Mention WWI and TV series together and you will get my full attention. I had never heard of the four part BBC series The Monocled Mutineer before ordering another WWI movie and seeing this one mentioned as well. I’m particularly keen on movies on WWI and generally fond of made for TV productions. Plus reading how much controversy this show created, making it the most controversial British show ever, I was even keener on watching it. It has not been shown on TV again since its first and last airing in 1986. Pretty astonishing. Here is a review from IMDb by a user named dunkah.
The reason this drama has not been repeated is that after the first broadcast the BBC came under fire from the government and were banned from screening it again. This was due to the sensitivity of the subject matter, i.e. Percy Toplis and the mutiny at “The Bull Ring”, a harsh British Army training ground in Etaples, France. There is a lot of mist around Percy Toplis who was finally tracked down and killed some years after the end of the war. No one truly knows the events that transpired at the Bull Ring for certain and we won’t know until 2017 when the files on the event will finally be released. Until then all we have is this drama and I think there should be a demand that it should be broadcast again, some 18 years on.
The series starts with the shooting of Toplis that’s why the quote above isn’t a spoiler. It then rewinds and tells his whole story from his childhood, to the trenches and from there to the forest and finally back to England.
Toplis (Paul McGann) comes from a modest background, a mining town. Being a miner is not the type of occupation he sees himself in. From his early childhood on he figures he is better than his working class upbringing. Delinquent at a young age, he spends time in prison and finally when WWI breaks out he joins up. At first he’s doing his bit as cannon fodder but he’s the insubordinate type and gets into trouble more than once. Still he survives several offensives and while not keen on danger and the trenches, he isn’t bothered too much. What bothers him is the way he is treated and the way the officers treat his comrades.
He witnesses executions for no other reason than fear in battle. He observes cruelty and sadistic behaviour. But not only abuse infuriates him, it’s also clear that the British high command makes many bad decisions which cost lives.
Toplis is a tall and very handsome man and he is capable of speaking like and officer. This gives him the opportunity to live the life of an officer in the evenings. With a stolen uniform and pretending to be of high rank, all the doors are open.
When he’s finally had enough, he deserts and lives with a bunch of other deserters from different countries. They instigate a mutiny and create quite a commotion. Although many people are involved in these acts of insubordination it’s finally Toplis who is the most wanted man.
I can understand why there was reluctance to show this series again. Despite the fact that it has very slow moments, it’s excellent and I’ve hardly ever seen a British production in which the officers and high command were criticized like this. Watching this made me really furious more than once. Pair incompetence with arrogance and you will have a total disaster. The way the officers treated the soldiers was appalling. No respect whatsoever for the so-called lower classes.
Toplis is a fascinating character. He isn’t exactly a likable man, he cheats and lies and betrays wherever he can and very probably if he had been born noble he wouldn’t have cared much about those below himself. His character just exemplifies that all it took to pass for an officer was a uniform, manners and a certain size. He is one of those charcaters we usually find in novels. There are many like him in literture, Felix Krull, Bel-Ami, to name but two.
As I said before it has a few slow moments, still it’s highly watchable and interesting.