In 1986 Quartet Books reissued in paperback The Monocled Mutineer, which it originally published in 1981, to coincide with a major BBC 1 drama series that received critical acclaim. Written by William Allison and John Fairley, it told the story of a bizarre event on the Western Front in 1917, on the eve of the battle of Passchendaele, when British troops in France erupted into mutiny.
It remained one of the British army’s most carefully guarded secrets. At the centre of the revolt was Private Percy Toplis. A court martial sentenced him to death by firing squad, but he escaped to England and took to the life of a colourful outlaw, masquerading under a multitude of disguises. He organized a unique black market in army stores, even re-enlisting in the army under his own name, apparently with impunity. Finally the authorities made ready to pounce, and for six desperate weeks he was pursued the length and breadth of Britain in a manhunt that ended bloodily in a police ambush in 1920.
The critics were unanimous in their praise for the book when it first came out. ‘An amazing disclosure after sixty years,’ wrote The Times, ‘of how 100,000 men were immobilized in a murderous protest against brutality.’ ‘A sensational story the British army tried to suppress . . . a sensational book, ’said the Evening Standard. The Guardian affirmed that there was no doubt the authors had ‘opened out a rotten piece in the woodwork’. In the opinion of the Daily Mirror, the book had, ‘Revealed at last a shameful, secret story which, for so long, the establishment has tried to hide.’
However, now a real rumpus is taking place since the BBC has ruled out repeating the controversial drama about the mutiny as historians quarrel over the truth of the uprising.
The Monocled Mutineer drew about 10 million viewers when it was aired in 1986. It stared Paul McGann as Percy Toplis the supposed ringleader of the insurrection. The series sparked controversy in the House of Commons as Tory MPs claimed the series was inaccurate and accused the BBC of left-wing bias.
Michael Gove had previously criticised the programme, along with Blackadder and Oh What a Lovely War in 2014 for depicting the First World War as a ‘series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out of touch elite.’
The 4-part series has not been repeated since 1988 despite calls in recent years from McGann and from Lord Grade of Yarmouth, who was controller of BBC1 at the time and said in 2014 that he would be ‘thrilled to see it again.’
John Fairley said recently: ‘It was incredibly popular and should be repeated. I wrote to various people at the BBC including Tony Hall, [the Director General] saying it should be repeated. but have had no reply.’ The BBC said in 2014 that the series might be considered as part of its First World War commemorative season, then admitted recently that there were no plans to repeat The Monocled Mutineer.
My own feeling is that controversy should never be the reason for not showing the series again. History is a matter of interpretation and historians tend to differ more often than not. As publishers, Quartet has always been in the vanguard of those who believe that alternative viewpoints lead eventually to the truth of the matter. Michael Gove can utter what he likes. It won’t make any difference. He has become even more pompous of late and is not to be taken seriously.