Satire thrives in horrible situations, especially those situations overseen by the corrupt and the incompetent. It’s not surprising then that WWI soldiers started their own satirical newspaper, mocking the fools who lead them and providing comfort from jokes about the conditions in the trenches. The Wipers Times focused on the two driving forces behind this satirical newspaper of the same name. The film was written by Nick Newman and Ian Hislop, two modern day satirists the latter of whom edits Private Eye magazine.
The film followed the soldiers as they marched pointlessly across France, printing their newspaper as they went, winding-up the high command and vocalising the complaints and frustrations of their fellow soldiers. It was bookended by a nice scene of The Wipers’ editor Fred Roberts applying for a newspaper job after the war, and being treated disdainfully by the paper’s editor, who was unable to comprehend the realities of WWI or the impressive nature of what Roberts had managed with his form of journalism.
In an effort to convey the character of the newspaper, the film contained little sketches throughout, taken direct from the pages of the actual newspaper. ‘We had to make up very little,’ Ian Hislop told the Radio Times, ‘Nick Newman and I are happy to admit that not only the jokes but much of the dialogue is taken from the pages of The Wipers Times.’
Unfortunately, most of these sketches didn’t really work. They might have been funny to the actual soldiers at the time immersed in the conflict, and funny to the two writers of the film – satirists both – interested in the history of that form of humour, but in a television drama they fell flat. The humour of the newspaper came across much better when simply stated by the characters as dialogue. For example, Roberts reading out a letter to the editor suggesting that those who joined the army first should be last out because they were the most enthusiastic, while those who joined up last should be first out because they were the most reluctant to be involved.
Dialogue throughout was funny and sharp, without seeming forced, with Roberts and his deputy editor Jack Pearson both being enjoyable to watch. Most of the characters though were very clichéd; the witty upper class officers, the gruff but competent sergeant, the callow youths, and the rigid and pompous superior officer.
The film was filled with criticism of the war itself, with the soldiers making their way from Ypres through France and back to Ypres again, having achieved precisely fuck all along the way. It managed to avoid illustrating a happy, Stephen Spielberg version of reality, with the newspaper shown to have thrived specifically because it was an antidote to the horrors the soldiers faced around them. Roberts likewise was shown as a man using humour to fight the temptation to collapse in the face of how pointlessly awful things were. ‘War is not funny,’ a pompous officer said at one point. ‘I feel the authors are aware of that,’ another replied.
The film ended were it started, with Roberts applying for a newspaper job. It’s all very funny the editor said about the copy of The Wipers Times Roberts handed him, but not proper journalism. Roberts disagreed, walking out of the interview. Hislop’s Private Eye practices a type of journalism similar to Roberts’. Both, I imagine, believe that satire – jokes and easily dismissed humour – can often be more truthful than regular journalism, illustrating through exaggeration and mockery how absurd and idiotic many supposedly serious things, war amongst them, can be. The Wipers Times wasn’t excellent, but it was an enjoyable little story worth telling.
- The world in the film was a little idealised at times, with Roberts having a piano in his trench bunker, and Winston Churchill showing up at one point – although Ian Hislop says that actually happened.
- Another problem with the sketches was that a lot of the jokes had to be spelled out because a modern audience wouldn’t get them. So a line about a venue’s doors being ‘always open’ was accompanied by archive footage of a bombed out building.
- ‘Modern wars are all about flexibility. Take the cavalry; now they are riding tanks.’
- There were some notes of nationalism in the film that I’m not sure were appropriate for a drama about WWI, a conflict in which ordinary people of many nationalities were sent to their deaths by dickish elites of many nationalities. I could have done without the stuff comparing ‘good’ British humour with the German’s hymn of hate.