Back in the eighties, it was ITV who ruled at the costume drama, with classics like Brideshead Revisited and The Jewel in The Crown spread over eleven and fourteen episodes. They literally don't make them like that any more. The BBC's period dramas had acting that was as cardboard as the set.
The Monocled Mutineer is what the Americans would call a mini-series. It doesn't quite have the scale of the ITV productions; it's four episodes- three 75 mins and the finale is 90 mins. This is a spoiler-free review because I haven't actually seen the final episode! I just got so excited that I decided to review anyway.
The DVD back cover humorously says that it is a "supposedly true story", whereas the general consensus is that it is willfully historically inaccurate. To be honest, unless you are particularly familiar with WW1 minor figure Percy Toplis, I doubt it will bother you. If it does, never watch a play, film or TV show again. The look of the whole thing, from what I can tell, is factually accurate. It's certainly not the 1940 film of Pride and Prejudice, where everyone's wearing outfits from Civil War melodrama Gone with The Wind! The cover also clears up the myth that the show has never been repeated; it was repeated once, in 1988, but not since then.
You know when people go a bit gooey over the 'golden era' of Hollywood? I have the same reaction to these eighties mini-series. They're well-written, well-acted, well-shot...simply good stories that gave us a look at British history that was both nostalgic and critical. With its script written by 'Boys From The Black Stuff' writer Alan Bleasdale, The Monocled Mutineer is mostly critical. At the time, people complained that it was all part of some lefty agenda at the BBC and that it was ruining the honour of the soldiers who fought in it. The Monocled Mutineer certainly has things in common with Boys From The Black Stuff- Toplis's mutiny is clearly reminiscent of the worker's unions- but it's not a rehash or allegory, even if Thatcher Britain saw things in it that reflected their own society.
In a way, I would have liked it to have been longer. Unlike Brideshead or Jewel, which are rammed full of fascinating characters, the focus of The Monocled Mutineer is on, well, 'The Monocled Mutineer'- AKA Percy Toplis. This was Paul McGann's first big role and he just exudes charisma and talent. Though he looks as if he wouldn't last a day in the war, this works in his favour, as Toplis tries to avoid getting involved in, well, anything. Maybe that's what wound up the public; Toplis is a self-serving anti-hero. His big trick is to impersonate an officer so he can go off and have a bit of fun occasionally and McGann manages to play both working-class Yorkshire lad and public-school educated officer beautifully. It's an interesting commentary on how class is simply an accident of birth and that there is nothing inherently special about the upper classes. Another actor would undoubtedly have been stronger playing one class than the other (imagine Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady) but McGann plays them equally as well, giving the impression of a young man whose identity is completely fluid.
I'm not sure how close this is to the real-life Percy Toplis. From photos, Toplis looks like a shifty scallywag, whereas McGann is strikingly good-looking. You might argue that it's just romanticising history but I think that Toplis needs to be at least superficially attractive for the audience to see how people might have fallen for his charisma. McGann's character is still scally-waggish and a bit unpleasant- refreshingly, Bleasdale finds some black humour and irony in this. Instead of making Toplis the baddie or trying to underplay his unpleasantness and making him a working-class hero, Toplis remains enigmatically ambiguous. Is he a reluctant hero or merely just a stirring trickster?
However there are two other great characters- Timothy West as Brigadier General Thomson, who allows the brutalities in the Etaples training camp to happen and mourns that the days when an officer was respected are no longer, and Penelope Wilton as Lady Angela Forbes, who serves the tea at the camp and objects to the sadistic training methods. The dialogue and power play between the two is hilarious, even though the subject matter is brutal. Aside from McGann, Wilton has the best lines. I won't paraphrase because it'll lose some of the brilliance, so you'll just have to watch it!
As for the DVD itself, it's a bare bones version. Unlike the VHS, which merged episodes into one long film, the DVD is split into the original four episodes. Happily, there are English subtitles, which is more than you'll get on some DVDs, and as a nice little treat, the main menus use the glorious theme tune as a background and the scene selection menus use McGann's lovely version of 'Let The Great Big World Keep Turning'. You might want some smelling salts by you for that moment in the series because any woman is bound to swoon.
Interesting trivia: Paul McGann was originally meant to star in nineties historical TV series Sharpe, and he shows all the necessary qualities in The Monocled Mutineer. However an injury meant that Sean Bean stepped in- for the better I think. Excellent actor though McGann is, I don't buy him as a fighting type (though he's played many dashing soldiers), whereas Sean Bean is a man's man as well as a ladies' man. McGann got his chance to steal a role when he beat Withnail and I co-star Richard E Grant to the role of the Doctor in Doctor Who. Ah, the many what-ifs of film and television...