Some of you may have seen Battle Picture Weekly comic strip “Charley’s War” co-creator Pat Mills mention the 1980s BBC drama The Monocled Mutineer in interviews. Given its lack of much re-screening, you may be wondering what it was about, and, indeed, wondering why, just like Pat, why it hasn’t been re-screened. Or, for that matter, why, as yet, it is not included as part of the current offering from streaming service Britbox.
First broadcast in 1986, with much promotion, including a Radio Times cover feature, The Monocled Mutineer is a historical drama, set in and around World War One. It starred Paul McGann as Percy Toplis and, in the second half of the run, Cherie Lunghi as Dorothy. Its nature caused something of a furore at the time that led to senior BBC staff departures, which may in part be why it’s rarely re-screened in the UK.
The drama, last released on DVD in 2007, is an adaptation by Alan “Boys from the Blackstuff” Bleasdale of the eponymous book by William Alison and John Fairly about the 1917 Etaples Mutiny, the only ‘famous’ incidence of mutiny in the British Army in that conflict.
Over one hundred years on, the uprising at the infamous training camp next to the fishing port of Etaples on the northern French coast, just south of Boulogne, remains the subject of censorship and speculation over what really went on.
Battle comic readers will know Pat and artist Joe Colquhoun delivered their own account of the Etaples Mutiny in the seminal strip for Battle Picture Weekly , “Charley’s War”, the story collected most recently in English by Rebellion, as a three-volume series.
That the BBC’s The Monocled Mutineer has effectively been ‘buried’ lends weight to the view by some that the Mutiny that forms part of a narrative still considered at the very least, contentious, and at worst, an event that even now, over 100 years hence, might encourage dissent.
Whether this is true or not – and Pat has often argued the former, with convictions and evidence – the ‘burying’ of the drama may also, it would seem, be down to some embarrassment on the part of the BBC, caught out by its own hype for the show on original transmission, at a time when it was under much attack for alleged left wing bias.
In its own History of the BBC web feature series, the BBC itself notes that the row over the authenticity of the story overshadowed the drama itself, which developed after Julian Putkowski, a college lecturer, broadcaster and writer with an established interest in military discipline and dissent in the British Army, and the historical consultant on the programme, said it was full of errors and that there was no proof Toplis was ever involved with the mutiny.
In response, Alan Bleasdale said “I have said from the word go that my piece is a work of fiction”, while Bill Cotton, Managing Director of Television, said The Monocled Mutineer illuminated “the greater truth about World War One”. This last view was shared by many viewers, who praised Paul McGann’s outstanding performance as Toplis, but the fallout from the furore contributed to the early departure of BBC Director General Alasdair Milne the following year.
In his recently-initiated episode-by-episode guide to the series, author Martin Crookall notes: “The series came out at the height of Thatcher and Thatcherism. The Falklands War, striking a new vein of mindless pariotism, was only three years passed.
“The Tory Government was out to destroy any kind of left wing or liberal opinion, and that mreant demonising the BBC as unpatriotic, as left wing,” he feels, “as out of touch with the hearts and minds of god-fearin’ ordinary folks (funny how some things never change, though in those days the BBC talked back).
“Because, with a blithe lack of foresight, the BBC had plugged the series in advance as ‘based on a true story’,” he notes. “It hired an historical researcher of some expertise and both ignored his recommendations and failed to send him a copy of the final script. It focused on psychological and thematic truth instead of factual truth, of which, it was claimed there was very little in the story. (When your story is about Percy Toplis’s part in the Etaples Mutiny and the real-life Percy Toplis was never at Etaples, you are not setting your standards very high).
“In short, the BBC sat itself down on a chair, tied the blindfold over its own eyes and proceeded to try to stare down the firing squad on the grounds that this was a drama, not historical truth. Norman Tebbitt, the polecat of Eighties politics, licked his lips.”
Alan Bleasdale returned to historical drama in 2011 with The Sinking of the Laconia, which was acclaimed for its accuracy and humanity, the story of a German U-boat that sinks the British ocean liner RMS Laconia 600 miles off the African coast in 1942. When the U-Boat’s commander Werner Hartenstein (Ken Duken) realises that the ship has POWs and civilians on board, he makes a decision that goes against the orders of Nazi high command and instructs his men to save as many of the shipwrecked survivors as they can.
Matin’s blog, which also covers comic strips such as Modesty Blaise, Dan Dare and more, is well worth a bookmark, and I am looking forward to reading more of his views on The Monocled Mutineer.
• Pat Mills talked about The Monocled Mutineer here back in 2010, on the release of the Titan Books collection of Charley’s War, “The Great Mutiny” – and here, answering questions about “Charley’s War” posed by readers
THE ETAPLES MUTINY
Alison Rhodes, a family historian, retired US Navy chief information officer and the grand-daughter of a New Zealand war bride, has uncovered the story of Jock Healy, the Kiwi soldier who started the Etaples mutiny in September 1917, when she was researching her family history.
A brief guide to the Mutiny and reaction to the broadcasting of The Monocled Mutineer in 1986
The Monocled Mutineer advisor Julian Putkowski
The Monocled Mutineer advisor Julian Putkowski is a college lecturer, broadcaster and author, with an established interest in military discipline and dissent in the British Army. With Julian Sykes he co-authored Shot at Dawn (1989); he actively supported the ensuing campaign to secure exoneration for soldiers executed by the British Army and the Blair government’s response in both Murderous Tommies (2011), co-authored with Mark Dunning and Three Uneasy Pieces (2014). Julian’s research about rebels in khaki was reflected in British Army Mutineers 1914-1922 (1998). His views about military ‘collective bargaining’ can be accessed online here