Ian Hislop and Nick Newman: Burt Reynolds, the 'Private Eye' guy and the other one

The long-term writing partners tell Susie Mesure how a disastrous experience with a confused Hollywood megastar led to their first play together since their teens

If audiences at A Bunch of Amateurs find the play's plot a little far-fetched – cue an ageing Hollywood legend unable to learn his lines even when they're plastered across a fellow actor's back – they should hear what happened when a real-life celluloid crinklie played the leading role in the 2008 film version. To put it another way, if Ian Hislop and Nick Newman's first play since their Oxford undergrad days flops, the long-term writing partners should probably file for literary divorce, given the wealth of material that Burt Reynolds provided during filming.

"I think he took it a bit too literally," Newman says, recalling his joke that Reynolds should "behave extremely badly on set", as his character Jefferson Steele is a total pain. According to Hislop, by the time the Deliverance star, then in the throes of a prescription-drug addiction, had finished messing up filming there was "a black hole where there was going to be a part". The bonus is that nearly everything Reynolds did has ended up in the new script for the stage version. "It wasn't his finest hour," Hislop adds, with characteristic deadpan understatement.

Thus Steele, playing King Lear in an amateur production, breakfasts on painkillers and struggles with his lines even when being fed them through an electronic device. "Ask your editor just how much of this you want to put in before the lawyer sees it," Hislop chuckles as the pair pepper our lunch in a Soho pub with Reynolds anecdotes. My favourite: the producer David Parfitt telling his scriptwriters: "I've spent more money on Burt's wig [for Lear] than I paid you." More Hislop laughter. "So we're thinking: 'That's flattering; we know where we are in the food chain; below Burt's wig in terms of importance!'"

Not that they have done badly out of a writing career that started as teenage pupils at Ardingly College in West Sussex. Although Hislop, the Have I Got News For You team captain and Private Eye editor, is the better known – co-credits are always Hislop and Newman, never vice versa – it was Newman who paved the way, not least after Hislop followed him up to Oxford. "I'd set up a magazine with a friend of mine, then in our final year Ian turned up and took it over," Newman says. The magazine, Passing Wind, launched Hislop's career when an interviewee, the then Private Eye editor Richard Ingram, offered him a job.

Since Hislop and his wife Victoria – best-selling author of The Island – moved to Kent, the two men do most of their writing in the Eye office, with occasional forays to Pizza Express. "Essentially, we're trying to make each other laugh, and if Nick says 'That's not very funny', because I've known him since we were 15 I don't take huge offence," says Hislop. "I just wait until he tries a joke and then say, 'No, that doesn't work at all!'"

In person, Hislop is the sharper of the two but their three decades of co-credits spanning Spitting Image scripts and the recent Bafta-nominated The Wipers Times illustrate how well they combine as writers. But, celebrity being what it is, Newman tends to get air-brushed out – literally, in the case of one interview about a show they had written. Hislop explains: "They took a photo of us and then cut Nick out. All the things Nick had said they made as though I'd said them, in an 'exclusive' interview. It was almost entirely about Have I Got News, too!"

Newman is frustrated by such affronts: "I do find it annoying when I don't get credited for stuff, particularly when I'm proud of it, like The Wipers Times." Hislop chimes in: "Well don't worry, because this is going to go down as 'Michael Palin's Wipers Times'. We're both going to be cut out in favour of the actors!"

Have I Got News For You, on air since 1990 and now in its 47th series, is unavoidable, not least in backchat between the two men, as I find when listening back to the recorder I have left switched on while I ordered their lunch at the bar. I hear them discussing the previous week's show, hosted by David Mitchell with panellists Andy Hamilton and Susan Coleman; journalistic ethics probably prevent me repeating what Hislop had to say about the guests.

"That was on while we were talking. Very clever of you," he observes when I return.

He is on the record about host Jack Dee's comments to Bridget Christie, which sparked Twitter outrage for being sexist: "Oh yeah, something about how when she took off her 'No to Page Three' T-shirt the audience woke up." But he says the quip "didn't strike me as hugely offensive, because in the introduction the host is supposed to be rude. If you're not rude to the women that come on, it's like saying, 'Oh, they're not up to it.'"

He is aware of the lack of women on the show but, he says, "You can't make people do it." And its female producer, Jo Bunting, has asked "everyone you can think of" to appear. Does he stand by a previous comment, about women needing to show off and be part of gangs of blokes to make the cut? "If bantering is to be a popular comedy form, then you have to join in. You can't say, 'Oh, I don't do that stuff,' and then say, 'There aren't any women on.'" Newman adds: "You have to put your head above the parapet. You can't do it by being shy and retiring."

The only topic that quietens Hislop is gentle questioning about his family. His daughter, Emily, has just done a law conversion after graduating from Oxford; his son, William, is still there. But that's all I get. Asked if he would ever write something with Victoria, he protests, "I'm sure she'd refuse! She's got proper talent!"

Now it's up to West Berkshire's theatregoers to decide if Hislop and Newman's own strengths stretch to writing plays. "What we really want is for someone to see A Bunch of Amateurs and say, 'This would make a great film,'" Newman quips. Or perhaps I should just attribute that gag to Hislop.

'A Bunch of Amateurs' runs until Saturday 28 June at The Watermill Theatre, Bagnor, Newbury

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Guru Careers: Graduate Resourcer / Recruitment Account Executive

£18k + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a bright, enthusiastic and internet...

Reach Volunteering: Chair and trustees sought for YMCA Bolton

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Bolton YMCA is now a...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher Geography teach...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher Geography teach...

Day In a Page

Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

The rise of Lego Clubs

How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
5 best running glasses

On your marks: 5 best running glasses

Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada