Tim Hughes talks to Ian Hislop about bringing the satirical Wipers Times to the stage

It is early 1916, in the very depths of the First World War.

Europe is in flames and millions of people have perished in what has developed into a bitter war of attrition – with the worst still to come.

With the French engaged in the hell of Verdun and the British entrenched in Flanders’ Ypres Salient, humour, you might think, would be in short supply.

But then there is nothing like laughing in the face of adversity.

When a group of soldiers from the 12th Battalion, Sherwood Foresters came across an abandoned printing press in a bombed out building in Ypres, a sergeant who had been a printer before the war printed off a simple sheet of a satirical trench newspaper.

The men named it after the Tommy slang for the Belgian city – Wipers – and it became an institution.

The Wipers Times’ gently mocking tone lampooned the establishment and, in particular, the top brass. Rather than attacking the enemy, it punctured the pomposity of their own superiors through in-jokes, poetry and relentless leg-pulling.

Despite the rude interruptions of the war – shells, gas, the carnage of the German Spring Offensive and the disapproval of senior officers – the paper started by editors Capt Fred Roberts and Lt Jack Pearson continued until the end of the war – with a peace edition.

It’s a period in history which fascinates the editor of Britain’s best satirical magazine today – Ian Hislop.

In fact so drawn was he to the story of those plucky Tommies and their artfully disrespectful publication, that he teamed up with long-term collaborator Nick Newman and produced an award-winning film, which has been turned into a stage production, coming to the Oxford Playhouse all next week.

For Ian, who has deep links with the city, it’s a source of deep satisfaction.

“To have a play coming to Oxford is really very special,” he says. “I was a student there and so was my wife.”

Ian, familiar to many as a team leader on BBC’s Have I Got News for You, read English at Magdalen while his wife Victoria was at St Hilda’s. They married in the city and their children Emily and William both studied here, at Brasenose and Jesus respectively.

Nick was also an Oxford man (Oriel), and it was here that they honed their satirical talent, on the magazine Passing Wind.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in Oxford and it’s a place which has always been very special in my life,” Ian says. “It’s also where I started doing lots of reviews and producing magazines. Nick was also at Oxford as well as being at school with me – so this is great.”

So what was the appeal of The Wipers Times as the subject for a film and play?

“I was presenting a documentary about the First World War and I came across it,” he says. “It struck me as the kind of thing we do, but funnier and done in the most extreme circumstances. How did they do this?

“Sometimes you get the impression that nobody ever laughed during the period between 1914 and 1918. The soldiers fell on The Wipers Times like thirsty men finding water in the desert.

“I thought it might be something that would just interest us, but from the film we had a really great run in the West End and it’s a real pleasure to take it out again.”

The timing, as we commemorate the Great War’s centenary (this year marks the 100th anniversary of the Third Battle of Ypres – better known as Passchendaele – is perfect.

Ian remains full of admiration for the men who produced the original paper. “There’s a journalistic banter and effort to produce a written product published with a certain style,” he says. “They do fake columnists which I’d have been proud of.

“On the face of it, it is all jolly poems and spoofs but it is also very subversive. There is 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.

“I feel as if Nick and I are kindred spirits of Jack Pearson and Fred Roberts.

“They are our heroes, eking out this wonderful newspaper under incredibly difficult circumstances.”

And he admires how they most frequently levelled their sights at their own side.

“I think it’s what we do too. That’s what we do in Britain. It’s a bulwark against dictatorship as it’s very difficult to get Tommy Atkins to do what he doesn’t want to do.”

And has the experience of bringing it to life encouraged him to try his hand at more?

“There will be more plays, I’m afraid,” he laughs. “It’s too much fun. The next play will be set in 1817 and about a big libel trial.”

Again, something he knows plenty about. “True,” he agrees. “I do like a good courtroom drama.”

* Wipers Times comes to the Oxford Playhouse from Monday to Saturday.

Ian Hislop leads an after show Q&A session on Tuesday.

Go to oxfordplayhouse.com