TV star Ian’s seeing funny side of war

Nick Newman and Ian Hislop in Sheffield to promote their play about the Wipers Times, based on the newspaper from the WW1 trenches, coming to the Lyceum Theatre. Picture Scott Merrylees

Nick Newman and Ian Hislop in Sheffield to promote their play about the Wipers Times, based on the newspaper from the WW1 trenches, coming to the Lyceum Theatre. Picture Scott Merrylees

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The incredible story of a group of World War One soldiers who set up a funny and subversive newspaper with a printing press they found has been seen on TV and is now on stage.

The Wipers Times was written by Have I Got News For You star and Private Eye editor Ian Hislop and Nick Newman.

It is based on the true story of men stationed on the frontline in Ypres, Belgium. Captain FJ Roberts and Lieut JH Pearson kept the paper, named after the soldiers’ slang name for Ypres, going despite the disapproval of the top brass.

Ian said: “It was fantastic to find an authentic voice of the trenches that had been forgotten. A lot of what we think we know about World War One was written much later, through the prism of the Depression and the 1930s and the peace that turned out so badly.

“This was funny and fresh and gobsmackingly in bad taste. They are determined to survive and humour is the coping mechanism. Their ability to laugh at their lot is just terribly awe-inspiring.”

Nick said: “It came about completely by accident. They were looking for salvage for metal to prop up their trench and create tunnels. They came across the printing press that they could have just smashed up and used as salvage.

“Their sergeant was a former Fleet Street printer called Tiler. He said, ‘I can make this machine work’.

“Quite what inspired them to create a humorous paper in Ypres in 1916, who knows. None of them had shown any tendency to journalism or creative writing before. They thought they’d give it a go.”

Ian said: “It’s a story of people finding their momentum and raising it in a most extraordinary way.”

Nick continued: “Lots of stories focus on tragedy and loss. There was nothing we had seen that captured the actual spirit of the men. It was not all about suffering and horror, it was also about camaraderie.”

The play is the latest in a long series of collaborations between Nick and Ian dating back 40 years to their schooldays.

The writing partnership created then carried on to university, when Ian took over a comedy magazine from Nick.

That gave Ian the chance to interview Peter Cook and Richard Ingrams, which got him a start on contributing to Private Eye. Nick joked: “ I completely created his career!”

They also wrote sketches for three series of TV satirical puppet show Spitting Image.

The Wipers Times comes to the Lyceum next week from Thursday to Saturday.

Box office: 0114 249 6000 or Sheffield Theatres