Oscar winner David Parfitt on The Wipers Times and backing Sunderland’s Culture 2021 bid

The Wipers Times is in Newcastle next month
The Wipers Times is in Newcastle next month

It’s hard to believe that amidst the unimaginable horror of the WWI trenches there was laughter.

But, despite the terror and tragedy, a pair of officers provided a glimmer of humour after discovering an abandoned printing press in the Belgian town of Ypres - mispronounced Wipers by the British soldiers.

David Parfitt in Sunderland after receiving an honoury degree at Sunderland University

David Parfitt in Sunderland after receiving an honoury degree at Sunderland University

They set about creating a newspaper for the troops. But, far from being a sombre chronicle of war, it was a satirical newspaper interspersed with comic sketches and spoofs from the vivid imagination of those on the front line. In the face of enemy bombardment, gas attacks and the disapproval of many of the top Brass, The Wipers Times rolled off the press for two years, bringing light relief in the darkest of days.

Now Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s The Wipers Times - a stage adaptation of their award-winning BBC film - has hit the road after critical acclaim on the West End stage, including a date at Newcastle’s Northern Stage from October 2-7.

In the producer’s chair is Sunderland-born David Parfitt, the Oscar and Bafta-winning film producer who’s famed for his work on films such as Shakespeare in Love, The Madness of King George and The Wings of the Dove.

Speaking about the remarkable true life story which spawned the film and stage production, he said: “They were quite literally under fire as they printed it. It was a satirical newspaper about the war, general stuff to do with the trenches and also poems from the men. What’s interesting is that the jokes are still funny now. Much like Private Eye, they had fake ads, but they were doing it in 1916. So they have adverts about what to get the kids for Christmas, but they are for flame throwers. The jokes are fairly dark.

“It would be almost impossible to think that war lasted for four years and no one laughed once. It was brutal, and nothing less than a horror, but people often respond, especially Brits, with a gallows humour. It helps them to get through it. Today, the equivalent are online, such as blog posts from Afghanistan.”

He added: “I was approached by Ian and Nick about six years ago and it was made into a film, which was received very well. But there’s even more material and elements are so theatrical, as they’re illustrated as sketches, so it works really well on stage. The same team worked on the play as the film. There’s so much great material from it and 90% of the play is the words of the men. Ian always says the best jokes are theirs.”

David, who worked as an actor before co-founding the Renaissance Theatre Company with Kenneth Branagh which, between 1987 and 1991, produced a clutch of celebrated Shakespeare productions, says he’s enjoying being back involved with theatre.

“It’s something very different for me as for all these years I’ve been distracted by films,” he said. “But I approach theatre in the same way as I do film, I think ‘is this something I would enjoy reading, something I would go to see at the cinema, something I would go to see on stage?’

“Films take a long time to make, it can be three, five, six years to get a film from the book to filming, that’s a big commitment so it has to be something you’re passionate about.”

David’s love of theatre was sparked by Sunderland’s Royalty Theatre and Empire Theatre. As a young boy, growing up in the Ryhope Road area, he would visit the theatres with his grandparents who were very much a part of the city’s amateur theatre scene.

Though his career path led to him moving to London, David, whose son is studying at Durham University, has become a regular visitor back to his home city of late, where he’s become a staunch supporter of the City of Culture 2021 bid.

“I visit Sunderland more now that I ever did before I think, “ he said. “I’m supporting the 2021 bid, which would just be brilliant if we get it. I was up around a month ago and had a tour around the Fire Station and the developments around the culture quarter. I think what Paul Callaghan (who heads up culture group The Mac Trust) is doing around there is just brilliant.

“I think if the Fire Station had been open it would have fitted beautifully as a location for Wipers Times, so hopefully when it’s open it will lead to more opportunities for events in the city. I think regardless of 2021, bringing more creative industries into cities always helps. It brings more people into the towns and every city that has culture at its heart does well. It gets people to think in a different way.”

•The Wipers Times is at Northern Stage, Newcastle, from October 2-7. Tickets from Tel. 0191 230 5151