Back in 2005, Channel 4 aired a documentary series called Not Forgotten, which explored the impact of the First World War on British society. It was written and presented by Ian Hislop, who went on to front three other equally compelling one-offs, each exploring various aspects of the 1914-1918 conflict.
So, while it was a surprise to discover Hislop co-wrote The Wipers Times, it also meant I would be in safe hands, as he knows his stuff.
After catching up with demobbed Captain Fred Roberts (played by Ben Chaplin) during a job interview, we joined the action in 1916 in Ypres, as a small company of soldiers, led by Roberts and Lieutenant Jack Pearson (Julian Rhind-Tutt), scampered about the town, looking for anything they could salvage to keep their trench from sliding into the mud. What they stumbled on instead, was a printing press – and it gave Roberts an idea.
He announced to his men that they were going to produce a newspaper – but instead of filling it with the usual nonsense approved by those higher up the military food chain, Roberts and Pearson took a more tongue-in-cheek path. The paper was dubbed “The Wipers Times”, a nod to the lowly Tommies who pronounced Ypres as ‘Wipers’, and the pair set about filling pages with amusing articles, such as “how to identify the symptoms of optimism”, and satirical adverts for taxis (“easily identifiable thanks to the red crosses painted on their backs and sides”).
Naturally, the controversial pamphlet was a big hit with the men in the trenches, but not everyone saw the funny side. Lt Col Howfield (Ben Daniels) in particular was incensed and called for Roberts’ head on a plate. Luckily for our mud-bound heroes, General Mitford (played by Michael Palin, in what has to be a stroke of casting genius) saw the bigger picture, and refused to ban the paper.
As the war progressed – or not, as the Allies remained unable to make each ‘big push’ count for anything – Roberts and Pearson did their best to keep the horrors of what was happening around them at bay (including, in a hilarious scene, making sure direct orders from the pompous Howfield to be “as offensive as possible” were taken at their word). The paper’s title changed as they were deployed to various locations and battles around France – including the Somme, twice, but by some miracle, the pair made it back to Ypres – and the end of the conflict alive. Sadly for both men, their contribution to the war effort went unnoticed and unrewarded, and both died in relative obscurity in the 1960s.
Hopefully, this programme will change that. Hislop and Newman bring lashings of dark humour and pathos to what was a wonderful story – one that is all the more remarkable for being true. The cast bringing it to life was faultless, especially the Chaplin-Rhind-Tutt double act at the heart. Special mention must go to Rhind-Tutt for turning in the best performance he’s given in years, while Chaplin was outstanding as the irony-loving Roberts.
There was much to enjoy here, but what really impressed me about The Wipers Times was how elegantly clever it was. The dialogue was so sparky the screen practically crackled, and while you didn’t have to be an avid reader of Private Eye to get the jokes, Hislop’s particular brand of wry wit was always just below the surface, making this poignant, important drama a treat from start to finish.
Contributed by Scheenagh Harrington