A while back I watched Alan Bleasdale’s The Monocled Mutineer, which splices together two very interesting and (certainly at the time of broadcast in 1986) under-researched strands of early C20 history: the Étaples mutiny, and the life and death of Percy Toplis.
Étaples is a small town near Boulogne, which during the Great War (aren’t they all?) was used as a training camp for new recruits and troops coming off the line. It soon became a notorious destination to little Tommy Atkins, as a place of immense cruelty and suffering, thanks to the sadism of the staff – the drill instructors, or ‘Canaries’, and the Military Police, ‘Red Caps’. However, in the September of 1917 an MP shot dead a Scots soldier and wounded a Frenchwoman, and the camp erupted in a furious mutiny, with death, destruction and the complete breakdown of discipline, which lasted six long days before being put down. Those considered ringleaders were rooted out, and faced the firing squad or brutal ‘field punishment’. By the end of the month, many of those who had been at Étaples at the time of the mutiny had perished on the fields of Ypres in General Sir Herbert Plumer’s push at Menin Road, which led into Field Marshal Haig’s wider Battle of Passchendaele. The British army, not wishing to give ideas to mud-caked, battle-fatigued, angry, armed young soldiers elsewhere across its theatres of operation, did what it does best – it kept quiet and pretended it had never happened. Roll on the next big offensive. Keep throwing logs on the fire. Up the line. Over the top. For King & Country.
Percy Toplis, meanwhile, was a young soldier with a shady past (theft, deception, attempted rape by the age of fifteen) and a habit of wandering off AWOL and in stolen officers’ uniforms. His regiment was meant to be steaming down to India at the time of the mutiny, but his wanderlust means it’s tricky to say whether or not he was with his unit at the time. And this is the nub of the drama – the contention being that Toplis was not only in the Étaples camp at the time, but that he ended up an important player in the mutiny.
But regardless of his involvement or not in Étaples, after the war he definitely did rejoin the army, serving in the Service Corps, stationed first at Avonmouth barracks down the road from here (that’s Bristol, you neophyte). The Service Corps provided him with a niche selling army petrol (amongst other things) on the black market. It was this racket which also landed him with a de facto death sentence over his head and on the run. After a transfer to the Bulford camp in Hampshire – from which Toplis continued his wheeling and dealing operations – a taxi driver customer of his was found shot dead. Toplis was named as a suspect. Naturally he had disappeared. A coroner’s court named him as the killer in his absence. A nationwide manhunt began. And here the speculation and what reasonably be described as fact begin to converge once more, as they do diverge from the moment of his birth; for in June 1920 Toplis was ambushed and himself shot dead near Plumpton in Cumberland. This is the incident which bookends the four part television series.
So, the series… Well, dramatically it works. We see the society into which Toplis is born. We see a brutal world where those at the bottom have their place and must stay there, where those bred for better things enjoy privilege without having to earn it. We see a young Toplis transgressing the invisible lines of the social order, taking what is not his, and paying the price when he is caught. We see him turning his nose up at the idea of a long (well, long enough), lung-bursting life of honest toil down a Nottinghamshire pit. We see a boy who lusts after more than the pittance ‘better’ men think he is worth, and who is prepared to take it. This is the start of the journey, and we know how it will end.
Based on a 1978 account of Toplis and Étaples by William Allison and John Fairley, certain dramatic extrapolations are made – Toplis is firmly placed at the centre of the mutiny, and is shown to bind together the soldiers with his charismatic and organisational abilities. Whilst the book itself is (and I’m being polite here) not quite a rigorously academic historical work, it does fall short in ways the television drama does not of making direct connections between the mutiny and the man Toplis. Much of the book is juxtaposition – of an individual, a place, a time, an incident; whereas in drama, what you see is what you see. The only nuance is within the delivery. If we are shown Percy Toplis organising a mutiny, that’s what the play is telling us is happening. On the other hand, the book was called The Monocled Mutineer, so it’s not hedging its bets much… (I should point out that Allison and Fairley have come in for a fair bit of stick over many of the details in the book, as well as some of the main contentions.)
Yet as a drama, it works well. It’s polemical in places, but through situation rather than dialogue. After all, Percy is not a politicking pulpit-basher, he’s a wideboy. He’s not even particularly likeable, really; charismatic, but hardly likeable. Paul McGann nails the Toplis charm, the sometimes barely concealed bitter rage, the I’m-alright-Jackness, but most of all the empty, cold eyes. Toplis does change through the series, perhaps most clearly when he is made to guard a boy awaiting his execution. Locked together with their prisoner in a shed overnight, the other guards can do nothing but get him drunk so they can block out his fear, the knowledge of what will happen to him; but Toplis finds himself drawn in, and he finds out too much. That Toplis goes off and cons the dead boy’s mother is almost irrelevant; in telling her good things about her son, hiding the true nature of his death, he is providing comfort to a grieving woman. In his way, this is Toplis providing tenderness, through betrayal and deceit. And in a world where twenty million beating hearts could be needlessly stilled in four years, over nothing, tenderness in all its forms is precious.
There are some other rather well sketched out characters too: Philip McGough as the dumpy little MI5 man Edwin Woodhall – no stranger himself to delving into the dressing up box; Penelope WIlton as forces’ sweetheart Lady Forbes; and Timothy West as Brigadier-General Thomson, the weak, needy, unseeing man under whom the Étaples camp had descended into a cauldron of inhuman barbarity. There are also early – and pretty impressive – early turns by the likes of David O’Hara and Jerome Flynn (yes, that Jerome Flynn).
So, the writer, Alan Bleasdale… Bleasdale is one of those supposed leftie playwrights, whose actual socialist credentials are often found somewhat lacking in their work (as demonstrated in the bourgie wet dream that is G.B.H.; but that can keep for another day), yet The Monocled Mutineer is still a thoroughly absorbing tale, for all its author’s sins. Here the donkey jacket fetishism of his earlier work, and the Fabian wankery of his later period are both absent. Instead we get a more human level of tragedy, played out over a canvas of epic suffering, where the principal character, because of his moral anchorlessness, proves to be a crystal through which the attitudes and behaviour of those around him are refracted, offering different interpretations and reasons for his actions. The Labour man, the racketeer, the hero, the deserter, the Judas, the fool.
Anyway, worth seeing, or rewatching. Oh, and there’s a rather interesting article on OTT by Graham Kibble-White (he of The Ultimate Book Of British Comic), mostly about the hot water the Beeb got itself into with the government over claims it was a “true-life story”.
And for an equally – nay, more – powerful take on the Étaples mutiny, check out the most excellent Pat Mills/Joe Colquhoun comic strip Charley’s War.
PS The HonkWatch picture comes from the moment when Percy Toplis’ unit is gassed in the trenches. Oh what a lovely war.