AS EDITOR of Private Eye magazine and a star of TV’s Have I Got News for You, Ian Hislop has made a career out of making fun of people in power.

He, better than anyone, knows the power of satire – the ability to hold authority to account with the weapon of humour. His own satirical mag has been running for 57 years – exposing corruption, sharp practice and incompetence at the heart of government, the media, public utilities and business – and gently (and not so gently) taking aim at the powerful and pompous.

So when he came across the story of a pair of Army officers attempting to do a similar thing among the carnage of the First World War, he found his interest piqued, teaming up with long-term collaborator Nick Newman to produce an award-winning film and stage production, which returns to the Oxford Playhouse next week.

The Wipers Times tells the tale of British soldiers entrenched in Flanders’ Ypres Salient in 1916, bogged down on the Western Front in a deadly war of attrition.

As their comrades fell around them, they took strength in doing what we have always done: 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.

“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 play was a huge hit when it debuted at the Playhouse this time last year, and is back for a second six-night run.

For Ian, who has deep links with the city, staging a show here has been a source of deep satisfaction.

He 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.

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

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.”

Ian remains full of admiration for the plucky Tommies 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. Go to