Over the Top

Graham Kibble-White on The Monocled Mutineer and the ousting of Alasdair Milne

First published October 2000

This is a story of treachery, death and retribution.

Transmitted on 31 August 1986, and spearheading a prestigious autumn season of drama on BBC1, Alan Bleasdale’s The Monocled Mutineer saw the dramatist’s first historical piece, and adaptation of someone else’s work for television (he had already adapted his own Scully books for Channel 4). The BBC had first approached Bleasdale to tackle The Monocled Mutineer (by William Allison and John Fairley) in 1981, however he had at that stage turned it down declaring “I don’t do adaptations.” Despite this they sent him the book anyway. Patently Bleasdale had a change of heart and found some personal and ideological resonance in the story of Percy Toplis, who had become involved in a mutiny at an army training camp in Etaples in 1917. Bleasdale 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 … [Toplis] had no respect for false authority and the considerations of the so-called superior class. He was a working class mimic who spent his life deliberately keeping away people and not caring. In the end he cares and it’s his caring that kills him.”

In retrospect, The Monocled Mutineer remains something of a curio within the Bleasdale canon. Although the producer, Richard Broke, declared that the programme “has the flavour of Bleasdale all the way through … Percy Toplis is not Yosser but he’s a true Bleasdale character in all kinds of ways” in actual fact there’s little about the serial that feels quintessential Bleasdale. Despite Broke’s assertion, Toplis is very different from the characters that populate Bleasdale’s work elsewhere. Cold, cerebral and calculating Toplis (played with icy confidence by Paul McGann) lacks the essential humility of, for example, Michael Murray. Despite this, there is the occasional and merest chink of Bleasdale present; the psychopathic Sergeant Wall Eye muses “I had a nice nose. Once. Nobody ever talks about that …” Perhaps it’s because The Monocled Mutineer features none of the “Bleasdale Repertory Players” (Lindsay, Walters, Angelis et al) that it feels alien to the rest of his work, with more the feel of “BBC drama” than a Bleasdale creation. Despite this it is as successful and affecting a piece as anything else he has written.

When full page promotions for The Monocled Mutineer appeared in the press boasting of “WAR, DECEPTION, MUTINY [and] KIDNAPPING”, all but the last could be applied to both the programme and the brandishing of long knives at the BBC. Whilst Percy Toplis was ultimately blamed and demonised for the mutiny at Etaples, Director General Alasdair Milne was similarly made a scapegoat for the turbulence the BBC had weathered through the mid-’80s. Here we found a Corporation ill-served by it’s own groaning structures, a malevolent and hungry right-wing press, a powerful second-term Conservative government with its bogeyman figure of Norman Tebbit, and a Board of Governors, ruthless and disloyal.

The Monocled Mutineer was produced and broadcast in a period almost unparalleled in terms of controversy and upset for the BBC. Throughout 1985 and ’86 the Peacock Committee cogitated upon the future of the Corporation, prompting renewed pressure upon the BBC to take advertising (although this was not to be one of the conclusions of the Peacock report). Meanwhile Norman Tebbit was also monitoring the BBC, trying to eke out evidence of left-wing bias, and on occasion passing terse letters to Milne. The license fee had been renegotiated in generally unsatisfactory terms for the BBC, which had lobbied for an increase to £65 per year, but had to accept £58, whilst elsewhere it suffered financially in out of court settlements – legal action having been brought against Panorama (for “Maggie’s Militant Tendency”) and That’s Life! (Dr Sidney Gee objected to an item on his recommended dieting methods). The former case additionally prompted a motion signed by 100 Tory MPs calling for Milne’s resignation and “the restoration of proper standards at the BBC.”

More so than ever, there was also great criticism and controversy over programming: Rough Justice prompted the release of Anthony Mycock when a key witness recanted her testimony, however it was discovered that the means by which the production team secured the revision were highly suspect; The Sunday Times whipped up negative publicity (appropriating Margaret Thatcher’s phrase “the oxygen of publicity”) over the Real Lives programme featuring Martin McGuiness of the Provisional Sinn Fein and George Campbell of the Democratic Unionist Party – finally provoking Leon Brittan into stepping outside his role as Home Secretary and effectively censoring the Corporation; The Secret Society programme on the Zircon spy satellite raised questions about national security and brought police raids on the BBC Scotland offices in Glasgow (“BBC GAG ON £500m DEFENCE SECRET” – The Observer); The postponement of Ian Curteis’ Falklands Play (which featured a largely favourable portrayal of the government’s actions during the war) was attributed to a left-wing bias and thus derided; Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective provoked yet more argument over standards of decency on television due to the sexual nature of much of its content; and the BBC received a deserved rapping of the knuckles for pirating footage from a TV-am interview with Princess Michael of Kent, after the breakfast TV company had refused them access to it (despite being asked by the Palace to co-operate).

Three days before the broadcast of the first episode of The Monocled Mutineer, Stuart Young, the Chairman of the BBC Board of Governors, died. Initially appointed by the Government to help them gain a tighter grip on the Corporation, Young had proved something of a disappointment to the Conservatives and went “native” within the Corporation, subscribing (more or less) to the tenets of the BBC. “Who Will Be Maggie’s Man At The Beeb?” asked the Daily Express. With speculation rife, the Corporation dug in tightly and Bleasdale’s new drama found itself unwillingly the subject of political trench warfare. Bleasdale was quoted in the Radio Times, before transmission of the serial, as describing his piece as “a costume drama with something to say about the times we live in.” He continued: “I studied history books people in power wanted me to read. I have never learnt what it was like for a man to go to war, for a common man and a common soldier to experience the times.” Patently for him The Monocled Mutineer was a story, in part, about class. It was to his disgust that the serial instead would become a political pawn, with the right-wing press reading into it agendas that served only to aid their portrayal of the BBC as reactionary, left-wing and ill disciplined.

On 1 September 1986 The Daily Telegraph carried a full-page advert for the new drama season on BBC1. The “WAR, DECEPTION, MUTINY, KIDNAPPING” header was followed by some effusive copy: “On the face of it, Alan Bleasdale’s new drama The Monocled Mutineer is a catalogue of dark deeds. But any drama by the man who gave us Boys from the Blackstuff is naturally not without its lighter moments. The impudent Percy Toplis was a racketeering rogue. But he also had wit, style, and, as the ladies will doubtless testify, considerable charm. His enthralling true-life story, from pit boy to the most wanted man in Britain, is being told in four parts, continuing next Sunday evening on BBC1 at 9.05pm. It heralds a new autumn season on BBC1. Hard on The Monocled Mutineer‘s heels are works by the likes of Dennis Potter, Alan Plater and Richard Gordon … Without question, then, if it’s drama you’re after, the forthcoming Sundays look very bright indeed.”

Describing the programme as a “true-life story” would quickly prove to be a costly mistake. The “Letters To The Editor” section of the newspaper was meanwhile displaying rather less enthusiastic sentiments with one correspondent bemoaning “the excessively high salaries reputed to have been offered by the BBC to Miss Pamela Armstrong and Mr Martyn Lewis to persuade them to leave the ITN teams.” The letter went on: “Consequent upon the unfortunate death of Mr Stuart Young it will be necessary to appoint a new Chairman of the Corporation. May I suggest that Sir Ian MacGregor be invited to fill the post and to bring to the BBC some of sound economic sense which he has demonstrated with other organisations.” With the readership, as ever, reflecting the editorial line, the criticism of the BBC’s finances, and recommendation of a new forceful Chairman, were telling indeed.

We could also find in this edition Charles Clover’s cautious review of the previous night’s The Monocled Mutineer, which conceded the programme’s obvious quality, although tempering this with some reservation: “But for all the magnificent historical recreations permitted by the budget, this is a less searching comedy than Bleasdale’s marvellous Boys from the Blackstuff because it is populated by caricatures … the obvious political message which underlies Bleasdale’s use of the Toplis story makes the drama curiously one-dimensional and unsatisfying. I have seen all this done better on stage in Oh What A Lovely War and Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance. The caricatures of the past do not transfer easily to the present. What Bleasdale has written is a searching indictment of a class which no longer exists.”

Between transmission of the first and second episode speculation began to mount over who would succeed Stuart Young. The right-wing press, and the Prime Minister herself patently favoured British Airways chairman Lord King. It was stated that he would have sufficient faculty to “root out overmanning and left-wing bias” (the latter point being presented as though it were an unequivocal truth). Despite resistance to this appointment within the PM’s cabinet itself, the Tory press continued to champion King, perceiving this as the perfect moment for the Corporation to put its house in order – or more pertinently, to be forced to do so. It seemed inevitable that whoever won the appointment, heads would roll at the BBC.

Charles Clover returned to The Monocled Mutineer for its second episode and reported back in the 8 September edition of The Daily Telegraph. Again, he acknowledged the intrinsic worth of the drama, and in a piece entitled “Compelling Polemic Against Brutality” wrote: “For all its class war inanities and dubious hindsight, The Monocled Mutineer remains the most compelling and powerful programme on offer at the weekend.” Clover, however, still felt uncomfortable with the representation of class: “Bleasdale is at his best depicting the brutal NCOs and persecuted private soldiers. He seems unable to face the contradictions posed by one Lady Angela Forbes (forcefully played by Penelope Wilton), a friend of the King and of the top brass, who is as convinced as the soldiers are that the Etaples camp is a powder keg. Lady Angela protests to Thomson that his men are treating the soldiers like livestock. But when the mutiny begins, and uniformed women orderlies are raped, she asks a passing solider whether the revolution has broken out. ‘No Ma’am, just a bit of a riot, that’s all,’ comes the answer. ‘Oh that’s all right then,’ says Lady Angela. It seems a pity that just at the moment the upper class characters become interesting, Bleasdale slams them back into caricature.” This is fair criticism for a drama which Bleasdale has partly posited as a thesis on class division, although it does feel a little churlish of Clover to concentrate on this perceived failing in such a disproportionate fashion.

While The Monocled Mutineer represented the vanguard in the BBC’s new series of quality dramas, another programme was quickly making itself known, and synonymous with the perceived anti-establishment stance at the Corporation – Casualty. With its first episode “Gas” transmitted on 6 September, the programme in these early days depicted a NHS at breaking point. Clover (in the same edition of The Telegraph) had watched the episode and noted: “As a woman indirectly responsible for a ghastly accident embarking illegal chemicals at the docks explained, ‘I’ve become one of the new entrepreneurs.’ In the BBC drama department, of course, entrepreneur equals crook.” By drawing this element out of the programme Clover contributed to the portrayal of the BBC as anti-market forces, anti-establishment and in need of reworking towards “proper” business practice. The push for Lord King continued.

On 9 September the first real salvo was launched against The Monocled Mutineer. “When Is A Mutiny Not A Mutiny?” asked John Keegan, The Daily Telegraph’s Defence Correspondent. His conclusion on the historical truth of the mutiny at Etaples was that “the worm turned very little”. He continued: “The Etaples ‘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.”

Worse was to come, and on 12 September Julain Putkowski (who had joined the serial in 1982 as historical consultant and technical advisor) made a statement to the press claiming the serial was “riddled with error”. The Telegraph reported that “He accused the producer of ignoring his advice and said there was no proof that the central character, Percy Toplis, portrayed as the ringleader, was either a mutineer or had been within 100 miles of the scene of the mutiny … 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.’ … Mr Putkowski also said that ‘enormous difficulties’ beset the writing and production of the series and that there was the ‘inherent difficulty of having to use historically contentious source material.’” In response producer Richard Broke admitted that there had been “small examples of dramatic licence [taken]” however he went on to point out that “Mr Putkowski did not point out to us at any stage that Percy Toplis was not at Etaples Camp and he never challenged the book he knew we were working from.” Meanwhile Bill Cotton (at the time, Managing Director of Television at the BBC) defended the drama on the basis that it expressed “the greater truth about World War I”. The BBC’s official line was: “We should emphasise that this series is a drama, not a documentary. It makes no pretence at being precise historical record.” However the damage had been done thanks to their original advertising campaign which had unambiguously defined The Monocled Mutineer as a “true-life story.”

Alasdair Milne later recalled: “… in an attempt to get more of a fair hearing in the press we had recently hired an agency to take advertising space in the papers and they … promoted [the programme] foolishly (our fault, not the agency’s) as being ‘a real life story’. Which was certainly cutting corners. The press fell upon us for telling lies, and it added to their fury that most of the papers saw the plays as ‘left-wing propaganda’. The fact that they were well-made drama counted for nothing. This was one of the crimes tabulated in The Times’ calendar when it wrote on [the eventual appointment of a new chairman to the Board of Governors]. ‘He should examine the character and the career of his Director General. He should read the internal reports of the Real Lives affairs. He should examine the making (and the marketing) of The Monocled Mutineer. He should ask himself what he has to do to protect an organisation that has been given a fresh opportunity to protect itself but seems to have so little will to do so.’”

It was the Mail, however, that galvanised the campaign against the serial and branded it “a tissue of lies”. Over the weekend of 13 – 14 September the Saturday edition, whilst criticising the programme, also championed Lord King, while the Mail On Sunday derided the original source text of The Monocled Mutineer. John Fairley, co-author of The Monocled Mutineer book and then Yorkshire TV director of programmes, took legal advice on the allegations and commented at the time: “We stand by everything in the book. The principal point that the Mail On Sunday made was about the accuracy of the rape scene; we have a letter in the handwriting of the doctor we quote which was written in 1975 which describes the incident in great detail. This was followed up by personal conversation.”

The following Monday, Hugh Herbert in The Guardian was incensed by the manner in which the right-wing press had railroaded the programme for their own ends. He wrote: “If it were not such a transparent attempt to once again batter the BBC and install Lord King there to boot out the reds, this weekend’s attack by the right-wing press on The Monocled Mutineer would be simply absurd. As it is, it is both absurd and hypocritical.” Conceding that The Monocled Mutineer should have been billed as “a ‘true life story’ in the Hollywood sense” rather than as a true story, he also acknowledged Putkowski’s right to express his grievances if he felt the completed serial deviated from his advice (whilst also noting that this is not an altogether uncommon complaint for historical advisors working in conjunction with TV or film), but concluded “the right-wing papers … proclaimed that the drama serial was a tissue of lies, a twisted left-wing version of events that denigrated the troops of the BEF, invented the scenes of rape, pillage and murder of military policemen. And, of course, the Daily Mail’s brazen leading article on Saturday suggested that is was the latest outrageous evidence of left-wing bias at the BBC, which should be cleaned out by its new chairman, whoever he might be (‘Lord King comes to mind again’).”

Meanwhile Bill Cotton commented tartly: “It is richly ironic that the Daily Mail – one assumes for its own political reasons – should employ investigative journalists to nitpick over the minutia of historical fact when, at the same time, its TV critic has hailed The Monocled Mutineer as a work of quality and authority that magnifies the truth of war.”

As the BBC weathered the storm, the final episodes of The Monocled Mutineer played out. Writing for the Telegraph on 22 September Robin Stringer noted “this series … has shown all the skills of the BBC’s drama department to be intact, while exposing, not for the first time, the costly silliness of its advertising.” In truth, this was probably a fair assessment of the fracas, although it could be argued that the error in the original advertisement did not merit the amount of flak it had attracted. In recent times the BBC’s advertising had been rather less than successful: Advertising agency Lowe Howard-Spink Campbell-Ewald had been hired to spend £500,000 in sprucing up the BBC’s image. Their first press campaign was to promote BBC2′s serialisation of Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. The slogan: “Compelling Is The Viewing” was, rightly, much derided. In this context the promotion of The Monocled Mutineer should really have been attributed to the naïveté of the Corporation in marketing itself, rather than a BBC intent on rewriting history to conform with a left-wing agenda.

Alan Bleasdale was patently stung with the level of criticism that had been levelled at the serial and on 17 October had a letter published in Broadcast: “I am neither a Marxist nor a member of any political party, revolutionary or otherwise … It is, of course, a sign of our bleak times that anyone who expresses concern for cannon fodder and humankind is castigated as some kind of dangerous revolutionary …” At this time Ian Curteis had also been resurrecting the ghost of The Falklands Play, deriding a Corporation that would shelve his drama and yet show The Monocled Mutineer. Bleasdale continued: “I was [also] taken by Ian Curteis’ remark that in his Falklands drama, he has, no doubt for reasons of balance, shown a certain General Galtieri as ‘quite a nice fellow who was just rather too fond of his whisky.’ Well, that does balance things nicely. There must, however, be another General Galtieri who, as leader of the Junta in Argentina at the time in question, must be held somewhat responsible for the widescale torture, mutilation and death of dissidents, socialists, and innocent people. Ooops! There I go again, sounding just like a rude lefty.”

Michael Grade, then Controller of BBC1 had a more pragmatic outlook on the affair: “Quite apart from any political or economic considerations Fleet Street has a wonderful tradition of getting hooked on fixed ideas. Once they’re off on a certain track nothing you can do or say will stop them. But over and above that each of the papers that are hostile to us have their own particular reasons. On both ideological and commercial grounds the Murdoch press has decided that the BBC’s time has come and passed, and that’s that. As for the Mail, they’re simply prejudiced against the BBC and are determined to stitch us up at every possible opportunity … As for the Telegraph, they don’t believe in public institutions.”

Unfortunately for Alasdair Milne, the BBC Board of Governors did not take such a sanguine attitude. Due to resistance in the Cabinet (from Willie Whitelaw amongst others), Lord King was not appointed as Chairman. The role instead, went to Marmaduke Hussey. William Rees-Mogg approved of the appointment: “Hussey will be surrounded with molasses. They will try to coat him with sugar and flattery. Hussey will see through the BBC mandarins at a glance.” It’s worth noting here that Rees-Mogg, the BBC’s former Vice-Chairman, had been consulted for the position himself, but ultimately was not offered the job. At Christmas, Milne and Hussey had a dinner engagement wherein Milne floated the idea of continuing as DG after his term of six years expired in July 1988. Hussey did not comment. On 29 January 1987 the BBC was in the middle of another publicity crisis. A member of the public, Michael Lush, has been killed whilst rehearsing a stunt for The Late Late Breakfast Show. With the case due to be heard in the Coroner’s Court the following day, Milne was asked to go and see Hussey and board member Lord Barnett (formerly Chief Secretary, Treasury) following the usual board meeting. “I am afraid this is going to be a very unpleasant interview,” said Hussey, “We want you to leave immediately. It’s a unanimous decision of the Board.” Barnett added: “We want to make changes. We can’t under the present circumstances … We are men of honour. If you resign, it won’t affect your arrangements. You are going next year anyway.”

Left with little choice, Milne left the BBC the same day.

Michael Grade: “Bill Cotton, who had a keen nose for internal politics, said that the government had brought in Duke Hussey to complete Rees-Mogg’s unfinished agenda and get rid of Alasdair Milne.”

For Milne it meant the end of a 33 year career with the BBC. Although The Monocled Mutineer had by no means been the decisive element in bringing about his enforced resignation, for the right-wing press and the Government it had provided a useful focus point in an insidious campaign to oust Milne. Whilst Maggie had not succeeded in installing “her man at the Beeb”, Hussey had proved a useful alternative. Bleasdale, meanwhile, was wounded by the criticism and disillusioned at the way his serial had been appropriated. His next major work would not be for the BBC, and would partly reflect the sort of political band-wagonism The Monocled Mutineer had been subjected to.

We will not get an official report on the Etaples mutiny until 2017.