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The Monocled Mutineer is a British television programme 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 the BBC's supposed "left-wing" bias.[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. 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 criticized The Monocled Mutineer. He said: "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."

This 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.'"

Series producer Richard Broke admitted that there had been "small examples of dramatic licence [taken]", 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, 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.

The 13 September edition of the Daily Mail began a concerted campaign against The Monocled Mutineer on the part of the newspaper, 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.



  1. ^ Stewart, Ian; Susan Lisa Carruthers (1996). War, Culture, and the Media. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. p. 67. ISBN 0838637027.  
  2. ^ a b Badsey, Stephen (2000). The Media and International Security. Routledge. pp. 83–84. ISBN 0714648485.  

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