The Wipers Times Review

Something that I’m constantly surprised at with historical films and TV shows is how few of them focus on World War 1, at least compared to the hundreds that focus on World War 2, along with the fact that the best media interpretations of World War 1 are comedies (the best being Blackadder Goes Forth). Last week, the BBC drama The Wipers Times was released, a look at the satirical newspaper of the same name written by the soldiers in the trenches, the forerunner of websites like The Onion and newspapers like Private Eye, so it’s no surprise to learn that Nick Newman, cartoonist for Private Eye, and Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye and panelist on Have I Got News For You, wrote it and their affection for this paper and its writers is clear throughout.
The plot concerns Roberts and Pierson, two soldiers stationed in Ypres who find a printing press whilst scavenging for equipment to reinforce the trenches. They decide to use the press to make a satirical newspaper about the war, mainly making fun of the senior staff and the journalists back home who have no idea on what’s actually happening in the war. This earns them the ire of the senior staff save for one commander who gets the whole joke behind the paper, that the war itself isn’t funny. Whilst all of this can seem like a lost episode of Blackadder Goes Forth, it’s all true, right down to the recreation of the Wipers Times papers, named after the British soldiers pronunciation of Ypres, and a lot of events surrounding the men being true, such as spending 18 months going from battlefield to battlefield before ending up back at Ypres, a Michelin Guide surveyor doing some stuff on Ypres and Pierson opening a pub and getting the chaplains to keep the pub open. What helps with this is that, despite the farcical tone, there are a lot of serious moments such as when the soldiers are sent to both Battles of the Somme and when Roberts comes back home and he can’t stop talking and drinking when in a restaurant with his wife, along with not being able to get to sleep because it’s too quiet and the difficulty Roberts has in going back into newspapers when he returns, forming the framing narrative for the show. That said, the show is incredibly funny as well. The acting out of the Wipers Times articles and advertisements are done really well and are funny throughout and there are a lot of moments where you can tell that Ian Hislop wrote it, mainly in the constant takedowns of the Daily Mail, with arguments that can be applied to the Daily Mail today without any changes.  

The performances in the film are also excellent. Ben Chaplin and Julian Rhind-Tutt are brilliant as Roberts and Pierson, their cynicism over the war and their sense of humour in the dangerous environment of the trenches is excellent but Chaplin is easily the standout. He gets all the dramatic scenes in the show, mainly in the scenes at home and he gets all the best lines (although Rhind-Tutt gets a lot of great lines as well), although the show is best when Chaplin and Rhind-Tutt are both on screen as they have a brilliant chemistry with each other. There are also great supporting performances from Steve Oram (although I didn’t recognise him at first without his beard from Sightseers and The World’s End), Josh O’Connor, Hugh Skinner, Emilia Fox and Ben Daniels. The supporting star of note though is Michael Palin as General Mitford, the only general to get the paper. He’s really funny, has a great presence and a great moustache throughout the film and works really well with Ben Daniels and Ben Chaplin.
Overall, The Wipers Times is a great TV drama. The affection that Ian Hislop and Nick Newman have towards Roberts, Pierson and all the people involved in The Wipers Times is apparent throughout the show and this, along with the performances, does a great job of illustrating a part of the war people aren’t familiar with.
My Rating: 5/5
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