…Or Blackadder Goes to Press, as it could be subtitled, as it certainly evokes the spirit of the fantastic World War 1 sitcom. The Wipers Times tells the story of Captain Fred Roberts and his band of brothers who found a printing press in Ypres (or ‘Wipers’ as the British soldiers call it), and decided to start publishing a satirical newspaper, the Wipers Times, for sale to soldiers and civvies alike throughout the war. In between dodging doodlebugs from the Bosch, Roberts and his men face different threats from the top brass Generals and the Temperance society they lampoon in their pages.
Written by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, Hislop’s voice is resonant throughout. James Dutton (playing Roberts) could be doing an impression of him, and anyone who enjoys Have I Got News for You will enjoy this. There are even several well placed swipes at the Daily Mail.
It’s an ensemble piece, and the only other actor that does not multi-role is George Kemp who plays Roberts’ lieutenant and sub-editor Pearson, and it’s fair to say, he gets all the best lines. The action often switches to two ‘brass hat’ generals, Howfield, (Sam Ducane) and the Melchett like Mitford, (Dan Mersh). Howfield thinks the publication is detrimental to the war effort, and that war should not be funny, but Mitford sees the value in keeping the men’s morale up and overrides him, which I guess must have happened, to keep it afloat.
There is a scene in which Howfield visits the trenches in order to shut the press down, ripped straight out of Life of Bryan, but very well executed.
Besides two actresses performing several small roles (as you would expect in a war play), the rest of the cast make up Robert’s rag-tag battalion, who both run the print room, and fight the jerries. They do lots of scene shifting and singing, and act out the mock adverts and articles taken from the actual paper, but are never really given enough time to breathe into their characters. So much so that when is lost in the Battle of the Somme, it takes a while to work out which one has perished.
The whimsy is punctured intermittently by the horrors of war, with gas attacks and going over the top, which in particular is delivered with poignancy. A reminder for Howfield and all that war isn’t funny.
At two and a half hours long, the story does feel a little dragged out, but it’s a story definitely worth telling, and it’s a fitting legacy for Roberts.
The Wipers Times is touring nationwide.