The Monocled Mutineer and the Establishment Myths of WWI

Paul McGann as Percy Toplis, The Monocled Mutineer (1986)

Today marks the 102nd anniversary of the armistice of the Great War, a desperate conflict that extinguished almost an entire generation and which, the establishment, continue to lie about to this day to somehow convince themselves and others that such a waste was necessary.

2014 saw the centenary of the outbreak of World War One and the coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats seemed keen to mark the anniversary, though the intentions of the latter party were predictably out of step. The then Prime Minister David Cameron (he’s the one who allegedly stuck his dick in a dead pig – remarkably, given his predecessors, this now seems hardly very embarrassing or scandalous at all) claimed that they wanted a “commemoration that, like the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, says something about who we are as a people”, and he was rightly and immediately condemned for suggesting that the deaths of 38 million people were ever something to celebrate. It was the kind of comment that hinted at the mindset of the Tory establishment. Not long after Cameron’s foot-in-mouth moment, it came to light that, in 2012, the then Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt expressed dissatisfaction with Danny Boyle and his Olympic Opening Ceremony team for not representing the might and triumphs of the British military throughout our history; arguing that the NHS segment could be dropped with the same attitude and manner that we saw from him when he was the Health Secretary – an attitude that continues to this day with his replacement, Matt Hancock. But perhaps most pointedly of all, the then Education Secretary Michael Gove claimed that the opinion we have come to hold about The Great War is nothing but a lie spun by “left wing academics…degenerating virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage” This comment was in fact seized upon by the BBC, not to condemn it as you might expect, but to actually support it as a documentary fronted by that well known Tory Jeremy Paxman proved. Everything we knew about WWI, we are now told, is incorrect. A Blackadder Goes Forth-style mythology that bears no resemblance to what really happened.

This fear the Tory establishment and their media stooges feel about the truth being told about the horrors, the futility and the downright stupidity of WWI isn’t new, the same attitude was rife in the mid ’80s under Thatcher’s rule, and the thorn in its side was the BBC’s The Monocled Mutineer, a drama series written by Boys from the Blackstuff author Alan Bleasdale based on a 1978 book by William Allison and John Fairley. The series concerned the exploits of Percy Toplis; a deserter, an imposter of officers and a presumed murderer (he was tried in absence for the murder of cab driver Sidney George Spicer – the first British inquest in modern times to do so), who was gunned down in Penrith following a two month manhunt instigated by the Home Office in 1920. Like the book, Bleasdale’s series depicted Toplis as a leading participant in the Étaples Mutiny of 1917.

“The Étaples ‘mutinies’ amounted to no more than a few days of disorder’ a little disrespect to officers and some loudly-voiced demands for humane treatment. The army reacted briskly. It restored discipline by bringing in unaffected troops. It removed the cause of discontent by replacing the worst of the staff with wise men. That is about all there was to the British Army ‘mutinies’ of the 1914 – 1918 war.”

So argued military historian Sir John Desmond Patrick Keegan OBE FRSL in the Daily Telegraph (or Torygraph to give it it’s rightful name) on September 9th, 1986. Well, he’s not a very good military historian if you ask me; his claim of ‘a few days disorder’ is an outright lie as, after a fractious summer in 1917 in which complaints regarding how troops were being treated at the Étaples training camp known as ‘The Bull Ring’ were routinely ignored, things came to ahead on September 9th of that year, when the mutiny exploded and remained in force until mid-October. This is recorded fact by many sources, including no less a figure than Vera Brittain in her book Testament of Youth which recounts her time with the Voluntary Aid Detachment at Étaples; “the mutiny was due to repressive conditions……and was provoked by the military police”. The Monocled Mutineer depicts Military Police and Instructors at the camp ‘crucifying’ soldiers (tying them to posts on the parade ground) soldiers for various misdemeanors, and doling out savage beatings, instances I imagine Keegan and the like would vehemently refute. The real truth about what occurred in Étaples should have by rights come into the public domain in 2017 when classified documents have reached the 100 year embargo for their release. However, it was discovered by questions in the House of Commons following the publication of Allison and Fairley’s claims in 1978, that all the records of the Étaples Board of Enquiry had been destroyed long since. If you’re thinking that sounds remarkably convenient – as convenient as the government losing all data relating to the Grenfell tragedy this year when they revealed a database was completely wiped -then you’d be right; this is nothing more than an establishment whitewash and cover up.

Keegan’s words were just the start of the controversies that dogged the transmission of The Monocled Mutineer thirty–four years ago. But there was more going on here than just the disgruntled criticisms from so-called historians. In 1986, the BBC was under fire from the Tory government in the same way that the corporation has been on shaky ground with the present government with regards to its Charter renewal. Throughout 1985 and ’86, the BBC was subjected to the Peacock Committee, which was purportedly set up to decide the future of the corporation, but in reality saw Norman Tebbit instigate a McCarthy-esque style witch hunt throughout the BBC, monitoring its staff, output and ethos for ‘left wing bias’ which saw, amongst others, police raids at BBC Scotland in relation to the planned and subsequently banned programme concerning the Zircon signals intelligence satellite, a dossier suggesting the BBC news team were biased against America in their coverage of their bombing raids on Libya and 100 Tory MP’s sign a motion for “the restoration of proper standards at the BBC” and the sacking of DG Alisdair Milne.

The Daily Mail (or ‘Daily Heil’ to give it it’s rightful name) ever the bastion of right wing ire, launched a vitriolic campaign against The Monocled Mutineer that must have made Thatcher and Tebbit proud. They especially went to town over the claims that official records show that Toplis’ regiment was en route to India during the Étaples mutiny, and that there is no actual evidence in existence that shows Toplis played a part in the mutiny or that he was absent from his India-bound regiment at this time. In defence of the rising criticism and derision the programme faced, the BBC’s director of television Bill Cotton and the series producer Richard Broke admitted to “small examples of dramatic licence” having been taken, but argued that the drama spoke of “the greater truth about World War I”. But the damage had been done, not least because BBC Worldwide, the advertising arm of the corporation, had shot themselves in the foot by inaccurately representing Bleasdale’s series as “a true-life story” in its marketing and promotional campaigns. The Tories had their wish granted and Alistair Milne was unceremoniously ousted from the BBC, whilst The Monocled Mutineer has been repeated just once by the BBC in 34 years, and that was in the summer of 1988 – two years after its original broadcast. The series itself wasn’t even released to DVD until 2007 and anyone who expected to see the programme form a part of the BBC’s commemorations for WWI between 2014 and 2018 were . definitely employing some wishful thinking, especially with the Tories in power.

Alan Bleasdale was originally loathe to write the series. Claiming he didn’t do adaptations, he avoided all attempts by the BBC to coax him into staging it from 1981 through to the mid ’80s. He only changed his mind when he recalled that his own grandfather died in WWI six months before his father was born and that – and this is what really resonates with me, what I feel is actually crucial to understanding the whole story about The Monocled Mutineer and the reaction and backlash it faced – he felt that he had “studied history books people in power had wanted me to read” and had “never learned what it was like for a common man to go to war, and a common soldier to go through those times” By the latter half of the twentieth century the tide was finally turning and the accurate notion of ‘lions led by donkeys’ was at last becoming accepted fact. By 1986, seventy years after the conflict, Alan Bleasdale, and others that came after him, finally felt able to seek out the truth for themselves, to think for themselves, and to get that message across to the masses to ensure we never have to endure such catastrophic folly again because, as he told the Radio Times “It’s a costume drama, with something to say about the times we live in”. It is that freedom to think for ourselves that the established order of this country would rather we did not have, should they need to lead us lions with as much gross incompetence as they can muster once again.

Percy Toplis utterly fascinates me, having read the Allison and Fairley book as a teenager (I only vaguely recall seeing The Monocled Mutineer on TV in either ’86 or ’88 – I know my dad watched it but I was of course too young to rightly understand the situation) and although the received wisdom now has it that he wasn’t involved in the mutiny, I remain uncertain. I may be being naive here, but though there’s no evidence he was in Étaples, there’s equally precious little evidence he was with his regiment at that time either. If the man was a notorious deserter, surely he could have left his troop before they boarded for India and taken himself to Étaples, where he had previously hidden out in the forests around the region with other deserters, pacifists and socialists? And why did the Home Office effectively run such a massive manhunt for someone the authorities deemed guilty of murder? Why was his funeral held in private, his family lied to and turned away, and why was he buried in an unmarked grave? I just think the whole thing is a huge cover up and that, as we have seen, it is all too easy to cry ‘left wing propaganda’ when the right wing establishment don’t want to be embarrassed.

The real Percy Toplis

The Monocled Mutineer remains one of the must-watch TV series ever produced by the BBC, and one of the most pivotal and polished from the 1980s (not bad for a decade that also brought us Edge of Darkness) it boasts a central performance from Paul McGann as the anti-hero Toplis who takes the notes Bleasdale gave him to play it as a cross between Cool Hand Luke and John Lennon and runs with it beautifully to deliver a charismatic, multi-dimensional career-best turn. But above all this is just an incredibly deep and well textured piece of writing that continues to provoke thought and debate to this very day.


One thought on “The Monocled Mutineer and the Establishment Myths of WWI”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s