WebFind: Looking Back at “The Monocled Mutineer”, and Charley’s War, too

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.

Paul McGann in The Monocled Mutineer. Image: BBC
Paul McGann in The Monocled Mutineer. Image: BBC

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.

Chareley's War: Mutiny at Etaples

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.

Rebellion in the ranks in Charley's War.
Rebellion in the ranks in Charley’s War.

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.

The BBC’s own promotion of The Monocled Mutineer in the Radio Times probably didn’t help convince those on the right wing of British politics that it was worthy drama...
The BBC’s own promotion of The Monocled Mutineer in the Radio Times probably didn’t help convince those on the right wing of British politics that it was worthy drama… | Via Graeme Wood

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.

The Monocled Mutineer DVD (2007)

Read Martin’s “The Monocled Mutineer” posts here

History of the BBC – The Monocled Mutineer

“The Monocled Mutineer” by William Alison and John Fairly (AmazonUK Affiliate Link)

“The Monocled Mutineer” DVD (AmazonUK Affiliate Link)

Check out “Martin Crookall – Author for Sale” at mbc1955.wordpress.com

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

Arthur "Jock" Healy, of Nelson, enlisted as a bugler and was beaten up by military police in France, signalling the start of a mutiny at the Etaples army base
Arthur “Jock” Healy, of Nelson, enlisted as a bugler and was beaten up by military police in France, signalling the start of a mutiny at the Etaples army base

Stuff: The untold story of the man who started the Great War 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.

Monocled Mutineer – Mutiny at the BBC

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

Charley's War Volume 1 - Rebellion Edition 2018

CHARLEY’S WAR

Check out our “Charley’s War” micro site here

Themes in “Charley’s War”

Buy Charley’s War Volume One: Boy Soldier: The Definitive Collection (AmazonUK Affiliate Link)

Buy Charley’s War Volume Two: Boy Soldier: The Definitive Collection (AmazonUK Affiliate Link)

Buy Charley’s War Volume Three: Boy Soldier: The Definitive Collection (AmazonUK Affiliate Link)

The founder of downthetubes, John works as a comics editor, writer, as Creative Consultant on the Dan Dare audio adventures for B7 Media, and on promotional work for the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. Working in British comics publishing for over 30 years, his credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine, Star Trek Magazine and Babylon 5 Magazine. He also edited the comics anthology STRIP Magazine and edited several audio comics for ROK Comics. He has also edited several comic collections, including volumes of “Charley’s War and “Dan Dare”. He’s the writer of “Crucible”, a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz, published on Tapastic; and “Death Duty” and “Skow Dogs” with Dave Hailwood for digital comic 100% Biodegradable.



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