The Monocled Mutineer

The Monocled Mutineer

DVD Cover
Created by Alan Bleasdale
Directed by Jim O'Brien
Starring Paul McGann
Cherie Lunghi
Jerome Flynn
Timothy West
Philip McGough
Composer(s) George Fenton
Country of origin United Kingdom
Original language(s) English
No. of series 1
No. of episodes 4
Producer(s) Richard Broke
Location(s) Somerton and Aberystwyth
Running time 311 minutes
Original network BBC1
Original release 31 August (1986-08-31) – 21 September 1986 (1986-09-21)

The Monocled Mutineer is a British television series made by the BBC in 1986, and shown on BBC1, the first episode being transmitted on 31 August 1986, intended to head BBC1's autumn season of drama. Viewed by about ten million people,[1] the series caused some controversy at the time, as it drove right-wing newspapers to use it as an example of what they saw as a left-wing bias of the BBC.[2]

The four-part serial, written by Alan Bleasdale and directed by Jim O'Brien, was an adaptation of the 1978 book of the same name by William Allison and John Fairley.[3] A dramatisation of the life of Percy Toplis, deserter from the British Army during the First World War, it starred Paul McGann in the title role and was Bleasdale's first historical drama, and his first adaptation of someone else's work for television.

The series was produced and broadcast in a period of great controversy for the BBC. During 1985 and 1986 the Peacock Committee was deciding the future of the BBC, which caused renewed pressure on it to take advertising, while at the same time the Chairman of the Conservative Party, Norman Tebbit, was monitoring the BBC for evidence of "left-wing bias". During the same period there was also much criticism of the BBC's programming; a legal action was brought against the BBC over the Panorama programme Maggie's Militant Tendency, which also caused 100 Conservative MPs to sign a motion calling for the resignation of Director General Alasdair Milne and "the restoration of proper standards at the BBC".


The BBC had originally approached Bleasdale in 1981 to adapt William Allison and John Fairley's 1978 book The Monocled Mutineer, which had at the time of its publication prompted questions in Parliament about the events of the Étaples Mutiny, which led to the discovery that all records of the Étaples Board of Enquiry had been destroyed long since.[2] However, Bleasdale had at the time turned it down saying, "I don't do adaptations." He eventually changed his mind, finding some personal resonances in the story. As he commented: "My grandfather died on the Western Front six months before my father was born, and I found that a great pull to the story ..."


On 9 September the Daily Telegraph's Defence Correspondent John Keegan criticised The Monocled Mutineer. He said: "The Étaples 'mutinies' amounted to no more than a few days of disorder' it in fact lasted for more than two weeks "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."

Keegan's assessment is supported by the evidence: as a direct result of the mutiny, only a few individuals were punished. Corporal Jesse Robert Short (Northumberland Fusiliers) was condemned to death and shot by a firing party; three other soldiers were sentenced to 10 years penal servitude and others were jailed for up to a year's imprisonment with hard labour.

Keegan's piece was followed on 12 September by a statement to the press by Julian Putkowski, who had acted as a historical advisor to the series. He claimed that the serial was "riddled with error" and the Daily Telegraph reported that "He accused the producer of ignoring his advice ... Mr Putkowski disclaimed all responsibility for what he says are factual errors and misinterpretations in the series. He accused the BBC of failing to consult him on the final version of the script and described the book by William Allison and John Fairley, on which the series is based, as 'a sensational version of the mutiny and Toplis' life.'"

In response to this, series producer Richard Broke admitted that there had been "small examples of dramatic licence [taken]",[4] and went on to point out that "Mr Putkowski did not point out to us at any stage that Percy Toplis was not at Étaples Camp and he never challenged the book he knew we were working from." The BBC's Managing Director of Television, Bill Cotton, further defended the series on the basis that it expressed "the greater truth about World War I". The BBC's official line was that the series is a drama, not a documentary and made no pretence at being a precise historical record. However, the damage had been done thanks to their original press campaign which had called The Monocled Mutineer a "true-life story"; Alasdair Milne blamed this on their advertising agency.

Finally, the 13 September edition of the Daily Mail began a campaign against The Monocled Mutineer, branding it "a tissue of lies", while the following day's Mail on Sunday derided the original book that the series had been adapted from. The book's co-author, John Fairley, who was at that time Yorkshire TV's Director of Programmes, took legal advice on the allegations and commented at the time that he and Allison stood by everything in the book, saying that they had documentary evidence of one particular controversial scene.

Despite the criticism (and contrary to reports that have been promulgated across the internet) the series was repeated on BBC1 on Thursday evenings during August and September 1988.

It was shown over four weeks in September 2016 on Forces TV, the satellite channel aimed primarily at British Service personnel.



# Title Airdate
1"The Making of a Hero"Sunday 31 August 1986 (1986-08-31)
First part in a four-part series based on the book by William Allison and John Fairley about the true-life figure of Percy Toplis, who led a British army mutiny during the First World War.
2"Before the Shambles"Sunday 7 September 1986 (1986-09-07)
Percy Toplis arrives at the Etaples training camp in northern France, where the soldiers are put through a brutal training regime, under the command of Brigadier General Thomson. There is a mutiny of the troops.
3"When the Hurly-Burly's Done"Sunday 14 September 1986 (1986-09-14)
Percy Toplis takes charge of negotiations between the mutineers and Brigadier Thomson. When the mutiny is over, Toplis and the other leaders become marked men. Toplis escapes to England using his talents for disguise, and meets and falls in love with Dorothy.
4"A Dead Man on Leave"Sunday 21 September 1986 (1986-09-21)
The war is over and Toplis decides to rejoin the Army under a false name. He is recognized by a fellow mutineer and joins a black market racket. A shooting incident is blamed on Toplis and the police are back on his trail.


Home media releases

The series was released as a VHS double box set in 1999 and then as a DVD in 2007.


  1. Stewart, Ian; Carruthers, Susan Lisa (1996). War, Culture, and the Media. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. p. 67. ISBN 0-8386-3702-7.
  2. 1 2 Badsey, Stephen (2000). The Media and International Security. Routledge. pp. 83–84. ISBN 0-7146-4848-5.
  3. Bleasdale, Alan; Allison, William; Fairley, John (1986). The Monocled Mutineer. Hutchinson. ISBN 0-09-168671-7.
  4. "Richard-Broke-obituary". Daily Telegraph. 17 April 2014. Retrieved 28 April 2014.
  5. "Television - Original Television Music in 1987". BAFTA.
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