1 9 8 6 (UK)
4 x 75 minute episodes
This four-part £3 million serial from the BBC debuted on 31 August 1986 and followed dashing rogue Percy Toplis (Paul McGann), a small-time crook turned impersonator of officers, set against the background of the harsh treatment of raw recruits shipped to Etaples, France in 1917.
The cynical Nottingham miner, a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps, was stationed at the Etaples training camp and in 1917, on the night before the Battle of Passchendaele, instigated a mutiny amongst his harshly treated fellow recruits.
His partner in the action was Charles Strange (Matthew Marsh), a political idealist. When the mutiny failed, Toplis was among the few to escape.
He later became the target of a three-year manhunt.
This four-part dramatisation added fiction to the bare facts and depicted how Toplis escaped into the French hills, took to impersonating an army officer and led a group of renegades in the taking of a bridge.
He then returned to England and fell in love with Dorothy (Cherie Lunghi), a young widow, before being captured in the Lake District and executed for his crimes by MI5 assassin Woodhall (Philip McGough).
Unwisely perhaps, the BBC hyped it as a true story. But Alan Bleasdale – inspired by the idea of a young miner who beat officers at their own game until the establishment took revenge and had him hunted and killed – had written an imaginative version based on the facts.
The Daily Mail began a campaign to smear it as a ’tissue of lies’, citing the scenes where an officer (played movingly by Nick Reding) was executed for cowardice.
Bandleader Victor Sylvester, a 17-year old soldier at Etaples, confirmed before his death in 1978 that he was haunted for years after taking part in several such executions. But historians and old soldiers protested to the papers that this and much more was preposterous.
Whatever the historical truth, The Monocled Mutineer was magnificent television drama, and Paul McGann (the star of Give Us A Break) perfectly conveyed Percy’s amoral charm.
Scenes with 200 unemployed young men at the redundant Tonfanau military camp on the Colwyn Bay coast graphically suggested the horrors of trench warfare, and those in which Percy visited the executed officer’s mother to tell her the lies she needed to hear (and borrow money) – and when he called on his own blind mother pretending to be a doctor – were quite brilliant.
Brigadier General Thomson
Lady Angela Forbes