“I’ve tried throughout this war to maintain my sense of humour”, says Captain Fred Roberts (Ben Chaplin), serving on the Western Front in 1916. The Wipers Times, a 90-minute drama broadcast on BBC Two last night and scripted by Private Eye editor Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, shows how war and black wit are intertwined; indeed, how a sense of humour can be an important weapon in the battle to keep your sanity.
The Wipers Times brings an extraordinary true story to life – in 1916, Captain Roberts and Lieutenant Jack Pearson (The Hour‘s Julian Rhind-Tutt) found a printing press in bombed-out Ypres, and set it to work publishing a satirical newspaper (which had various titles depending on where they were stationed, but was originally named The Wipers Times after the British soldiers’ mispronunciation of Ypres). Poking fun at everything from the cowardice of commanding officers to the morale-boosting power of rum (through articles that are cleverly adapted into brief sketches inserted in the action), the paper proved a vital lifeline for both readers and editors, despite facing challenges including a bombing raid which destroyed the original press and the disapproval of senior officers, represented here by humourless Lieutenant Colonel Howfield (Ben Daniels).
There’s a moment in Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration, about the meeting of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon in an asylum where they were being treated for shell-shock, where Owen insists that his poems are written for “All the dead”, both German and British. Interestingly, The Wipers Times rejects that view, preferring to see things from the viewpoint of characters who understandably hate the “Hun”, and using the familiar contrast between British humour and German earnestness – instead of jokes about ‘Tip-Me-Up Duckboards’ to catapult commanding officers into the air, the Germans keep their spirits up by singing a ‘Hymn of Hate’.
Chaplin gives an outstanding lead performance that deserves a BAFTA nomination. His perfect cut-glass delivery occasionally recalls the Armstrong and Miller Second World War pilots sketch, but he brilliantly captures both the classic stiff upper lip of the period and the effort it took to uphold it. Rhind-Tutt is equally good, and the two of them make a great duo, exchanging snarky banter from the opening scene (where Captain Roberts refers to a barrage as “Fritz’s love-notes”) with the air of men who can’t not be funny – not least because it’s the only thing that keeps them going through the muddy carnage. Roberts’ determination to hang onto his sense of humour makes the viewer appreciate the weight of the moment when, on leave and unable to sleep because it’s so quiet, he gives a heartbreakingly serious description to his wife (Emilia Fox) of how he’s learned that war is “the vilest disaster that can befall mankind”. The Wipers Times weaves skilfully between comedy and seriousness – sometimes, as in the scene where Roberts raises his men’s spirits before they go over the top at the Somme by reciting a limerick, both at once.
By showing the importance of the Times to the soldiers, Hislop and Newman explore the still-running debate about how far satire can go. Understandably, they’re firmly in favour of aiming at the big targets, but it’s a pity that they’ve made the Lieutenant Colonel’s character one of the few caricatures in the programme – a man who has to say lines like “Have you seen this poppycock?” It was a relief that they didn’t build up to some historically inaccurate and clichéd triumph-of-the-underdog scene where Roberts and Pearson defeat Howfield in court martial or something, but the scenes where Howfield argues against broad-minded General Mitford (Michael Palin) that the Times should be banned ultimately don’t have a point and feel extraneous.
However, as a portrait of the resilience of humour in the face of the atrocious birth of modern warfare, The Wipers Times is outstanding. Its vision of the trenches – shot in greying colours, as if hope has drained out of Flanders with the advance of the armies – is filthily authentic, and full of the sort of historical detail that’s deeply satisfying to research nerds everywhere – I knew about the mispronunciation of Ypres, but not that British soldiers thought the Belgians were selling “Napu Rum” when in fact they were saying that “Il n’y a plus rhum”. Overall, The Wipers Times is a powerful tribute to Roberts and Pearson’s eccentric form of courage under fire.