Modern-day satirists Ian Hislop and Nick Newman are in awe of the pair behind The Wipers Times, a satirical newspaper created amidst the mud and mayhem of the Somme 100 years ago.
The remarkable story behind the forgotten publication was told in a BBC film in 2013 and now comes in a stage version at the Sheffield Lyceum next week.
In a bombed out building during the First World War in the French town of Ypres (mis-pronounced Wipers by the British soldiers), Captain Fred Roberts and Lt Jack Pearson discover a printing press and create a newspaper for the troops. Defying enemy bombardment, gas attacks and the disapproval of many of the top brass, The Wipers Times rolled off the press for two years.
Far from being a sombre journal about life in the trenches, it was a resolutely cheerful, subversive and very funny newspaper designed to lift the spirits of the men on the front line.
Hislop, editor of Private Eye and panellist on Have I Got News For You, and his old school chum Nick Newman, writer and cartoonist, saw that a lot of the content was theatrical and have turned written pieces and drawings into sketches and skits performed by a cast of eight. “You can tell they loved theatre and music,” says Newman.
Their admiration for The Wipers Times goes beyond the historical context. “It’s amazing how much the humour has lasted,” reflects Hislop. “That’s what blew us away. People can be patronising and say it’s funny for its time and was only amusing once but we think it’s really funny now.
“For example, they have an advert for taxis. It says if you want a taxi back from the front you can always spot them because they have a red cross on them. That’s a brilliant joke now. Anything good in the play is theirs and the rest is ours.”
Newman explains: “It is a mix of laugh-out-loud humour and serious stuff like heartfelt tributes to fallen comrades or bits of prose writing like a description of walking through Ypres at two in the morning and trying to bring it to life. They were not wise-cracking gagsters, they are fully rounded human beings capable of impressive writing.”
And good soldiers, according to Hislop. “In one of the editions of the paper Roberts says, ‘Have you ever tried correcting galley proofs under fire? You should try it.’ The next day he goes out and leads his men over the top and wins the Military Cross for Gallantry. That was some editor.”
Even now the tour of The Wipers Times has started the pair don’t see their work as done, going around the country promoting it and participating in Q and A’s at many venues. “It’s because we feel passionate about it, especially now I have seen it performed,” says Hislop.
“And we feel strongly that these people should be remembered,” adds Newman.
The Wipers Times comes to the Lyceum Theatre from Thursday, November 3 to Saturday, November 5 with a Q and A after the Friday performance.