Magazine article The Spectator

Television Comic Relief

Magazine article The Spectator

Television Comic Relief

Article excerpt

Funny what rises from the rubble. In 1916 British army officer Captain Fred Roberts was searching the bombed-out remains of Ypres. Among the ruins was a printing press.

Soon words and sentences were flying from the old machine - cheeky, irreverent, bold.

It was brazen of Roberts to start a satirical newspaper right on the front line, whose writers would be his men, soldiers who could not pronounce the name of the Belgian town they were in. (They called it 'Wipers'. ) Thus The Wipers Times was born. 'Has your boy a mechanical turn of mind?' ran a front-page headline of an early issue. 'Then buy him a Flammenwerfer.'

A century later, and BBC2 honchos have decided to make a 90-minute drama-documentary unearthing this overlooked nugget of first world war history. They were urged on by Private Eye editor Ian Hislop, who is the co-writer along with Nick Newman. The result is The Wipers Times (Wednesday), a film that tries to recapture the spirit of the newspaper and breathe life into its characters. The task was a tricky one - to give two-dimensional print a three-dimensional existence, to depict comedy alongside the tragedy from which it rose, and to juggle the intangible world of the paper with the intense physicality of war.

The programme deals with this successfully by recreating articles from The Wipers Times as vaudeville-style, Pythonesque sketches (Michael Palin is in the film, in his first major acting role in 20 years). These are interspersed with 'realistic' scenes of Roberts (Ben Chaplin) and his men fighting on the front line, or discussing copy for the paper.

The vaudeville parts, in black-and-white, convey the gallows humour of the publication - it's a music hall of mortality. 'Are you having trouble getting home?' a voiceover asks a soldier vainly trying to flag down a cab. It advises the soldier to look out for a new fleet of taxis, easy to spot because they have 'a red cross painted on each side'. It's a visual translation of one of the paper's ads.

Meanwhile. the realistic battlefront bits are tinged with humour. When Jack Pearson (Julian Rhind-Tutt), Roberts's fellow officer and sub-editor, warns him about going 'too far' with the war critique, Roberts replies:

'How can you accuse me of going too far when the entire 24th division has gone precisely ten yards in the past six months, and that was sideways? …

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