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Top Notch Great War Drama
on 28 August 2007
I remember watching this on television when it was first screened by the BBC back in 1986, and was mightily impressed. Twenty one years later, the 'Monocled Mutineer' has lost none of its impact.
Loosely based upon the real life story of a Nottinghamshire ne'er-do-well who finds himself drawn inexorably into the carnage of the First World War, the 'Monocled Mutineer' offers a highly original take upon what might seem like a familiar period of history. Scripted by the controversial Alan Bleasdale, it manages to be funny, moving and sometimes shocking, all the while maintaining a strong and engaging story line. A key episode involves the so-called 'Etaples Mutiny' of 1917, when British soldiers ran amok in protest at the brutalities of the nearby 'Bull Ring' training camp. The film's depiction of these events caused a stir in 1986, with Tory MPs outraged at what they considered to be a slur upon the record of the British soldiers who fought and died in Flanders. Yet such reactions were wide of the mark, as the 'Monocled Mutineer' takes a balanced view of the episode, and makes it clear that the limited outbreak of disorder was sparked by the systematic bullying of veterans who had already been pushed to the limit. The film deals frankly with the horrors of trench warfare, and also the comradeship and black humour that enabled soldiers to endure them.
The script is excellent, with convincing dialogue contributing to a strong sense of the period. The young Paul McGann was perfectly cast in the central role of Percy Topliss, the working class lad and humble Tommy who periodically adopts the persona of a dashing, monocle-wearing officer, and casually assumes a leading role in the 'Etaples Mutiny'. These are crimes for which the Establishment can never forgive him, and in the war's aftermath, Topliss becomes the most wanted man in Britain. McGann plays the part with exactly the right mixture of cynicism and compassion. The rest of the cast - which includes the likes of Timothy West and Cherie Lunghi - is equally good.
All in all, a well-crafted, atmospheric and gripping drama.