop, served with the 9th Highland Light Infantry at the The Third Battle of Ypres, the bloody, attritional engagement in which hundreds of thousands of Allied and German troops perished.

Speaking at the Menin Gate Memorial this summer, Hislop introduced a performance of scenes from The Wipers Times, the play he has written with his long-time collaborator Nick Newman about the eponymous trench newspaper, waggishly named after the British Tommies’ mispronunciation of Ypres.

Despite being “obsessed” with The Great War and presenting several radio and television documentaries on it, Hislop only learned of the Wipers Times 15 years ago. Produced by the 12th Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters after they discovered an abandoned printing press in a bombed out ruin, it was a tale that the Have I Got News For You captain and Private Eye editor spent a fruitless decade with “a bee in my bonnet” about, struggling to persuade anyone to let him turn it into a play.

Eventually, the BBC requested a television film, which aired in 2013, starring Ben Chaplin, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Michael Palin. And in the course of his research, Hislop “kept finding moments where The Sherwood Foresters were right next door to the Highland Light Infantry. I calculated that they must have been 100 yards away at one point. My grandfather joined in 1915 and rather like the Wipers Times lot, survived and came out the other side. And I really felt that kinship, thinking ‘gawd, you were close’”.

The film’s success finally allowed Hislop to realise it as a stage play, which arrives at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal for Armistice Day.

Traditionally, the abiding narratives of the First World War have been dominated by the 1920s poetry

and 1930s novels of upper-class officers. But the original Wipers

Times is perhaps a more contemporaneous reflection of the mood and gallows humour of rank and file soldiers, chuckling under the bombardment of “whizz bangs” whilst enduring the terrifying new horrors of flamethrowers and mustard gas.

The production takes its music hall trappings and puckish swipes at the high command from the actual editorials and fake adverts in the journal, of which an astonishing 23 editions were printed from various postings, as the Foresters, largely comprised of valued miners and engineers, trudged to the worst fighting at the Somme and back again.

Read aloud to the entire trench lest copies should disintegrate in the mud, Newman marvels at the precocious modernity of the gags, still eliciting laughs a century on. “We’ve stolen every joke that they came up with,” he says.

At the same time, amidst all the “doggerel” verse submitted, the poem “My Chum” stands out. Dedicated to a fallen comrade and reproduced in the play, it is “extremely difficult to hear without tearing up” Newman adds. Even if, in the original paper, “it’s followed two pages later by a poem asking: ‘how come rats are getting into my sardine tin?’”

Though it vanished from popular memory for decades, similarities between the Wipers Times’ and Private Eye are striking. The lampooning of “armchair general” correspondents like Hilaire Belloc and the Daily Mail’s William Beach Thomas, reimagined as Belary Helloc and Teech Bomas, are “exactly what Craig Brown would write now as a spoof diary” Hislop suggests.

Similarly, the relationship between the play’s central protagonists, editor Captain Fred Roberts and sub-editor Lieutenant Jack Pearson, owes plenty to his own writing partnership with Newman. Started at school, it continued through Oxford University to Private Eye and the duo are currently working on their second original play, about the farcical 1817 libel trial of satirist William Hone.

“There was a feeling that here were two blokes writing jokes, this is what we do, and it resonated,” Newman explains. “We tried to express what it’s like, just trading lines, the way you’re finishing each others sentences.”

There is “probably quite a lot of us” in the portrayal of Roberts and Pearson, says Hislop. “It was really interesting to think that the two of them wrote the bulk of that early stuff and how the jokes got made, the attempt to fill the pages of a funny paper. Because that’s something we know about. We took a lot of their jokes and worked backwards, wondering how did they come up with that?”

Comparisons with the Wipers Times’ “determined flippancy” only stretch so far though. Roberts and Pearson were decorated for gallantry after the Battle of the Somme and “were proper heroes” acknowledges Newman, whose father and brother served in the RAF. “That’s a proper editor, to do it under fire. Instead of from the luxury of an office in Soho.”

Indeed, during the research process, which confirmed to their great relief that their heroes were, as hoped, “thoroughly good eggs”, they found no publications produced by other First World War armies that could match its subversive mischief.

Hislop is wary of overstating the Great British Sense of Humour, but he points out: “there weren’t German trench newspapers that said German high command was useless and the artillery never found its target. French trench newspapers were very sober, very philosophical. The Italian ones I’ve seen were beautifully produced and drawn. But there are no jokes in them.”

Certainly, the Wipers Times must have had its defenders amongst the army’s top brass. Hislop speculates that by the time they had produced the Somme edition as the third or fourth issue, and Roberts and Pearson’s bravery had been officially recognised, they were “untouchable” from censorship or court martial. “It had become really popular and was mentioned in Tatler at home. There was a certain sort of wind behind them,” he notes.

With Roberts overlooked for a job on Fleet Street, post-war both men emigrated and disappeared into obscurity. Happily though, following the BBC film, he and Pearson were rewarded with belated obituaries in the Times, a moment Newman calls “the highlight of our writing career... We’ve been banging away writing satire for over 30 years. Satire doesn’t change anything at all, it’s people who bring down governments.”

Accounts of the Wipers Times still find their way to them, and they update the play accordingly, with Newman enthusing about a reference to Roberts and Pearson as “Lenin and Trotsky” that they only found a couple of months ago “but which went straight in” to the script. The current touring version “is much richer” that the one they started out with, Hislop adds.

Although still not entirely sure if the sergeant who operated the press, a former printer in civvy street, was named Turner or Tyler, in one of the play’s most memorable scenes, they nevertheless share in his inky-fingered joy at the enduring power of print.

Hislop reflects that, prior to his ascension to the editorship in 1986, Private Eye was “a satirical publication with a reputation for gossip and being a little liberal with the facts”.

Now more than ever though, and in a fake news, post-truth world, “well, it really concentrates the mind” he says. “The Eye, compared to a lot of publications, has begun to look like a journal of record. Certainly our readership is informed and furious. So I accept comparisons with the Wipers Times.”

*The Wipers Times is at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 7-11 November