At the front: The Wipers Times

September 6, 2013 in Comment, General, News

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 @ procartoonists.org

Bruce Bairnsfather from Fragments from France @ Procartoonists.org

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.

9 responses to At the front: The Wipers Times

  1. Thanks Nick for the insight into the making of ‘The Wpers Tmes’ – very interesting. Looking forward ery much to watching the programme this week. Thanks too for giving Bruce Bairnsfather a mention (and the link to my BB website). I’ve spent more tan 30 years researching Bairnsfather and his career and am very keen to raise awareness of his major oontribution to WW1. He was after all credited as ‘The man who made the Empire laugh in its darkest hours.” Would be interested to talk to you about a couple of BB projects I am working on.

  2. Yes thanks Nick. I’ve always been fascinated by WW1 .Drove through the French and Belgian battlefields a few years ago. Stayed a couple of nights in Ypres. During the trip, it stopped being just fascinating and became intensely moving.

  3. Haven’t had that experience yet but, I did read a lot of narratives from survivors. A historian called Lyn Macdonald compiled some brilliant reportage about the time.

  4. I’ve read her “Voices” book.

    The experience is worth having Matt. We didn’t join a guided tour. Just had a French/Belgian road map. Driving through towns and villages with names which loom large in histories of the period, but which look really quite ordinary now is strange. The cemetaries aren’t easy to take.. On the inside surface of the main arch of the Lutyens designed memorial at Thiepval is a small plaque saying that the memorial was opened in 1932. Less than ten years later, German aircraft quite possibly flew over it on their way to bomb the UK.

  5. Yup, I will do the trip one of these years. Noting your last point and we all passed it again  when the EC/EU got built.

  6. Dear Nick, Ian, David, Andy and all at The Wipers Times As your hosts at Ballywalter Park and bespoke providers of hotel, HQ, bunkers, trenches and even bedroom [!] scenes, our heartfelt thanks for this lovely and spirited preview of The Wipers Times.Your time with us was a real pleasure and we had so much fun and enjoyment working with you and seeing how you could make this wonderful production.It would be truly lovely if there was a part II or even a series but that, we think is wishful thinking.We hope that this film will win loads of awards together with five star reviews – it deserves to….With best wishes & loveVibse & Brian

  7. Well done that man Newham…Newnham…whatever the damn fellow’s called. Something to cheer the troops. We’re all in this together y’know. 

  8. I liked the ‘PUNCH with jokes’ reference. 

  9. Thanks to all for the amazingly generous reaction we’ve had to the Wipers Times – a testament to the enduring quality of their jokes and writing. I would urge everyone to make the trip to Ypres  – you can’t begin to understand what they went through until you see those cemeteries. It’s moving and inspiring by equal measure. And thanks too to Brian and Vibse Dunleath – who provided almost all the sets, along with huge amounts of support and good cheer – making it the most pleasurable filming experience any of the crew could remember.
    Nick N

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