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?’
The Wipers Times is about drollery in the face of death, satire as a weapon of war. The 23 ‘numbers’ of the paper, produced from all over the Western Front, were a hit with soldiers, some of whom had a life expectancy of weeks. The film is also about the media. What, exactly, is journalism? Who is more accurate, a soldier penning a bit of parody from the trenches in between dodging bullets, or a writer tap-tapping out reams of descriptive reportage from his office? The film is bookended by a post-war Roberts looking for a job at a Fleet Street newspaper. Roberts hands the editor an old Wipers copy as part of his CV. ‘War is not funny,’ says the editor.
No, war is not funny. This was brought home by the mesmerising new series Peaky Blinders (BBC2, Thursdays). The programme, which gets its title from the nickname for the Shelby family, a gang that kept razors in the brims of their caps, brings 1919 Birmingham vividly to screen. The threats to society were many: poverty, illness, drugs, arms, Communism. The shadow of the Great War was long, and an ex-soldier is shown struggling with what we now know to be post-traumatic stress disorder.
War isn’t a joke. Yet comedy is as potent a response as any. (It’s definitely not a hindrance, as both Roberts and Pearson earned Military Crosses.) But apart from laughter as a coping mechanism, can humour actually help win a war? Perhaps it can. For where there is wit and satire, there is also intelligence, resilience, resourcefulness, defiance and the will to fight. Parody signals individualism.
The writers of The Wipers Times not only made fun of the Germans but of their own superiors too. Time and again, the paper faced censorship for questioning the war effort. But that itself is a sign of battle-readiness: the desire to own one’s self and one’s destiny. And caricature — the depiction of a funny moustache here, a characteristic turn of phrase there — promotes the self as opposed to faceless authoritarianism. Lampooning is the natural enemy of totalitarianism.
The Wipers Times brought a range of voices to the fore. A hundred years on they jump out at us — wry, sarcastic, fierce, angry, grief-stricken. The voices of living, breathing humans who went over the top.
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