This is your first serious role in more than 20 years. Did you take some persuading?
I’m always acting in some shape or form but it’s the first one I’ve been paid for! I was a little nervous. In Monty Python we were always playing officers and generals so I thought back to those days. But it sounded a great idea and I accepted the same day – I don’t think I even saw the script.
So what convinced you?
I was drawn to it because Nick Newman and Ian Hislop do very good work. Not only with Private Eye – which I read regularly – but also Ian has done a number of documentaries where often I think, “I’d love to have done that”. He understands the balance between presenting something entertainingly and not losing the serious point behind it all.
Had you heard of The Wipers Times?
No, and that’s another thing that attracted me. I had a great-uncle who died at the Somme, and I’ve always been interested in how and why the First World War happened, and why something quite so colossally destructive should have been allowed to continue as long as it did.
It’s not a subject that lends itself to jokes...
Yes, it’s different to what I expected. It’s very bittersweet. It doesn’t dodge the realities of the war and the killing and suffering. But it does show comedy springs from the most awful experiences. It’s just the way some people have of dealing with something that is so incomprehensible.
You’ve got to laugh at it. I think of Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers and The Goon Show, which I used to listen to as a kid and really thought was terrific. A lot of that humour was born out of experiences in the Second World War, which were pretty horrendous, but they had to have a way of dealing with it.
In reality few of the First World War generals saw the funny side of the publication.
We see that in life. I’ve many times come across people who have apparently no sense of humour at all and they’re the ones who very often take the worst decisions; whereas the people with a sense of humour at least have a wider range of understanding. They understand – as the general I play did – that they’re all in it together and they don’t always make the right decision, and life at times can seem ludicrous and absurd. And that’s what The Wipers Times was about.
What do you hope viewers will take from this?
I think it will open another window on people’s understanding and feelings about the First World War. The idea of there being a subversive satirical magazine is something I think will be quite a surprise for most people. And the fact that there was a British general at the very highest level who supported the magazine even though it was critical of his own side says something about an element of Britishness: fair play and free speech are important even in the darkest times of war.
To commemorate the centenary of the First World War next year, the BBC is planning lots of documentaries and dramas. Should there be comedy, too?
I think the commemorations will continue to reveal writings, letters, all sorts of materials from the war, which will bear out the fact that there are certain things that were still important – and laughter and comedy and even playing practical jokes in the middle of a war were important to people. Comedy was very much a part of how people dealt with something horrible.
Will we have to wait another 20 years for your next role?
I never say no to anything because I’m freelance, so what I do next is entirely up to me. Acting can be very attractive but so can writing... I just don’t know. It is highly enjoyable: acting with a good cast and a good script. There’s nothing better.
See The Wipers Times, tonight at 9pm on BBC2