By Matt Forrest
It’s hard to imagine that one of darkest days and bloodiest conflicts the world has ever known could lead to the creation of something as funny as The Wipers Times. Born from the trenches of the Somme this satirical swipe at army life was produced during the 1st World War and helped thousands of serving soldiers smile on whilst all around was going to hell.
However, upon till now little was known of ‘The Wipers’ until writers Ian Hislop and Nick Newman 2013 BBC film about the magazine. Based on this film the two have adapted their script for the stage bringing The Wipers Times to the Manchester Opera House, as part of its current nationwide tour, following huge acclaim and sell-out shows on the West End.
Ahead of opening on 31st October, Opening Night met up with Ian Hislop and Nick Newman to discuss the origins of the play, the writing process, what the audience can expect, as well as the state of satire, Trump and Ian’s multitasking running the Private Eye office.
Opening Night (ON): How did the idea come about for the play?
Nick Newman: “Ian discovered this story about 15 years ago doing a documentary for Radio 4: we’re always on the lookout for new ideas and he came back with this trench newspaper he had discovered, which we knew nothing about, which is amazing because it looked and had the same feel of an early version of Private Eye.”
Ian Hislop: “I thought how do we not know this? I mean Nick and I are meant to know about our own industry, and I’m meant to know about the First World War, I’ve done programmes about it, but I’d never come across the story and I thought that this A) fantastic, and B) if no one knows this, this is for us. Here is a great real-life story that you don’t have to make anything up and a magazine which is so funny, we could take loads of it and put it on stage.
Nick: Because I come from a military background, I was familiar with squadron newspapers and things like that (Nick’s Father was a serving officer in RAF). All units have their own version of the Wipers Times, but they’re all full of in jokes, “its Pongo did this”, and full of jokes about people in the unit: whereas these are timeless jokes that work today as they did a hundred years ago.
ON: Would the Wipers Times have worked during more modern-day conflicts?
Ian: There is an army website called ARSE, amusingly Army Rumour Service, which is pretty funny, and the spirit of that still goes on today. But the thing about ‘Wipers’ was that it was so popular and probably the first time that anyone had seen that, which makes it so distinct.
Nick: It also turned on its head our experience of what First World War literature was all about: because up until we read ‘The Wipers Times’, you just thought that nobody laughed ever, there was no jokes. You can watch All Quiet on the Western Front, Journey’s End and it’s sombre, it’s about loss and futility. These chaps were living it on a day-to-day basis. ‘The Wipers’ was produced throughout the war as they were moving around France, and were in Flanders actually fighting, going ‘over the top’, surviving the Somme, being sent back to the Somme, going over the top at Passchendaele, they did this and still managed to keep their sense of humour and that is an amazing story in itself.
Did any of the copies make it back to the UK?
Ian: Yes. They started off producing just 100 and then producing more and more, as it became very popular on the front. And then copies started getting back home and there were reports that they featured in The Tatler of all papers, by 1918 someone had put together a collection to be published, so it’s all the more amazing that this has been forgotten. So yes they did make it back home.
ON: So when I was reading the synopsis for ‘The Wiper Times’, it reminded me of Ripping Yarns. Is that something that has influenced the writing process?
Ian: (Chuckles) Yes
Nick: We’re greatly influenced by everything we’ve seen. We did feel there was a real ‘pythonesque’ element to all of this. There’s a joke which we haven’t used but it could be a Spike Milligan joke: an officer sees a soldier digging holes in No Man’s Land and he thinks he’s sending signals to the Germans by aerial reconnaissance and he says to the soldier, “What the hell are you doing?” and the soldier says “I’m trying to save you money sir…the way I see it, the artillery fires a shell which costs £5 and all the shell does is make a bloody big hole. If I just make the bloody big hole, then they don’t have to fire the shell.” And that’s just a fantastic Spike Milligan joke.
Ian: So your answer is yes. Milligan, Goons, Python, there’s a lot of it in them. But I think it may well be because “they” did it first and that sort of British comic tradition, I think they’re firmly in it. We got Michael Palin to be in the film, which is about as good as it gets if you’re fans of all that, which we are.
ON: Being friends and writing partners for such a long time, do you argue over jokes etc?
Nick: We both share the same sense of humour so if one of us finds it funny, the chances are that both of us will. I don’t think we had any disagreements about what material from the Wipers Times should go in. We generated much more stuff than could possibly go in and left it to others to decide. There were odd snatches of the Flammen werfer sketch and things like that where we thought it was that or that; let somebody else decide. Luckily we have a good producer, a good director whose judgement we trust. So where it’s a question of we’re just undecided what would work better on stage…
Ian: But if we’ve agreed something when we write the script, we say this is what we think it should be, it’s because we’ve agreed it already so we can argue it; rather than argue for your own stuff. Look, we both think this is funny, there’s lots of stuff which will have fallen along the way. With either Nick going “well that’s not very funny”, or me going “you’re kidding, that’s pathetic!”So we edit quickly as we’re going. And that’s the benefit of old friends.
So it’s not a case of being precious?
Ian: No, maybe when we were nineteen!
Nick: I’ve worked in writing rooms where the star of the show will dissect your joke and publicly humiliate you in front of other people. Luckily we don’t do that with each other – it either hits, or it doesn’t!
Ian: And because Nick’s a cartoonist, I always say that he has a very strong visual sense, which helps hugely.
Nick: I do keep saying, what are we looking at? (Laughter) It’s tough to know, even with The Wipers, even though you’re restricted by the set and the locations, there are visual elements to it all the time and you have to think, how can we make this more interesting for an audience?
Ian: I mean, two people talking in a room, great, the dialogue’s great, what else? That’s the dimension that you mustn’t forget.
To create the right aesthetic, are there high production values for the play?
Nick: It’s astounded us. When we first wrote it, we imagined it’d be done on a bare stage and people would conjure up the world by their acting. But little did we know that our producers had other plans in mind and would bring in Dora, a brilliant production designer, Dora Schweitzer who has created this magical set which is trenches, dugout, it’s a sort of fantasy land beyond No Man’s Land. It is quite magical; there are stars in the sky, there are moving images and all kinds of things. The production values are much higher than we ever anticipated.
Ian: It’s rounded off with a soundscape, which makes you feel in the middle of it – the bombs are going off nearly the whole way through. As the audience, you just have to get used to that. It’s inescapable. And all that is great because it means you’re stuck like they were.
I suppose you want it to be as realistic as possible?
Nick: Yes. Steve Mayo, our sound engineer has created these enormous base amplifiers so that your seat shakes. You’re ear drums aren’t going to bleed, don’t worry about that! Hopefully you’ll get a sense of, and the reviews so far agree, what it might have been like in the trenches.
Ian, did you not fancy treading the boards after your acting debut?
Ian: I fancied it hugely, however unfortunately I’m very bad! Which is a drawback as an actor, so no!
Nick: Also Ian is far too old to be brutally honest! Mitford’s Granddad! He’s too old to even play a general!
Ian: Even the generals were in their forties! No I’m completely past it!
Nick: Our cast is about the right age. Most of them are straight out of drama school, so it’s their first job in their early twenties.
Ian: And you believe it. Our lads have spent a lot of time together on tour, they feel like a platoon.
Like a Pals Regiment?
Ian: Exactly that.
(ON) With all that is going on in the world at the moment and with you both being satirists: Is difficult to come up with material that isn’t dated an hour later?
Nick: There are various people saying that satire is dead because you can’t beat the real world: well we can jolly well try.
Ian: If the world gets more ridiculous then you have to try harder. I think the thing with someone like Trump , yes you can say he’s got stupid hair and he’s funny a colour, that’s a start. In the end he’s quite used to that, but if you can say your businesses all failed and the one thing you claim to be good at your absolutely useless at, that hurts, and there are things that do undermine him and wound him. I l love the fact that he tweets about Saturday Night Live, it’s not clever it’s not funny. Good they’ve got you.
British politics is pretty bonkers at the moment, but that’s not new either.
Nick: You always say that Juvenal was saying that satire is dead.
Ian: Yes, 1st century AD Roman satirist: well what can you do you exaggerate how ludicrous Rome is, anyway he made a perfectly good living out of it. We’re an old game.
(ON) I think more than ever it’s so important with all that’s going on in the world you need something to have a good laugh at I suppose. I don’t know if you saw about an hour ago someone handed Teresa May a P45 at the Tory party conference? With people doing stuff like that it must be quite difficult.
Ian: Yes someone landed her a perfectly good joke: I think we have done it. I think we did what would make me more popular… just resign. We had done the joke I don’t mind the public getting a bit late. (laughing)
ON: Finally it would be remissive if I didn’t mention this: My Girlfriend’s Dad is a subscriber to Private Eye. I don’t see him that often but whenever I meet up with him he always tells me that he once rang the Private Eye office because his subscription was late, and when he did he got you on the phone. He was made up. He’s dinned out on that story for years.
Nick: (Laughs) You didn’t say fuck off to your readers.
ON: He didn’t say that he said you were more than polite.
Ian: (Laughs) You see, wish him my best and that’s the sort of organisation we are. The editor deals with the subs, and we can’t afford staff.
Nick: Ian is the designer, chief journalist, sub writer.
ON: I don’t know how far back that goes, but he loves that story
Ian: That’s very funny, well say hello. Thank you.
ON: Well it’s a pleasure meeting you both and can’t wait to see the show.
Nick: On the 31st (October) we’re doing a Q and A come along to that if you’ve not bored of hearing us.
ON: I will do it would be my pleasure.
Directed Caroline Leslie, produced by Bob Benton and David Parfitt. The Wipers Times is on at the Manchester Opera House from the 31st October till 4th November. In addition the play is touring the UK throughout the autumn.
Tickets for Manchester can be purchased here: www.atgtickets.com/shows/the-wipers-times/opera-house-manchester/