He’s known as a magazine editor, journalist, screenwriter and television comedy quiz show panellist. Now Ian Hislop has revealed yet another talent: playwright.
The editor of Private Eye and one of the captains on Have I Got News For You has been collaborating with Nick Newman since they were at boarding school and they are bringing to Nottingham their play The Wipers Times.
Ian sticks to what he knows well: The Wipers Times tells the true, extraordinary story of a satirical newspaper created in the mud and mayhem of the Somme.
He says: “I was presenting a documentary about the First World War. I came across a reference to The Wipers Times and there was a joke quoted from one issue. I followed it up and I could see that it made the most brilliant story which was much too good to be used in a mere documentary.”
Nick adds: “What was so extraordinary about it was the fact that it was original source material, written on the frontline by troops on active service. What stood out was that it was genuinely funny and that the jokes had survived the test of time.
“We wanted to revisit the material in some way so we wrote a three-page document about how we’d recreate the theatre of war. We put the idea of making a film about The Wipers Times to the BBC and we then heard nothing for ten years!
“This was in 2003. Nobody was interested in the subject. Then along came Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, War Horse at the National Theatre and in the West End, and the Spielberg film.
“Paradoxically this revival of interest in the period worked against us. Who’d want to put on a play or make a film that’s set in World War One when Birdsong and War Horse had been so successful?
“Then, completely out of the blue, we got a commission to make a drama documentary about The Wipers Times for the BBC as one of the programmes marking the centenary of the war.”
The duo believe they had so much trouble selling the idea of The Wipers Times because they were concentrating on a very different aspect of the conflict.
“Sometimes you get the impression that nobody ever laughed during the period between 1914 and 1918,” says Ian.
“The whole experience of World War One had been coloured by poets publishing in the 1920s and the memoirs and dramas written in the 1930s,” says Nick.
“Audiences were looking for a different experience. What The Wipers Times was doing at the time was putting a smile back on people’s faces.”
Hislop and Newman have been doing that throughout their careers. They appeared in revues at school together, both went to Oxford University and they worked together on Private Eye.
Ian, born on July 13th, 1960, became editor of the satirical magazine in 1986. He is reputedly the most sued man in English legal history. Even before Ian became the boss Nick, born two years earlier, was working for Private Eye as a cartoonist. Their partnership began to thrive.
They wrote scripts for the sardonic television series Spitting Image and also penned sketches for The Harry Enfield Show, creating the character Tim Nice-But-Dim.
Ian continues to have the higher profile of the two, joining Have I Got News For You when it started in 1990. He is the only person to have appeared in every episode.
The Wipers Times is set in a bombed-out building in the Belgian town of Ypres which British soldiers pronounced Wipers. Two officers, Captain Fred Roberts and Lt Jack Pearson of the 12th Battalion, Sherwood Foresters – a Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire regiment – discover a printing press and create a newspaper for the troops.
It was far from being a sombre journal about life in the trenches. The officers produced a resolutely cheerful, subversive and very funny newspaper designed to lift the spirits of the men on the front line.
The Wipers Times rolled off the press for two years and was an extraordinary tribute to the soldiers’ resilience in the face of overwhelming adversity.
In 2013 the BBC broadcast Ian and Nick’s dramatisation. Captain Roberts was played by Ben Chaplin and Lt Pearson by Julian Rhind-Tutt. Michael Palin and Emilia Fox played supporting roles.
But Ian and Nick always had the idea of adapting The Wipers Times for the stage.
“All the way through the process, we thought of it as a play,” says Ian.
“On the face of it, it’s all jolly poems and spoofs but it’s also very subversive. There’s a letter from a reader asking for advice. Is it permissible, he asks, to shoot a superior officer? He receives the reply that it is, given extenuating circumstances.”
Nick adds: “The film got such a fantastic response that we felt it wasn’t going to represent the end of the story. We’d written our first play, A Bunch of Amateurs, in 2014. It was our first attempt at writing for the stage and it was produced by the Watermill Theatre near Newbury.
“It went down so well that the Watermill told us if there was anything else we wanted to do, they’d be interested in seeing it. So we suggested joining forces on The Wipers Times.”
The play toured the UK in 2016 and 2017. It also had a run at the Arts Theatre in the West End last year. Now it is touring again for nearly two months before returning to the West End for a seven-week season.
There were a number of other trench journals apart from The Wipers Times, so what made it special? Ian has no doubts.
“It was funnier – and ruder! I have a friend who’s a captain in the Royal Engineers and she brought a party of her sappers to see the show. I was a little worried about how it would go down with the men but she reassured me. She said that the way the guys were represented was exactly how the guys behaved.”
So why should people see the play? “They should come because it’s 100 years since this extraordinary newspaper was first produced,” says Ian.
“They should also come as a tribute to these two amazing men who didn’t get a lot of credit in their time for producing The Wipers Times but probably deserve it. So come and see their legacy.”
The Wipers Times is at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham from 28 August until 1 September.