The Private Eye of the First World War

Hislop's BBC film to star Michael Palin

Michael Palin is to star in a BBC Two film about a First World War ‘forerunner’ to Private Eye, written by the magazine’s editor Ian Hislop.

The Have I Got News For You captain has written The Wipers Times with his frequent collaborator Nick Newman. It is based on the true story of Captain Fred Roberts who found a printing press in the ruins of Ypres, Belgium, in 1916 and published articles lampooning the fighting, with cartoons, poetry, inter-dugout gossip and even spoof real estate ads for No Man’s Land.

The Thin Red Line actor Ben Chaplin will play Cpt Roberts, of the 12th Battalion Sherwood Forresters, who put together the magazine despite enemy fire and the condemnation of his superiors. ‘Wipers’ was army slang for Ypres.

Palin co-stars as General Mitford, a supporter of the paper, who recognised its worth to morale, with Ben Daniels playing his deputy, Lieutenant-Colonel Howfield, a composite character of the high command who wanted Roberts court-martialled.

Green Wing’s Julian Rhind-Tutt plays another captain, Roberts’ sidekick, while Sightseers star Steve Oram is Sergeant Harris, a printer by trade who co-ordinates the paper’s production. Emilia Fox plays Roberts’ wife Kate.

Shooting of scenes set in Ypres and at the Somme have begun on location at Ballywalter Park Estate in County Down, and filming will take place across Northern Ireland over the next few weeks.

The 90-minute film is being made by Trademark Films, which also produced Shakespeare In Love, The Madness of King George and last year adapted the World War I-set novels Parade’s End for BBC Two. It will be directed by Andy de Emmony and produced by David Parfitt.

No transmission date has been set but a spokesperson for Trademark said there ‘was a possibility’ it will go out next year as part of the BBC’s centenary programming about World War One, but added: ‘I think the idea is to transmit it this year.’

The publicist added: ‘A lot has been taken from the actual papers themselves, the narrative is interspersed with sketches illustrating the jokes and stories. Cocking a snook at the senior staff was one of its main aims. Roberts wanted to boost morale at the front line with a bit of light relief. When it got there it was always very welcome as a respite from their horrendous situation.’

Published at irregular intervals between early February 1916 and February 1918, The Wipers Times’ actually changed title each time the Sherwood Forresters moved to another part of the line, becoming The Kemmel Times and The Somme Times in turn.

The cover of each issue was comprised of mock adverts for war-related music-hall extravaganzas and like Private Eye, the paper used pseudonyms for correspondents and euphemisms such as P.B.I. for ‘Poor Bloody Infantry’. Two issues of The Better Times were published after the war, the second billed as the ‘Xmas, Peace and Final Number.’

Hislop, who wrote for Dawn French’s Murder Most Horrid and children’s sitcom My Dad’s The Prime Minister with Newman, is a keen historian who has made several television documentaries about the First World War. He travelled to Australia to meet Roberts’ family for the film, who handed him artefacts left them after he died in Canada in 1964, having attained the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.

Hislop also made a short documentary, Are We As Offensive As We Might Be, about The Wipers Times for Radio 4 in 2004, and wrote a foreword for a collected edition of the magazine published in 2006, calling it an ‘extraordinary mix of sarcasm, black humour and sentimental poetry’ which ‘make it a unique record of the period’.

He added: ‘It is quite literally laughing in the face of death, with jokes about flamethrowers and gas attacks from the troops who were facing them. It is also very rude about senior officers, the home front and the organisation of the war. It is Blackadder for real and an obvious forerunner of magazines like Private Eye.

‘Are We As Offensive As We Might Be? … was a question which staff officers from headquarters used to ask troops in the front line when they thought that they were insufficiently keen to go over the top and attack the Germans. It became a sort of catchphrase for the writers of the magazine …

‘I thought that this was very British - as was the fact that the editor, a very talented man called Captain Fred Roberts, was working on the copy for an edition of the magazine called The Somme Times during the Battle of the Somme. He was correcting proofs in the trench and yet he went on to win the Military Cross for bravery in that very battle. That’s an editor who commands respect.’

Hislop’s Private Eye predecessor Richard Ingrams recently called on him to stand down as editor as, after 26 years, he had been in the job too long.

- by Jay Richardson

Published: 6 Mar 2013

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