War is the spark for some of the best love stories, and true-life drama The Wipers Times (Wednesday BBC2; iPlayer) was one to cherish. Ben Chaplin and Julian Rhind-Tutt played Captain Fred Roberts and Lieutenant Jack Pearson, front-line soldiers who produced a satirical magazine about the disgusting absurdity of the First World War, using a printing press rescued from the carnage.
Fred and Jack were bound together by a special love most people will never know: the one between two men who have realised their senses of humour are a perfect fit, and that the thing they prize above all is to make each other laugh. An exclusive language of glances, running jokes and a certain tone of voice are usually a defence against the daily annoyances of life or the workplace, but the principle was the same as Fred and Jack lived through one of the horrors of the century.
From the moment one of Fred's men, a printer by trade, found the press and explained what it could do – writers Ian Hislop and Nick Newman allowed him a lengthy appreciation of the elegant mechanism, in a shameless hymn to the old-fashioned printed word – Chaplin was glinting with mischief, unerring in his portrayal of someone who, once the game is afoot, lets nothing interfere with the important business of a jape. He and Rhind-Tutt, enjoying the sort of on-screen chemistry that starts myths, pinged screwball lines at each other (“How's your shorthand?” “Non-existent.” “Good - get this down”) as the ideas flowed.
It was Fred and Jack against the odds, against the establishment, against “Fritz” - the Germans always treated merely as annoying neighbours with atrocious manners. Hislop & Newman, and Chaplin & Rhind-Tutt, captured the feeling of a gang who think everyone else in the world is an idiot. People in print media think that about all rival publications, hence Private Eye editor Hislop including a line where Fred said his mag would be like Punch “but with jokes”, and a series of jabs at the Daily Mail and its version of truth. Here was a satirical thrust beyond the Great War: journalists who have not left their cosy offices and fundamentally do not know what they are talking about, agitating for war and then insisting it has been worthwhile, were especially pernicious in 1914-18 but are still with us today. Fred and Jack's gags cut straight through them.
The Wipers Times – the programme named after the real magazine, “Wipers” having been army slang for Ypres – found a neat way to portray the partnership's comic material. We regularly cut to an imaginary music hall where items were performed in stark, grotesquely upbeat, almost Weimar cabaret style. Perhaps a cue was taken from Holy Flying Circus, a close cousin in its use of fantasy to help sustain a drama that made a point about being free to make fun of sacred things, but which hardly had any narrative arc.
Another link was the purely joyous casting of the general who gave Fred his orders, and who recognised the value of his insubordination. Michael Palin, sporting a stick-on Melchett moustache that deserves its own Bafta, serenely coped with some heavy-handed scenes in which he explained to Ben Daniels' cartoonishly uptight Lieutenant-Colonel why the smash-hit mag was unstoppable and inevitable. "The war is not funny, Sir!" "I rather think the authors are aware of that. I have a feeling that may be the point."
Palin's trendy old buffer turned out not to be such a good guy, since despite his whisky and knowing chuckles he was personally sending Fred and his men to almost certain death. Chaplin's performance nudged towards greatness when we saw the fear and sadness Fred's jokes were concealing – this pretence being the entire point, always there unspoken between him and Jack. When the general posted him to the Somme for a second tour, Fred's whisky tumbler trembled, for just half a moment.
The First World War was a pointless hell, a colossal sick joke: this drama expressed that view, which virtually nobody now disagrees with, and did it at times as subtly as a shell with a note attached. But the story was how Fred and Jack won, turning their darkest hour into their finest. A beautifully judged scene in which they learnt the Germans had surrendered was bittersweet, disappointment tainting the relief. And the sequences with Emilia Fox as Mrs Roberts were flat, the script suddenly making Chaplin spout clunky pap about “the flower of British manhood being hurled to a squalid death”. Fred would rather have been with Jack, taking alternate lines of terrible improvised limericks.
A glorious coda saw Fred, post-war, pitching for a job at the Mail, but then silently walking out of the stuffy features editor's office as he realised that a journalism career would not bring any greater triumph than he and Jack enjoyed with Wipers. Nothing, but nothing, is more important than a good laugh shared.