At the front: The Wipers Times

Nick Newman writes:

“It’ll all be over by Christmas,” I joked, as we all shook hands with the general staff at BBC Two and agreed to produce a scripted, filmed and edited version of our World War One comedy-drama The Wipers Times before the end of 2012.

It’s now September 2013 – Christmas has come and gone – and we are in the midst of publicising our  recreation of the trenches filmed  over two months at the stately home Ballywalter Park, near Belfast.  Bombs exploded, ricochets whined, and actors began to comprehend what life in the trenches was really like. “We get the picture,” said Julian Rhind-Tutt (of Green Wing and The Hour fame).  “We’ve been in the trenches for seven days and we understand … the horrors.”

The Wipers Times story has been almost 100 years in the making. My  co-writer Ian Hislop came across it some ten years ago while working on a documentary for Radio 4. It’s the story of a humorous newspaper  produced amidst the chaos of the trenches by a group of soldiers who had found a printing press in the ruins of Ypres (translated by military slang into Wipers).

Amazingly, their Captain, Fred Roberts, decided to produce not a journal of record, but a journal of jokes, with no experience at all. It was, by turns, subversive, mawkish, groaningly punny – and incredibly funny. It was this printed lampoon of the Great War, written under fire, that we have attempted to celebrate on the screen.

As a cartoonist, I’ve always enjoyed turning gags into sketches for TV – which I’ve done for numerous shows from Spitting Image to Harry Enfield and beyond. A good cartoon is, I think, a perfectly formed sketch (forgive the pun). Extend the sketch and you have a scene. Extend the scene and you have an act. Add a splash of character and you have a play.

So writing Wipers was, for me, a process of linking gags, sketches, and scenes into a comprehensible – and true – screenplay. We were helped by the original text, which is wonderful, the authentic voice of troops on the Front Line. Wherever possible we tried to use the authors’ own words rather than our own – so full credit should go to Captain Fred Roberts and Lt Jack Pearson, his sub-editor. Some of their jokes (and many of ours) are terrible. But that’s not the point. The point is that they were making jokes at all, as opposed to staring wistfully into space and writing  poetry, as most World War One dramas would have you believe (though to be fair,  there is quite a lot of poetry in Wipers).

The Wipers Times_and_Bruce Bairnsfather from Fragments from France @
Bruce Bairnsfather from Fragments from France @

Research took us to Flanders, still a fractured landscape where farmers are regularly blown up by unexploded bombs, and France where the Somme glides through Amiens with a tranquility it’s hard to equate with events of a century ago.

On the way we picked up some exciting new primary source material – memoirs of Roberts and Pearson ( both of which we’ve included in our film). And we’ve encountered some strange coincidences: J.H. Pearson, played by Julian Rhind-Tutt, was in fact the brother of the Edwardian actor Edward Hesketh Pearson, who had an affair with Kitty Muggeridge, wife of Malcolm Muggeridge who was played by Julian Rhind-Tutt in a BBC film about P.G. Wodehouse … and filmed in exactly the same locations as Wipers.

So here we are in September, with shooting (real and imaginary) over.  In the editing suite the whizz-bangs and gas-gongs have whizzed, banged and chimed. I have seen the great Michael Palin deliver my lines – so shall die happy – been bought a drink by Emilia Fox (likewise), swapped cricket nerdery with our star Ben Chaplin  and marvelled at the skill and enthusiasm of our Belfast crew.

And it really WILL all be over by Christmas. But, as happened in the Great War, not the Christmas we were expecting.

Ed adds: Thanks, Nick. The broadcast is scheduled for this time on BBC Two. Watch it on IPlayer here.

And if you are interested in the cartoonist Bruce Bairnsfather, creator of “Old Bill” and who sneaked into the middle of Nick’s story, you can download a full copy of Fragments from France from  Project Gutenberg.

There’s a bit more about the show over at History Extra and both Nick and his co-writer Ian Hislop were interviewed on BBC Front Row.

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