Theatre Editor Sophie Graci talks to Ian Hislop and Nick Newman ahead of the opening of The Wipers Times at The Opera House
Sophie Graci (SG): First of all, how’s it going? How was the West End run [of The Wipers Times]?
Nick Newman (NN): It exceeded our expectations. You know, you put this stuff out there and hope that people share your view that this is an interesting story. This time last year we were in a tiny little theatre outside Newbury called The Watermill, and it sold out there. You think ‘oh wow, two hundred people coming to it, that’s amazing’ and then a year later we’ve just done a week in Richmond which had eight hundred seats and that was sold out. So it’s really delighted us.
Ian Hislop (IH): It just keeps going. We thought ‘we’ve done the West End’ and the producer said ‘No, no, we’re going back out on tour, we’re going to do the big theatres.’ So we’ve been down to Cardiff and there’s Manchester and Newcastle and then Glasgow later on, so it’s quite ambitious, but it’s been fantastic so far.
NN: Our initial concern, because we were [in] such a small theatre initially was how would the set even look in a big proscenium arch theatre? Luckily almost all proscenium arch theatres are the same dimensions so you just move the wings out a little bit and there you are. It’s a challenge for the actors. We’ve gone from theatres where it’s all up and down so you’re playing to the gods and we’re now at Northern Stage, which is in Newcastle, and it’s wide. It’s a good challenge; it’s interesting how it all works in different places.
SG: Why did you decide to adapt The Wipers Times for the stage? Has it brought something to it that it didn’t have on film?
NN: We’d actually started writing it as a play before we did it as a film. We had spent so long trying to convince TV companies that this was a story worth telling and getting nowhere, so we thought ‘let’s try it as a play!’ It’s quite a theatrical story: a lot of their jokes are about music hall and characters in music halls. We were about a third of the way through [writing it as a play] when out of the blue we got a call from BBC 2 saying ‘we’re interested in this.’ So we wrote a film, but we always felt it was unfinished business.
IH: So what you’re seeing now is the result of having done a thing on the telly. People write to you once it’s been on and they tell you ‘we’ve got this, we know this story, have you looked into this?’ which meant we could put all that in the stage version. We could up the number of musical items because you can weave it into the change of scene and it makes it richer. We had a female director who basically said, ‘too many boys in it – can we have some girls now?’
SG: (laughs) Lovely!
IH: So we did what we were told! Which helped hugely actually.
NN: It broadened out the story.
IH: We found out a lot about the temperance movement and about alcohol, which is a big theme of The Wipers Times: booze really running the war, people at home trying to stop it, and our lot not being very keen on that!
NN: All those elements came in after the film, which is great [because] it made it much richer. Particularly the use of more musical numbers, because we what we’ve done is taken snatches of verse that they wrote and set them to music. They’re about silly things, about [the] company commander losing all his hair or ‘they say that love makes the world go round, it was rum that made the world go round for me last night.’ They’re little snatches of verse, but it’s using more of their words which we’re very keen to do.
SG: It seems almost like the BBC was an initial try out, and now [the play] has come back to the stage where it was intended to be.
IH: Film is very cool essentially; you don’t get a lot back from it. With theatre it changes every night, it changes from town to town. It’s the pleasure of seeing it live, you can go and sit in the back and watch the effect of what you’ve written, and then the effect of something you’ve changed, or you’ve seen it on another night and thought ‘that doesn’t work’ and put something better in.
SG: Or an actor tries something out.
IH: Absolutely, and it works, and you think ‘great!’
NN: One of the things that we really liked in the film was the noise, and the explosions and we achieved that in the film by an app where [the director] could set off different levels of bombs around the actors just to surprise them. Putting that in the theatre is fantastic. Our sound chap, Steve Mayo, has devised this amazing soundscape, which puts you in the action. Your seat shakes when these bombs go off. It makes the whole thing much more immersive.
IH: Nearly all the action is in dugouts, in small, enclosed spaces, in trenches. This is sort of built for the theatre really; you don’t need sweeping panoramas because no one saw any of that! Our lot saw the parapet and just three feet in front of them and that was the war. I think that comes over from putting it in a theatrical context.
SG: How did you come across the story?
NN: Ian came across it. He was working on a documentary about something incredibly boring…
IH: Thank you, Nick!
NN: He came back and said ‘have you ever heard of this?’ He showed me a copy and neither of us had heard of it at all. If you find something nobody’s heard of or forgotten you feel a bit excited that you’re onto something.
IH: It’s such a brilliant story I couldn’t believe no one else knew it. It’s so unlikely: they go into the ruins looking for salvage, there’s a fully working printer. The sergeant in their troop used to work on Fleet Street. They were both engineers – they weren’t journalists, they hadn’t written before – and they thought, ‘oh we’ll set up a satirical trench paper.’ It’s quite a strange thing to decide to do, and they were brilliant at it. We didn’t think ‘oh this is quite quaint’ or ‘this is amusing old-fashioned humour.’ This is rude, modern – I feel, in tone – and funny. I mean really funny, not pretend.
SG: I like [the paper’s unofficial catchphrase] ‘are we being as offensive as we might be?’
NN: It’s brilliant, and the high command didn’t get it! Our chaps fell on that with glee.
IH: They repeated it endlessly. It became their running joke – ‘Are we being offensive enough?’ ‘I don’t know, we should be more offensive. Let’s be more offensive.’
SG: Why do you think satire in particular appeals to people in politically trying times?
IH: I think firstly it’s a release mechanism. It is a sort of great British tradition in that we do tend to say ‘well, one way of fighting this is to laugh at it’ and it has traditionally been for our democracy a very effective way of keeping people honest, by fear of ridicule.
NN: You’ve got in Jeeves and Wooster stories the fascist Roderick Spode: it’s not the black shirts, it’s the black shorts. Men walking around in black shorts are silly.
IH: It was incredibly effective. People were scared of [Oswald] Mosley and then Wodehouse creates a movement of grown men wandering around in black shorts. It is that thing of refusing to be scared and humour allows you to display that. I think what appeals about the satirical response to things is that it’s a robust response.
NN: The spirit is the same today: how do we respond to Trump? We try to make fun of him.
IH: He hates it. Half his tweets are comments on how unfunny Saturday Night Live is. They must be so thrilled.
NN: Last year we did a Private Eye cover before the election saying ‘Vote Trump’ and we had this great picture of Trump just pointing at his head looking completely bonkers and saying ‘it’s a no-brainer.’ Trump saw that and re-tweeted it and sa[id] ‘British media get behind me.’ It was so pleasing that he just didn’t get the joke.
IH: He didn’t have a clue. We couldn’t have written it, it was just so good, and that gives you small amounts of pleasure ’cause you think, ‘well, alright, that’s a response.’
NN: There’s an irony there as well as given about how much Trump goes on about fake news and here is a bit complete fake news that he hasn’t spotted!
SG: You guys have known each other for a very long time, how do you keep a working relationship fresh and keep things bouncing off each other?
NN: I buy Ian flowers and chocolates… show him how much I love him.
IH: That really is fake news! (laughs)
NN: The writing projects where we’ve got three months to write a script don’t happen very often, so when it does happen we’re very pleased to do it. We’ve got a film that we’ve got to write coming up and I think we’re both really looking forward to it because we know now where it’s going to go and we’re very behind it.
On a weekly basis, we have, say, three writing sessions together a fortnight for Private Eye. That’s always good fun, ‘cause they’re not very intense. We spend a few hours churning out ideas. One of the great things about having known each other for so long [is] there’s no embarrassment or awkwardness if one or the other doesn’t think the idea’s working. You just say ‘I don’t think that works’ and we move on to the next one.
IH: Writing with someone is great in terms of not only sort of bouncing stuff off [each other] but also being able to edit very quickly by saying ‘That’s not very funny Nick.’
NN: We’re sort of editing each other all the time. I think makes it a slightly quicker process. You sort of feel if both of us like it now we think it’s probably ok and then if somebody else doesn’t like it they’re idiots obviously. (laughs)
IH: You’re not defending your patch as it were. If there are two of you you’ve gone into it and you’ve compromised and agreed already. I think that is very helpful.
NN: Writing’s bloody hard anyway, but because I draw cartoons thinking of a complete sort of little scenario, the punch line is what it’s all about. Whereas when you’re writing a script there are so many avenues you can go down, and that’s where it’s so it’s just great collaborating with somebody.
IH: Also because Nick’s a cartoonist he’s got a very strong idea of what it looks like, and I’m much more wordy. It means Nick can say ‘that’s very elegant and very well phrased, but quite dull,’ and that helps a lot.
SG: Do you have any advice for student writers, cartoonists, and satirists?
NN: Do it, really! That’s the only thing you can do is do something and send it off and get rejected. Don’t be hurt by the rejection because the best cartoonists in the world probably get a one in ten hit rate.
IH: On the journalistic front, I would really recommend the postgrad courses. They are fantastic for making contacts, and they’re very good on placements. Apart from that, just send stuff in. All editors pretend they’re not desperate, but they are!
NN: There’s a very classic Private Eye cartoon, which was attributed to Peter Cook, which is of somebody saying ‘I’m writing a book’ and the other person saying ‘Neither am I’ and that is the truth about most people who say they’re writers.
IH: If you actually do it, there’s no substitute!
The Wipers Times plays at The Opera House from October 31st-November 4th. Tickets can be purchased from here.