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Monocled Mutineer, The (1986)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Monocled Mutineer, The (1986)
BBC1, tx. 31/8-21/9/1986
2x75, 1x80, 1x95 min episodes, colour
DirectorJim O'Brien
ProducerRichard Broke
Written byAlan Bleasdale
PhotographyAndrew Dunn
MusicGeorge Fenton

Cast: Paul McGann (Percy Toplis); Tony Williams (Young Toplis); Timothy West (Thomson); Cherie Lunghi (Dorothy); Penelope Wilton (Lady Angela Forbes); Philip McGough (Woodhall)

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In 1917, the charismatic petty criminal Percy Toplis leads a rebellion among men preparing for battle in Northern France and then flees, disguised as a senior officer.

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This five-hour serial looks at the life of Francis Percy Toplis, who on 6 June 1920, at the age of 23, was shot and killed, ending a manhunt which had seen him labelled in the press as 'Britain's most wanted man'. The story begins in sepia, almost in the style of a newsreel reconstruction, bringing together dramatic and violent highlights from Toplis's final days before switching to colour, aesthetically signalling a more subjective mode. As the picaresque story of his various adventures unfolds, we are left in little doubt that Toplis was a victim of his environment. For the most part this never feels like special pleading, though a maudlin late scene between Toplis and his drunk and half-blind mother eventually descends into bathos.

Paul McGann exudes charisma in the title role as he cheerfully cocks a snook at authority and exposes the petty hypocrisies of the upper classes. He is just as good displaying Toplis's despair and apathy as the story reaches its bitter conclusion, filling in the blanks behind what, belatedly, we now see was a very tendentious opening montage.

The Monocled Mutineer was a highly controversial broadcast. Vilified in conservative publications for allegedly distorting historical facts (the Daily Mail called it "a tissue of lies"), it was held as an example to bolster the Thatcher government's ongoing complaint of leftwing bias at the BBC. It even led to questions being asked in the House of Lords, with Lord Orr-Ewing arguing that "it appears that... the BBC drama department are at pains to intertwine truth with falsehood as inseparably as possible." The polemics mainly raged over Toplis's role in the mutiny at Etaples, Northern France, in September 1917, when thousands of soldiers at the training camp revolted. Many, in fact, believe that Toplis was not even there at the time but was actually with his unit in Bombay. Criticism was further fuelled when Julian Putkowski, the programme's historical adviser, gave interviews distancing himself from the finished product.

Irrespective of the debates over historical accuracy, Alan Bleasdale's scripts remain completely credible as drama for their incisive and masterful dissection of working-class exploitation and of the class-based issues underlying the Etaples mutiny. Toplis's officer disguise, with its trademark golden monocle, crystallises to great dramatic effect the twinning of the depictions of trench and class warfare, making the serial, even decades after its initial broadcast, consistently thought-provoking and compelling throughout.

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. Being civilised (4:08)
2. Talk to the lads (2:52)
3. Keeping company (2:15)
4. An officer's smile (1:24)
5. Privileges of rank (1:43)
Complete episode (1:17:05)
Days of Hope (1975)
Mad Jack (1970)
Bleasdale, Alan (1946-)
Fenton, George (1950-)
McGann, Paul (1959-)
West, Timothy (1934-)
Drama Documentary