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.’