Telling jokes in the trenches: First World War newspaper The Wipers Times celebrated in new BBC drama

A new TV drama about the famous First World War trench newspaper The Wipers Times will tonight premiere on BBC Two.

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A new TV drama about the famous First World War trench newspaper The Wipers Times will tonight premiere on BBC Two.

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Penned by Nick Newman and Ian Hislop, and starring the likes of Michael Palin and Ben Chaplin, the 90-minute satirical comedy is set to prove hugely popular.

Set in the bombed-out ruins of Ypres in 1916, The Wipers Times follows the true story of Captain Fred Roberts and Lieutenant Jack Pearson who, after discovering a printing press, produced a humorous and subversive trench newspaper.

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An instant hit with soldiers, the newspaper became known for its candid portrayal of life on the frontline.

We spoke to co-writer Nick Newman to find out what made The Wipers Times newspaper so special, and to ask how he and Ian Hislop brought its story of courage and laughter to television screens.

Q: We’ve just watched the programme and we think it’s brilliant! Tell us, how did you come to work on this project?

A: Ian Hislop did a Radio 4 documentary on The Wipers Times 10 years ago. We have been long-standing writing partners, working together on Spitting Image and Harry Enfield and Chums, and writing for Dawn French.

He asked if I had heard of The Wipers Times and showed me a copy, and we instantly thought ‘this is more than just a documentary’. The actual story about how Roberts and Pearson put it together is really interesting.

The unique thing about the paper was it was very funny in its own right. They were somehow able to conjure laughter out of misery.

Q: How did you go about balancing satire and gallows humour with sensitivity for the fact the programme is set during a war?

A: We basically used their own words. If they were prepared to make jokes about whether it’s suitable to shoot a superior officer, then we feel we can too. We just put their own words into the characters.

The Wipers Times was an extraordinary mix of terrible jokes and brilliant jokes, terrible poetry and great poetry – it’s full of different styles, and some of it is just from the heart.

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If we can capture all of that as well as the soldiers’ respect for the allies, if we can capture both sides, then we can make jokes without seeming disrespectful.

They managed to get away with it, and I think we have too.

The jokes they made were not always the best in the world, but the fact they were making them shows remarkable spirit. This was one of our starting points.

And their story sort of reminded us of our working relationship. I would not dare to compare us to them because they were war heroes, what they did was amazing, but it was interesting to write about the work we do as writers.

Q: There were many other trench publications at the time. What made The Wipers Times stand out?

A: Well it was more satirical than, say, Punch was. Punch was very gung-ho and rallied around the war. But the boys on the front line were making jokes and being objective, without being disloyal.

Ian and I share a satirical view of the world, which echoes what Pearson and Roberts were up to.

They railed against inaccuracies in the press. This is a far more truthful portrait of how the war was being fought.

Q: With such a wealth of material available, how did you choose what to include in your programme?

A: We tried to go for the things that amused us most. Roberts and Pearson generated a lot of stuff, and all you can do is read it all very carefully and go for elements that will be of interest to viewers.

In the process of writing we uncovered a lot more material, which has gone into the film. We managed to track down members of their families.

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For example, Pearson set up a ‘pub’, the Foresters Arms, and gave away lots of beers to soldiers. The High Command went ballistic, but a petition was drawn up by the divisional chaplaincies to keep it open and it succeeded.

These are fantastic little stories, and you cannot believe they were taking place on the front line. That element is so amazing, and then to top it they managed to get proper jokes out.

But Roberts and Pearson were not really recognised. The Wipers Times became very popular very quickly, but they died in relative obscurity. There were no obituaries.

So it’s terrific to be able to honour them in this way.

Q: How closely have you stuck to the sources? Would you say the programme is an accurate representation of events?

A: It’s a true story, and their words and sentiments are all their own. We have just brought it to life.

They did write satirical pieces about William Beach Thomas, the Daily Mail war correspondent, and they did lampoon Hilaire Belloc.

But there are certain bits we have simplified. For example, Roberts says in his memoir, given to us by his family, that he discovered the printing press while Ypres was under fire. But Pearson said it was during a quiet period when they were loafing around.

Their memories may have been playing tricks with them.

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And one element was surmised – the general staff’s reaction to the paper. But this is based on a tribute paid in The Wipers Times to General Mitford – they say, “thanks for your support”, from which we can deduce there were officers who did not approve.

We have as much as possible tried to stick to all the facts that we can glean. As much as we could possibly do is in their own words.

You have no real idea of what these people were like, but for example we spoke to Roberts’s great-niece who said he was a larger-than-life character.

He was a gambler, which we have included in the programme. If he won a hand of cards he took the whole family to the Savoy for lunch, but the next week would have to sell his car.

And we were very lucky to get a 10-page memoir from Pearson, given to us by his granddaughter.

You read this original source material with trepidation, fearing that it will debunk everything you thought. But it had exactly the same tone as The Wipers Times, so it all comes together.

They describe horrific things in a playing-it-down sort of way. It’s genius.

Q: What do you make of historical dramas which, unlike The Wipers Times, don’t stick to the facts?

A: I love historical dramas – fictional history can be just as inspiring as factual. We were lucky in that we had a true story, and we had quite a lot of detail.

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The more research we did the more we could flesh out things you don’t think people would have realised went on during World War One.

This was a completely different take on the First World War, from virtually everything we have seen. Dramatisations on the whole deal with the tragic loss of life and the personal story of tragedy – unremitting gloom.

But there was another side to that story, and The Wipers Times is that side.

Q: So do you think the programme will redress historical inaccuracies presented in other TV programmes?

A: Well from the soldiers’ point of view it was not ‘lions being led by donkeys’, there were officers trying to do their best and who believed in the war.

Some programmes have caricatured it was brave Tommies being led by public school twits, but that’s not always the case. 

But our programme will not ‘right wrongs’, as it were. It’s about the human spirit triumphing in the face of adversity. And trench newspapers continue to this day.

In terrible circumstances people are always trying to have a laugh.

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What made The Wipers Times stand out was the quality of the material. I should imagine these were the standing jokes of the time.

For example, you have the joke about Bobbing Bobby, an aide to the general. You can see this man just nodding his head. At the time everyone probably had that view of certain characters, and I think they were putting that into words.

And then you have the poem ‘Me and my rat’, and the rat manages to open a can of sardines. Obviously it’s atrocious to have your trench infested with rats, but this is their take on it.

The Wipers Times probably reflected the sort of jokes that must have been around – they have condensed it down, and we are very grateful for that.

Q: The First World War centenary is not until next year. So why is The Wipers Times airing now?

A: We wrote it thinking it wasn’t going to be made, so we started working on a play version. But we were about a third of the way into it when BBC Two said they really liked it, and wanted to commission it.

The head of History said it should come out to pre-empt the big fluster of programmes that will come out next year.

There’ll be a lot of serious documentaries, so this is a nice taster. The Wipers Times would have got lost in the more serious documentaries.

But we’ve been working on it for 10 years. Five years ago we took it to our producer friend David Parfitt, who won an Oscar for Shakespeare in Love, and showed it to him.

He said people were, at that time, not particularly interested in the war. And then War Horse came out, which David said would probably have covered the First World War for a while.

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And two years ago when David produced Parade’s End, he acknowledged he was probably wrong about people’s interest in the First World War!

Our programme was commissioned last year and was due to air at Christmas, but we then received a bit more time because David secured more money.

That was contingent on turning the programme into a 90-minute film. So it went from a one-hour, dense piece of work, to something with more breathing room. It feels more like a film.

We shot the film over four weeks in Belfast, and finished in March. It was a great experience, and to get a cast that includes Michael Palin, Ben Chaplin and Emilia Fox was just the cherry on the cake.

The team asked us “who, if you could get anyone, would you want?” and we said “Michael Palin”. They replied “well, you never know”, and sent the script off to him.

Three hours later we got a call back to say “yes”.

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The Wipers Times premieres on Wednesday 11 September on BBC Two at 9pm.