Interview with The Wipers Times writers Ian Hislop and Nick Newman
A comedy about the First World War certainly sounds like a difficult elevator pitch for a new play. Whilst the theatre has given audiences an insight into all areas of the conflict, from trench warfare in Journey's End to field combat in War Horse, eyebrows were raised to new heights as two of Britain's sharpest satirists, associated primarily with 'Private Eye', initially began pitching the idea of a "laugh out loud" comedy, firstly as a play and later a TV special.
“We'd been banging on doors for about ten years saying this is a fantastic idea please listen to us” comments Nick Newman, the satirical writer and cartoonist who has created the new play The Wipers Times alongside his long-time collaborator Ian Hislop. “Basically nobody was interested in the First World War then...”
“This was before Birdsong and War Horse” echoes his co-creator Ian, “people would just say no, no one is interested in it. It has jokes, which War Horse didn't have a lot of.”
As editor of 'Private Eye', the fortnightly satirical and current affairs news magazine that has reported a 'boom' in sales post Trump and Brexit, Hislop may be the most well known of the pair, thanks in part to his primetime BBC presence on 'Have I Got News For You'. This is confirmed as our interview is interrupted mid-flight by an autograph seeker as we speak on the Southbank on a sunny lunchtime, something that Ian's quick wit suggests he always arranges for such a purpose.
Despite the pair's hugely successful work in print and on screen they are no strangers to the medium of theatre, and their new comedy has recently completed a very successful UK tour following a premiere at The Watermill Theatre in Newbury. Arriving for a season in London's West End at the Arts Theatre the piece has been developed and extended for its intended new audience.
“Various things that niggled us we've attempted to fix” explains Nick, “there's a bit more music in it - music is essential to the scene changes and one of the things we did early on was turn their poetry into songs so we could use as much of their material as possible. Our composer Nick Green has created some fantastic period songs, so we aimed to make more of that and tidy up and fiddled with the end.”
"Some of the jokes are terrible – they liked terrible puns..."
“There were some bits and pieces we found out on tour” Ian continues, “when you're touring the chances are someone in the audience who sees it will know something, so that was very useful. We got some bits and bobs that could come back into the play from what people knew – it's in better shape.”
Rather than the comedy of Blackadder which delivers a highly fictional and ostentatiously over-the-top account of, well, going 'over the top', The Wipers Times shines the spotlight on the comedy that already existed. Described as a true and extraordinary story of a satirical newspaper created in the mud and mayhem of the Somme, the voices and the comedy are very much real.
“When Ian showed it to me after he discovered it it really knocked my socks off” Nick explains. “The mix of silly poetry, limericks, stupid verse and poignant tributes to people they lost – you well up reading it and then they make you laugh. Some of the jokes are terrible – they liked terrible puns...”
“There's no shame in terrible puns” laughs Ian. “That humour was there straight away. I always judge my reaction to things on whether I'm jealous or not and with this I thought – I was very. Some of the jokes are incredibly sophisticated, the kind of thing we'd want to publish in 'Private Eye'.”
The Wipers Times, named so after the mispronunciation of the French town 'Ypres', brings together articles, adverts and jokes from the trench magazine that ran from February 2016 to December 2018. Edited by Captain Frederick John Roberts and sub-edited by Lieutenant J. H. Pearson the play finds the innate theatricality within the editions and tells the story of its production as well as the wider mood felt by the troops.
“A lot of the jokes they made were about the music hall, what they did in their imagination was create a real theatre of war, the performers, the bombs” explains Nick. “It was all there, and we thought that would be great to bring that music hall world to life. I think it works much better on the stage than it does on the screen because it's an immersive experience, it really does engage you.”
"It's a very public form of failure if you get it wrong"
“Where they wrote and produced the paper is all in trenches, dugouts and hideouts – all confined spaces which the theatre does beautifully” You can trap people, fill it full of sound and you've got their world. When we started writing it it all became about cellars and dugouts and games, and it tells the story of the editor and the sub-editor as they live through producing this magazine. Nick found this extraordinary piece from 1923 where someone describes what it was like when the magazine first came out. The soldiers were in a crowded room, they'd only have one copy so they'd nominate one of the officers to stand up and read the whole magazine out loud to the whole audience. According to the account some of the men couldn't stand for laughing. So it had a theatrical quality even when it was being produced.”
Self-confessed “theatre buffs” both Nick and Ian's theatrical tastes has helped mould the overall structure of the piece and they're aware of the challenges posed by writing for this difficult medium.
“It's a very different process and it's a very public form of failure if you get it wrong!” Nick exclaims. “We're so used to writing magazines where you assume the readers enjoy it because they keep buying it and doing television where it goes out into the ether and you never really get a reaction. That's part of the preview process, you find out what jokes work and you change them quickly if they don't.”
The humour within the play is exceptionally black and it's this aspect that audiences have so far responded so vocally to.
“They would have had a brilliant Twitter account” laughs Ian, “they're so black. British audiences always love that and always did. There were so many bits we couldn't put in that we could have done, we had to leave out some of the blackest jokes.”
“I think what audiences respond to is seeing these men in incredibly challenging circumstances but using humour as a coping mechanism” Nick explains. “It's what got them through the war. As one account said, 'We drank it in like thirsty men – we needed laughter'. That's what Wipers did, it gave them a release. That's what we loved that British stiff upper lip – we're going to meet these horrors by laughing at them.”
Despite the presence of Nick and Ian as writers and comedians bringing a formal structure to the play and shaping it into a manageable dramatic shape, the piece holds ups as being a rare first-hand account, told by the people present at the time.
"People say is it similar to Blackadder, it's nothing like Blackadder..."
“It is the authentic voice of the trenches, it is unmediated” Ian responds. “You don't get the 1930s disillusionment of peace or old men remembering it backwards. It was very much an equal opportunity magazine – it was all ranks. Everyone got to submit poetry. It's not clever, it's not elegant public school verse or Wilfred Owen, it is terribly moving.”
“People say is it similar to Blackadder, it's nothing like Blackadder” argues Nick. "This is the voice of troops in 1916 that morning before they went over the top. If you want to read what they were thinking – they weren't thinking about their imminent demise, they were thinking about how to cheer everyone else up.”
Audiences around the country certainly responded to the piece and it even attracted younger audience members and those learning about the paper for the first time. In a well-worn subject that threatens a personal saturation of knowledge it offers a refreshing and unique new angle at the conflict and the life of those in the heart of it.
“It's a sweet-sour comedy, it's very black but it's very very funny” emphasises Ian. “I don't think you've seen anything about the First World War that looks like this.”
“Someone wrote in to 'Private Eye' saying all the news is so depressing at the moment – give me some light” continues Nick. “Ian said he takes his inspiration from these two men, who in the worst of circumstances found humour.”
“If you are worried or uncertain now thinking the world is a grim place, it has been grimmer particularly if you were on the Western Front" comments Ian. "Our heroes faced death every day and they managed to come out resilient and find the humour. One of the best reviews we got said it was laugh out loud funny, and I think that would have delighted the men. What you're getting is a really different comedy.”
Nick and Ian's The Wipers Times runs at The Arts Theatre from 21 March to 13 May 2017.