The Monocled Mutineer

Alan Bleasdale’s 1986 television script The Monocled Mutineer is not historically accurate. Any pretensions it might have in that way have been thoroughly scuppered over the twenty-five years since it was broadcast, by historians ranging from Julian Putkowski to Dan Todman. It’s amusing, therefore, to come across a catalogue from the Guardian‘s sale of DVDs, billing it as ‘a gripping true story’.

 

 

Bleasdale’s series was a fanciful version of the life of petty criminal Percy Toplis, based on a book by William Allison and John Fairley. Bleasdale also incorporated material from elsewhere, most notably the memories of bandleader Victor Sylvester. He himself seems to have realised that he was converting the book into fanciful fiction, but the BBC asked for trouble when they took out full-page advertisements in the papers, billing the series as an ‘enthralling true-life story ‘. The historians opened fire. There is a good account of the imbroglio and how it added to the mutual distrust between the BBC and the Thatcher government) at http://www.offthetelly.co.uk/?page_id=238.
I recently discovered that both Bleasdale’s script and the Allison and Fairley book were available online very cheaply (In fact I managed to buy them for a penny each, plus postage. How do these firms make their profit?). Bleasdale’s script is set firmly in the First World War of late-twentieth-century myth. All the officers are vicious yet incompetent; the private soldiers are cannon-fodder. We see Field Punishments and executions, we see mutinies and we see communities of deserters hiding in French forests. We don’t see a single efficiently conducted military action. Bleasdale’s bias is open and acknowledged. He wanted to contribute to a people’s history, as seen from the bottom up – the opposite of the history he was fed at school.

“I studied history books people in power wanted me to read. I have never learnt what it was like for a man to go to war, for a common man and a common soldier to experience the times.”

Allison and Fairley’s book must have seemed the exact opposite of the history narratives he disliked. They were a pair of journalists who took an interest in the story of the manhunt for Percy Toplis, which fascinated the nation in 1920. Searching for first-hand evidence, they came across men who recalled Toplis being at Étaples in 1917, at the time of the mutiny there, and an account of the mutiny became the centre of their book.
As a piece of history, their book has problems; no footnotes and no bibliography, and reliance on oral history, as recalled many decades after the event. Later historians have checked records, and it seems almost certain that at the time of the mutiny, Toplis was nowhere near Étaples, but was on a troopship bound for India.
The book has virtues, however. It is pacy and readable, and the pair uncovered details about the mutiny that had been lost to history. This had great resonance in the seventies, a time when left-wing historians, journalists and playwrights used the First World War as a symbol of everything that was wrong with the traditional class-based culture of Britain. Bleasdale was not the only writer to use Allison and Fairley’s account of the Étaples mutiny as the basis for a popular-culture artefact. The comic strip Charley’s War (in the weekly Battle Action) dealt with the mutiny in 1982, two years before Bleasdale’s programme aired, and in a way that seems equally indebted to their book.
For all of these writers, the Étaples mutiny was a potent episode – showing the lions rising up against the donkeys. The main objection to the interpretation of the Great War in Britain as being about the waste of the lower classes by the officer class is the question: “Well, why didn’t the lower classes do anything about it?” Étaples seemed to be a shining example of mass revolt.
Orthodox military historians tend to disagree. By and large the morale of the British Army stood up to four years of punishing war better than that of other nations. The British was the only major Army not to suffer from widespread mutiny. The Étaples mutiny was small-scale, highly localised, and a (largely justified) response to bad management on the part of the officers in charge of the camp. John Keegan has written:

The Étaples ‘mutinies’ amounted to no more than a few days of disorder, a little disrespect to officers and some loudly-voiced demands for human 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 the history behind The Monocled Mutineer is very shaky – but as a TV series it’s still rather good, I think. Bleasdale took the character of Toplis the petty crook, and turned him into an ambiguous and disconcerting anti-hero. He is a born rebel, constitutionally one of the awkward squad, but his rebellion is mostly directed into selfish aims. Other mutineers in the play may wave red flags and dream of socialism; Bleasdale’s Toplis, who might have had the potential to lead them to success, is strictly out for himself. It’s a very Brechtian conception; the play is a lehrstück and we the audience are asked not to identify with Toplis, but to understand how his virtues are the mirror-image of his faults.
This play came soon after The Boys from the Blackstuff. Bleasdale was good back then, but his later work has become increasingly self-indulgent. I stuck with G.B.H. (1991) but gave up on Jake’s Progress (1995) after a few episodes. I don’t think I made it right through even the first episode of his silly re-working of Oliver Twist (1999). Prestigious TV dramatists seem to catch Dennis Potter disease as they get older – or maybe its just that their prestige becomes so great that producers don’t ask them to rewrite. Self-indulgence is allowed to spread unchecked. The very worst example of this syndrome is, of course, Steven Poliakoff.
The Monocled Mutineer is strong drama, but will forever be dogged by questions about its historical accuracy. If Bleasdale had read Allison and Fairley’s book, then put it aside and written a piece of pure fiction loosely based on their account of the mutiny, all might have been well. Perhaps that’s what he thought he had done – but the BBC publicists wanted to proclaim that it was true.
Which is, of course, what publicists always like to do. When they are presenting a myth, they want to pretend that it is more than a myth. On a visit to the cinema recently, I was amused that three of the trailers each claimed, in that typical booming trailer-voice, that the film advertised was ‘based on an incredible true story’. ‘Personally,’ I muttered to my wife, ‘I’d prefer a credible true story.’

About these ads

10 Comments

  1. Posted November 7, 2011 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    I remember vividly reading the account of the Etaples mutiny in Charley’s War many years ago. Despite the fact that it was dodgy history, I remain tremendously grateful to Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun. Charley’s War was a window into a different way of thinking about the history of war. I’m sure it must have played a part in my eventual choice of career.

    • Posted November 7, 2011 at 10:43 pm | Permalink

      I agree with you about the vividness of ‘Charley’s War’. It’s written and drawn with real feeling.
      I like the homage to ‘Her Privates We’ in the choice of names – Bourne and Weeper.
      The original comic must have appeared while Bleasdale was writing ‘The Monocled Mutineer’. Like the authors of ‘Charley’s War’, he chose to prepare his audience for the events of the mutiny by detailing a highly emotive desertion. So – had he read the comic? Was he influenced by it?

  2. Posted November 19, 2011 at 12:18 am | Permalink

    I have the book and the mini-series on VHS tape. I was entranced by both at the time and irritated to discover they were full of holes larger than 15-inch shells. I think, in retrospect, Mr. Bleasdale could have done a better job. His script clearly has a pen-knife to grind. It’s entertaining as period fiction, though.

  3. Posted December 13, 2012 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

    Yes,well,accurate or not Toplis was either murdered or his letter to the Dundee Courier is genuine.Which is it? And why must we wait until 2017 to find out?

    • Posted December 13, 2012 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

      We must wait until 1917 because a hundred year delay was imposed at the time. Not too long to wait now, though.

      Recently I took a look at the Manchester Guardian online archive, to see whether or not they mentioned Etaples. I found an interesting aside in a 1920 essay by C.E.Montague (which later appeared in revised form in his ‘Disenchantment’). He is discussing the realism of Shakespeare’s history plays:
      ‘So he put into his Henry IV and Henry V a lot of little things that our press had to leave out at the time for the good of the country. If you look closely you can see them lying about all over the plays. There is the ugly affair of the pyx, at Corbie, on the Somme; there are the little irregularities in recruiting; there are the small patches of baddish moral on the coast and even in Picardy; there is the painful case of the oldish lieutenant who drank and had cold feet, after talking bigger than anyone else. One almost expects to find something in Henry V about the mutiny at Etaples, or the predilection of the Australians for chickens.’
      Montague had himself been one of the team of press censors. Here he lets himself hint at some of the things that he helped to cover up.
      There was a lengthy article about the mutiny in the Manchester Guardian of Feb 13, 1930, and a follow-up letter from a Lancashire Fusilier who was in the camp at the time of the mutiny.
      The article cites a quotation from R.H.Mottram’s ‘Three Personal Records of the War’ (1929) which also refers to the mutiny.
      And then there was Lady Angela Forbes’s memoir – so, while Mottram wrote of a ‘conspiracy to conceal it’, there were at least a few references in the public domain.

  4. Julian Putkowski
    Posted December 27, 2012 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

    George,

    As the historical adviser to Alan Bleasdale and the ‘Monocled Mutineer’ TV script, I engaged in a fair amount of correspondence and comment during the ding-dong that ensued after the debut episode had been screened. I reckon that pretty well most of the references that you cite were noted in a feature article about Toplis and the series that I wrote for ‘Stand To!” magazine (No.18, Autumn 1986.

    I cannot say that everything about Toplis and the mutiny was thereby revealed but the piece tends to get overlooked by TV (sic) “history” pundits like Emma Mahoney in their huff n’ puff defence of the red tabbed butchers’ version of (sic) Great War history. The “Charley’s War” version of the mutiny is fanciful tosh, if anything more riddled with dumb-ass stereotypes than Allison and Fairley’s vacuous twaddle. Keegan never researched or wrote about mutinies and succumbed to rentaquote vacuity when invited to pronounce on the outbreak. How do I know? Because he conceded as much in November 2003, when I taxed him directly on his knowledge of the affair.

    For you or anyone else awaiting declassification of material relating to either Toplis of the 1917 Etaples mutiny circa 1917- don’t bother. There’s nothing going to be revealed – there’s nothing further to be disclosed because Toplis was not at Etaples in September 1917. And though there may be some further scrappy oddments in a Tommy’s diary, there’s not really been any substantial advance on the version of events that I chronicled in 1986.

    That said, on a further passing reference to the TV version of “Monocled Mutineer” and Shakespeare, read Nokes’ brief review of episode 1 of Bleasdale’s creation.

    Fraternally,

    Julian

  5. Andy Smith
    Posted July 25, 2014 at 12:05 am | Permalink

    It seems strange that Edwin Woodhall confirms that Toplas was in Etaples I would have thought a credible witnesss.

    Also Victor Sylvester seems to be a very much maligned character, His testimony was obviously used for the firing squad scene. He also mentions that Toples was in Brigadier-General Andrew Graham Thomson car. As is well known he was a famous band leader but was also decorated and was a brave stretcher bearer.

    Are army records so reliable when you consider the mayhem of the time? To call the events of Etaples minor is rather an understatement, Considering the government of the day prevented disclosure for a 100 years, what is more strange is that they are destroyed after 10!

    In 1915 Woodhall joined the counter-espionage department of the Intelligence section of the Secret Police based at Boulogne, guarding the Prince of Wales, who was attached to the General Staff in France. He took over as the new chief of the Etaples police, a force drawn from servicemen who had been policemen in civilian life.
    Intelligence gathering led him to information on Topliss’s whereabouts. Mounting his trusty motorcycle, he rode off to the outskirts of the village where Topliss had been seen in a local bar. He completed the final stages of his journey into the village street disguised as a French Priest, riding on horseback. He entered the building and was followed several minutes later by two policemen who were astonished to find a group of bewildered French customers surrounding an English speaking priest, holding up a monocled British Army Captain at gunpoint.
    Immediately arrangements were made for a court martial. The charges were never brought. The court never sat. The glory short lived. Topliss escaped the next day! GUARDIAN OF THE GREAT: A brief biography of E. T. Woodhall, Author of `Jack the Ripper or When London Walked in Terror’.
    Andy Aliffe – February 1997

    • Posted July 25, 2014 at 7:37 am | Permalink

      Any sources for this apart from Drummond and Allison?

      • Posted August 12, 2014 at 12:55 am | Permalink

        The Great War I WAS THERE Part 32 of 51
        The SEAMIEST SIDE of WAR, A police officer life at the base.

        By E T Woodhall September 1917

        (These series of magazines were printed in 1939 Edited by Sir John Hammerton
        Purchased from ABEbooks.com
        The article begins In 1917 I was transferred from the intelligence police to the military police at Etaples to assist the round up of deserters…

        There are references to the “The work of rounding up deserters and absentees necessitated great patience and tact and discretion, always accompanied by rigid
        firmness”
        In terms of numbers he is rather elusive.
        ” I do not wish to say there were a great number of absentees and deserters from our ranks,but at that time many undesirables and men with bad characters at the best of times were by virtue of The Military Service Act, being drawn into the fighting forces”

        There are also references which are
        used in the Alison and Fairley book Chapter 7 page 58-59.

        With regards to Toplis

        My Sojoun at Etaples was destined to bring me intouch with a military deserter of singularly ferocious character. His name was Percy Toplis…..(Sept 1917)
        By a stroke of fate this desperate young thief and murderer slipped through my fingers. I was on the look out for a deserter who by many violent means, had robbed civilians and army hostels. Further I wanted him for a particularly brutal assault on an old French peasant.

        (Not sure if hes refering to Toplis or some one else here)

        After an exhaustive hunt for days I ran him to earth at a little village named Range-de-Fluer,and with the assistance of a local regimental policema, went into a local cafe to arrest him.

        As I stepped into the estaminet,which was completely empty, coming from the sunshine to comparative gloom my eyes were not quickly accustomed to the change. In an case, before I could realize it, the man I was after, Toplis,
        stepped from a behind a curtain and covered me with a Colt army revolver.

        I heard his remark “Got you” and the hammer of his revolver clicked. It did not go off. Simultaneously, I made a rush at him and smashed my fist into his face, closing with him as I did so and fixing the wrist of his revolver hand. At that moment assistance arrived and he was easily overpowered.

        He was brought back to the prison compound for inquiry and identification. Unfortunately during the night, he with another notorious character, who had the death sentence against him, tunneled down under the sand of the barbed wire compound and in the early morning broke out.

        The escape was daring to a degree,for the compound was situated on the banks of the
        river. but nothing daunted, they dashed down the slope of the foreshore, though it was high tide, with a swift running current, plunged in the river and swam across to the other side and made good there escape into the woods around Le Tourquet.

        Before the day was out, with a strong posse of armed men, I found one of the
        prisoners in an exhausted state near Berek Plage. He could get no further, as his ankle had given out.

        But my real man had got away, and although I scoured and and combed the place for miles, he successfully eluded all the attempts at capture.

        These are the word of Wilfred T Woodhall

        Interestingly he says Toplis made his way to Paris where he laid low until the armistice which contradicts his own account of the arrest he claims to have made in the pub disguised as a priest.
        I am in the process of getting a copy of his book where he writes an account of that event.

        Never the less this is a confirmation that Toplis was at Etaples in September
        1917 by a policeman, It also does seem to confirm that there was a substantial desertion/ absentee problem that on watching the tv series i felt was unlikely. If you would like some photos or photostats of the I was there issue i have been quoting I would be happy to forward them, It a very interesting periodical if you haven’t come across it

  6. Posted August 13, 2014 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    Andy has kindly sent photos of this resource.

    iwasthere

    The magazine The Great War – I Was There was published in 1939, an example, I assume of the renewed interest in the previous war when it became clear to everyone that a new one was in the offing.

    Here is the article by Woodhall (Click for larger images. It is the second double-page spread that identifies Toplis at Etaples):

    DSC_0740 (Large)

    DSC_0741 (Large)

    Woodhall is very definite here – but is he reliable? Maybe the documents to be released in 1917 will give us more clues. Or maybe they won’t.


One Trackback/Pingback

  1. [...] Here’s George on “The Monocled Mutineer”: http://greatwarfiction.wordpress.com/2011/11/04/2670/ [...]

Post a Comment

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 202 other followers

%d bloggers like this: