The true story of one of the most remarkable newspapers in history was told in unusual fashion in this mixture of drama, comedy, sketch show, music hall and archive footage, writes John Corser.
With the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War coming up next year we can expect a flood of television programmes of all kinds about the conflict.
Last night’s early contribution (BBC2), written by Private Eye editor Ian Hislop and writer Nick Newman, used the jokes and spoof ads from the actual pages of The Wipers Times that was written, edited and printed in the trenches of the Western Front from 1916 to 1918 amidst the horror of constant shelling, snipers and gas attacks.
Amazingly 23 editions of the satirical paper were published and distributed to Tommies on the front line as the Sherwood Foresters team led by Captain Fred Roberts (Ben Chaplin) took the ‘encouragement’ of staff officers to ‘be a lot more offensive’ to heart.
Some of the subversive gallows humour from the newspaper was presented in black and white as sketches or as music hall songs and much of it still seemed fresh and relevant.
Chaplin and Julian Rhind-Tutt as his deputy editor Lieutenant Jack Pearson made a great double act swopping jokes as they tried to fill their battlefield newspaper, named for the Belgian town of Ypres, as well as fight a war in the muddy hell that the fields of Flanders had become.
The atmospherically filmed 90-minute drama also featured a welcome cameo appearance from comedy great Michael Palin as the composite character of sympathetic General Mitford who realises the value to morale of The Wipers Times despite its insubordination and tells outraged Lieutenant-Colonel Hadfield (Ben Daniels), who wants to see the editor shot for treason for suggesting ordinary soldiers could claim extenuating circumstances for killing senior officer: “Not if he shoots you first!”
Steve Oram also put in a good performance as the bluff Brummie Sergeant Harris, a Fleet Street printer in civilian life, who recognises the Wipers Times’ first pedal-operated printing press when it is discovered abandoned in the ruins of Ypres and gets it working as Roberts decides they are going to produce a newspaper for the soldiers of the 24th Division.
“Like The Daily Mail,” enquires Pearson. “I was thinking of something rather more accurate,” replies Roberts, in one of many of Hislop’s sly digs at the national press.
As they initially struggle to come up with copy Roberts remarks: “We should aim to produce something a bit like Punch, but with jokes.”
Sadly Roberts, who survived the Great War and won the Military Cross for gallantry, could not get a job in Fleet Street after the conflict with his satirical take on news just too far ahead of its time for the editor, who interviews him and only offers him work assisting the compiler of the crossword. An insulted Roberts, who had proof read pages for his newspaper in his hospital bed while recovering from a poison gas attack, instead went back to his old work as a mining engineer.
The blackly humorous production also had plenty of moments of real pathos especially as Roberts and his men lined up to go over the top in the Battle of The Somme, the poems written by men about their fallen comrades, the realisation that on the return to Ypres they have advanced just 30 yards in 18 months and on the last day of the war as they struggled to realise that the fighting was really going to end at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
Some of the real events portrayed in The Wipers Times could so easily have been comic creations including Jack Pearson successfully setting up a Foresters Arms pub on the front line and Roberts’ encountering Winston Churchill in the trenches.