The Wipers Times: ‘It was our territory’ claims Private Eye man Nick Newman


The film focusing on two officers in the Great War airs at 9pm tonight on BBC2


By Jack Crone

A century on from the Great War and still there are stories untold. Whilst most have grown used to rousing accounts of heroism and sombre poems depicting the futility of war, the tale of The Wipers Times offers something altogether different.

Written by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, the 90-minute film transports us to a bombed out Ypres (‘Wipers’ to the Tommys) in 1916, where two remarkable British officers stumble upon an abandoned printing press.

Captain Fred Roberts and Lieutenant Jack Pearson seize upon this unusual discovery, creating not a sombre journal of records as one might expect, but a satirical newspaper to raise morale, poke fun at the top brass and take the men’s minds off their bleak situation.

The paper’s jokes and spoofs, written largely by Roberts and Pearson themselves, prove hugely popular with the troops whilst irritating certain senior officers. Despite attempts at banning it, the bombing of the original press and the deaths of many contributors, the paper survives for two years and prints twenty three editions.

Nick Newman and Ian Hislop have been writing partners for over thirty years and state that their intrigue in the project was first ignited around ten years ago after Hislop did a radio documentary on the subject. In an interview with SWLondoner, Newman recalls from his Clapham home how he was drawn to the material immediately.

“It was incredibly funny given that they were printing on the front line under enemy fire,” he said.

“The British reaction in times of adversity tends to be quite different – we make jokes.”

Being a satirical newspaper, both Private Eye men recognised the potential that the material had, as well as recognising traces of their own working relationship in that of their two lead men. This not only enhanced their ability to produce an effective screenplay but enabled them to have more fun whilst doing so.

“It was our territory. Satirical and subversive. In that sense it was the first time we’ve ever written anything about our own world,” says Newman.

As well as entertaining their men, the officers also received medals for bravery. Newman believes the film may redress certain assumptions that World War I was predominantly ‘lions led by donkeys’.

“Some officers were heroes as well in their own right,” he says.

The writer, whose previous hits  include 2008’s ‘A Bunch of Amateurs’, was naturally excited with a final product that was ten years in the making.

“It’s incredibly exciting to see a little world created from what you’ve written on a page,” he said.

“I hope that people find the story funny, sad and also inspirational.”

The movie stars Michael Palin (Life of Brian), Ben Chaplin (Me and Orson Welles) and Julian Rhind-Tutt (Green Wing).

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