TWO new BBC dramas, which couldn’t be further apart in style, share a common theme which will only become more prevalent as we head into the anniversary of 1914: the First World War and its aftermath.
The Wipers Times
Wednesday, BBC2, 9pm
Thursday, BBC2, 9pm
The Wipers Times, written by Private Eye’s Ian Hislop and Sunday Times cartoonist Nick Newman, is a jolly interesting (if over-long) account based on a true story about how a couple of officers kept up morale during horrendous trench warfare by running a satirical newspaper which kept up the fine British traditions of mocking the top brass and making daft jokes.
Peaky Blinders, however, is shot like a western and is about a real Birmingham gang of 1919 (named for the razor blades sewn into their caps as weapons), where most of the men around have returned from four grim years of war to find themselves still fighting for survival.
Yet, oddly, they both also share a cameo, apparently based on fact in both cases, from Winston Churchill, who (as an army commander) pops by to share a quip in The Wipers Times and (as Minister of Munitions) orders the gang investigated in Peaky Blinders. Churchill certainly got about, didn’t he? Plus these cameos help fulfil a recently instigated Equity rule that every middle-aged, portly character actor should get one shot at playing him (brought in after an unfortunate incident when Robert Hardy was almost lynched for hogging the role).
The original gags from The Wipers Times are acted out with touches of music hall and revue by its stars, Ben Chaplin as editor Captain Roberts and Julian Rhind-Tutt as sub-editor Lieutenant Pearson (both won bravery medals as well as keeping people entertained). The sketches are not, perhaps, rib-ticklers now – you really had to be there – but you can see how they worked for their intended audience, though not for senior officers like the moany colonel who fulminates: “The battlefield is not the place for humour!”
Post-war, they found themselves and their humour unwanted contradictions to the official story. But now, when for most Blackadder Goes Forth is the standard representation of that war, we can appreciate a rounder view.
And so, to another hidden part of history, Peaky Blinders, which will inevitably be dubbed the British Boardwalk Empire, but could equally be described as Top Boy circa 1919, as its gang sport distinctive hairstyles, have their own slang and are caught up entirely in their own extra-legal world. Cillian Murphy plays returned war veteran Thomas – drug-addicted, clever and ruthless when required – who is the main threat behind his gangster family.
Not all the cast manage the Birmingham accent perfectly (though Sam Neill does a creditable Northern Irish, as the hardened policeman sent in to sort them out) and some performances are sheer ripe ham, particularly Neill and Helen McCrory as the gang’s matriarch, but what will draw people to this ambitious series is its style: cinematic, big budget-looking, with thumping modern music which announces its disinterest in polite costume drama history. It’s a trip.