sun 14/07/2024

The Wipers Times, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

The Wipers Times, BBC Two

The Wipers Times, BBC Two

Sardonic take on the Western front in real-life story of unofficial newspaper for the troops

Standing out from the grey: Ben Chaplin (centre of back row) as Fred Roberts doubles as captain and music hall compere

The last time we saw soldiers going over the top at the Somme with comic baggage attached was the tragic finale of Blackadder.

It’s the inevitable comparison that The Wipers Times writers Ian Hislop and Nick Newman were going to face, and though they aim for something different in what is, after all, a true story, there’s no escaping the same absurdity of clipped understatement that they have given their British officer heroes, or the essential one-dimensional nature of characterisation. Even fleshed out with free-standing cabaret-style sketches, at 90 minutes this sometimes felt as long as waiting for the war to end all wars itself to end.

We first encountered Captain Fred Roberts (Ben Chaplin) looking for a job in post-war Fleet Street: the former mining engineer’s only credential was his wartime editorship of The Wipers Time, which he’d set up after the (very) small detail of troops under his command stumbled on an abandoned printing press during fighting at Ypres in 1916. When his sergeant revealed that he was a printer by trade, their jolly wheeze to bring out a publication, titled after the soldiers' popular pronounciation of Ypres, was born.

The only problem, the total lack of articles to put in it, became the impromptu responsibility of Roberts and his deputy Lieutenant Jack Pearson (the equally chipper Julian Rhind-Tutt, pictured with Chaplin, right) to come up with over plentiful drinks in their dark but not totally gloomy dug-out. Later contributions came in from readers, including plenty of poetry, something Roberts eventually stood out against: “a serious attack of poetitis,” he called it – so much for the common soldier having much to express that went beyond the one-liners, or limericks at a stretch, that we had here.

One of their popular objects of satire was, not surprisingly, the cushy lot that the general staff (the “stupid moustaches”) enjoyed well away from the privations of the trenches and the risks of actual combat. This prompted the apoplectic Lt Col Howfield (Ben Daniels) to cry downright insubordination, suggesting that all concerned should be be flogged (well, almost), but his rage was mitigated by his senior officer General Mitford (Michael Palin, seated, with Daniels, pictured below). An amiable old buffer straight from central casting, Mitford sloshed down the whisky but thought his lads should have their chance to let off steam; anyway, it was better than the response from the German side to trench warfare, a hymn of hate.

Director Andy de Emmony turned individual contributions drawn from the paper into distinct sketches, from single-actor stand-ups to fully staged music hall ensembles (cue repeated jokes that the venues were the best ventilated in Europe, ie bombed out). Their humour was real enough, from an early sketch of how the sufferer could cure himself of the disease of optimism, through various parodies of the official line (sub-Kipling and the reports of the official frontline correspondents who filed their copy from the safety of a distant bar).

With generous use of original archive material and nice orchestration, this could have added up to rather more than it actually did. At one point, returning to Ypres, the company encountered a Michelin photographer preparing a new guide to the battlefields. "Beyond parody, you couldn't make it up," Pearson retorted. The Wipers Times left us uncertain where it really stood, enjoying its parody to such an extent that anything that tried to speak any deeper ended up sounding rather false.

So much for the common soldier having much to express that went beyond the one-liners, or limericks at a stretch


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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