Having drawn the short straw and being the last to interview Ian Hislop and Nick Newman during an afternoon of interviews in their Private Eye office I feared that they might be tired of talking about their play. My worry was in vain, if only a small portion of their enthusiasm for this story makes it to the stage of The New Wolsey we are in for a treat. And so I started with whether or not they were fed up talking about Wipers Times…
Ian: Not at all, we could bore for Britain about this, we have been so passionate about it for so long. Now that we have an actual play on, when we’ve been trying to get it on for so long, it means we are totally impervious to boredom.
After an afternoon of interviews, what question did you expect that no one has come up with yet?
Ian: No one has said ‘why are you so brilliant’? Which I thought would be the first question. You again have failed to ask it!
You haven’t heard my second question yet! So, why are you so brilliant?
Ian: Thank you that is a very good question! Seriously… we thought that if people were being really hostile they would say that you have adapted the work of someone else and you are passing it off as a new play – but both Nick and I are quite pleased to accept that one.
But you are bringing the story to a new audience, a story that is over one hundred years old that very few at the time read – except those in the trenches – is that a fair commend?
Nick: That is absolutely true, they had a print run of a thousand so we are bringing their words to an audience of… well, we’ve done it once already on film with an audience of two and a half million or whatever it was. But the joy of doing it on the stage is that you get a sense of people responding to it in the way in which we responded to the material – it is laugh out loud funny. We are hearing it night after night, modern audiences laughing at their jokes, not our jokes, their jokes because they are incredibly funny and it is a tribute to these two men that modern audiences are getting the joke.
Ian: And we can go and sit there and we can laugh at it and you can be moved by it live, it is almost like an act of remembrance in itself, one hundred years since the paper was first published in 1916.
So did you both attend opening night in Newbury?
Nick: Yes, I did – Ian was being famous somewhere else. But we both went to the press night which is about the most terrifying experience you can have. I mean, those chaps in the trenches, they didn’t know what it was like… to suffer an opening night in Newbury! It was a fantactic experience, we did have one outing at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury before, we did a play a few years ago called ‘A Bunch of Amatures’ with the same director, Caroline Leslie. It was just such a joy to do it, usually the stuff we do is in print. You know that people like it because people buy the magazine. But you don’t get the gratification of the instant hit.
You mentioned the terrifying experience that is press night, what on earth was there to fear? Unless of course you consider how impolite the film was to the press!
Ian: Yes, journalists are mean. Or so I’ve heard!
Nick: No, the film is not polite to the press, nor is the play. But that is not us, that is their attitude to the press. They really didn’t like The Daily Mail war correspondent, he was called William Beach Thomas, who they always said was writing from the thick of the action but it was strange that none of them had actually seen him anywhere near the front line!
Ian: And their parodies, they called him ‘Teech Bomas’ – which is a very good joke, which I would certainly have stolen, are all fabulous. They are all about him saying that he is sitting here in the middle of the action and the submarines are advancing into the wood, and the cavalry are laying down a barrage of.. I mean everything was wrong and in their view the correspondents from the home front who wrote about the war just got it all wrong. Saying it was going to end, telling them how to do it, and it made them very cross. So they were jolly rude about the press.
Do you think that this type of black humour is peculiar to the British?
Nick: Hmmmm… it was quite interesting for us to discover it because it is what we do at Private Eye, we have been in situations where we’ve had to have some sort of response to tragic events and often we tend to do it by gallows humour. When we discovered the Wipers Times, we though that this isn’t just a modern sensibility that we take the mickey out of the IRA or out of ISIS, they were doing it back then, a hundred years ago, that was there response as well, it was really pleasing to find out that we are not sort of warped and twisted.
Ian: And doubly impressive for them because we a doing it skulking about in Soho but they were on the front line. To respond to the horror of The First World War by this sort of wonderfully determined flippancy is, I think, strangely inspiring. They were obsessed by the music halls, they were always doing parody’s of come to the music hall and they set up a great new review called ‘Over The Top’ and put a fake press review underneath entitled: ‘Its A Gas’. This is after one of the worst gas attacks on the Western Front, most of which these officers had been involved with. Roberts had actually been wounded in a gas attack,but their response to it was to turn it into a joke.
Nick: It is a very different take on The First World War from all the literature that we are familiar with: Journey’s End, the war poetry of the time, Goodbye to All That and All Quiet on the Western Front… which are all about the futility and the loss. All of that comes through in the pages of the Wipers Times, but their response to it is not to reflect the shell shock and the terror by showing shaking and weeping but they belittle the horrors in front of them. For example, one of the most horrifying mechanical devices of war, the flame thrower, they turn it into almost into something from an innovations catalogue, saying it is this year’s must have toy – The Flammenwerfer, give it to your kids, hours of fun.
Ian: That was their response. We love the fake adverts, there are fake columnists and fake sketches but the adverts are brilliant.
Nick: We felt that it was a quintessentially British response to laugh in the face of death. A sort of still upper lipness… lippyness,is that a word?
Ian: Possibly not!
Nick: But it is taking it to an extreme, which we thought was incredibly admirable. We received, through relatives, a hand written memoire by one of our heroes, Jack Pearson, who was the Wipers Times sub-editor. In it, his voice came out very clearly. He would refer to bits of Ypres in which the life expectancy was about sixty seconds! He would refer to ‘something of a warm corner’ which we just think is tremendous, very very British.
Ian: And he would refer to the Menem Road, just outside Ypres which was extremely dangerous, we would say that it was very important to walk down this road with a friend, and the friend I choose is Johnny Walker. Such a modern joke. There is quite a lot of drink in the Wipers Times and we’ve put a lot of it in the play – but that tone of voice. The two people who wrote this newspaper both won The Military Cross and Pearson won the DSO twice, these were not people who didn’t know what was happening on the front, they were fighting men.
Nick: It is one of the things that we have expanded for the play, the battle they had, not just with the Germans and the high command but also with the home front. In the background, as we did more and more research we found that the temperance society was working very hard to ban alcohol from the trenches. But this was their lifeblood really, it was the thing that really kept them going – the prospect of a tot of rum.
Ian: It is quite clear in their pages that whatever else they were going to put up with in the trenches, they were not going to put up with the temperance movement!
Nick: The way they responded to it was to put in an advertisement which sort of looks, on the face of it, like a temperance advertisement: Do you have a drink problem? If not, we can give you one!
You find this wonderful vein of humour, wonderful dark humour, hidden away in the pages of the Wipers Times. How difficult was it to translate that into a living, breathing, 3D, two hour show?
Ian: I should say fantastically hard, it is a craft – you have no idea of the skill and complexity! But basically it was very easy because their imaginations, because they like the theatre and they like the music hall, a lot of these things a very like sketches. The spoofs they do are very similar to the sort of things we know how to write – we spent a lot of years on Spitting Image, and a lot of years writing sketches, so we are very tuned in to that interchange between the page and doing it live. So for us it was just a real pleasure, we could expand it even more.
What was the biggest obstacle in bringing it to the stage?
Nick: Yes, we have a cast of eight. They are playing a cast of eighty thousand on the Western Front – there is a lot of running around and doubling up!
Ian: The theatrical challenge was fitting the sketches and adverts into a biography of the two men and how they discovered the printing press.
Nick: That was the first challenge, to establish what exactly our story was. Is it a story about these two blokes doing a paper for a laugh – but no it is actually a bit more than that, it is about using humour as a coping mechanism, how we respond to the blackest of events, and of the triumph of the human spirit I suppose in time of great adversity – that was a challenge.
Ian: Yes, that was a scene or two!
The process of co-writing I assume is not as simple as one coming up with the ideas and the other doing the typing?
Ian: No it isn’t and if Nick told you that he is lying!
Nick: We sit in a room together until we have come up with some words. Because we have know each other for hundreds and hundreds of years it is not a real problem of just generating ideas. The joy of working with an is that I can suggest something and he doesn’t make me feel terrible when it is a terrible idea.
Ian: No, we are trying to make each other laugh and we’ve been trying to do that for years and years and years so if you fail occasionally it is not a problem.
Does it get more difficult as the years go by?
Ian: No, no senility creeps in and we are very easily amused. But with this project, we have been keen to do it for so long, we are very very picky about it. We are very much on the director’s back, everywhere we are going on the tour, including Ipswich, we are doing a question and answer – if you don’t like anything you have seen you can come and ask us! We will be there, we are very committed to this project.
Thank you very much for spending time talking to GrapevineLIVE. It has been a genuine pleasure talking to you because you have answered all of the questions I didn’t have to ask!
Wipers Times runs at The New Wolsey Theatre from Monday 7th November until Saturday 12th November – click here to book tickets.
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