I’ve tended to focus on structure in reviewing this short series, and I shall maintain that approach to the end. Alan Bleasedale’s story has broken itself down into four episodes or acts, three of 75 minute duration and this last of ninety minutes. We’ve had establishing Percy Toplis, the Monocled Mutineer of the title, establishing Etaples Training camp, the flashpoint of the Mutiny, and now we have the aftermath.
To my considerable surprise, on finishing watching the final episode, I discovered that John Freeman’s excellent downthetubes site, a fount of up to the minute news about all things British comics related, had linked to this series, comparing it to the appearance of the Etaples Mutiny in Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun’s brilliant ‘Charley’s War’. Though I have some of the hardback collections, I haven’t got that far yet. I must repair that omission. The odd thing was that I was already thinking of the structural similarity between The Monocled Mutineer and a completely different comic series: Dave Sim’s Cerebus.
Cerebus is about a lot of things, not all of them marred by its creator’s eccentric beliefs. Sim chose a structure that meant that Cerebus’s story is, effectively, ended by issue 200, echoing Sim’s recognition that some people’s lives work that way, leaving them to live a long and, effectively, purposeless afterwards. So too does Bleasedale choose to make the climax of the story, it’s reason for existing, the third part, leaving a final episode to take a fatalistic form. Percy Toplis, who didn’t give a bugger about anything, is not yet 21. He’s the whole of his life ahead of him. He’s affected by what he’s seen in the Great War – who who took part in that as a soldier in the field was not, or could not have been? – yet outwardly he’s unchanged. Nevertheless, because of his recklessness in the Mutiny, his couldn’t-care-less-ness, he’s a wanted man: Edwin Woodhall, of the Secret Service, remains fanatically determined to arrest him.
And we see how determined Woodhall is early on. Percy’s socialist friend, Charles Strange, is standing in Southwark as a Labour MP, likely to be elected after a post-War year of ‘a land fit for heroes’ (have there been many more sickening lies from a Tory Government? Including the present one). Percy’s there to blackmail him for £100, to pay his adoptive parents back for all his stealing, to make them safe now his ‘father’s lungs have filled up and he cannot work. But Woodhall’s there, with his men, two of whom are on Strange’s staff: Strange is arrested at gunpoint, told to step down or else he will be publicly exposed for his desertion. Woodhall thinks his ‘masters’ are very ‘very decent’ in allowing that.
As a result, Strange throws himself off a sea cliff to his death. And Woodhall’s ‘masters’ congratulate him for helping to preserve ‘the fabric of decent society’, whilst making cruel jokes about his lack of stature.
Watching all this made my blood boil. All they ever wanted, those men who went to war and came back, was a decent life. After what they did, after the way the ordinary folk of this country have been treated all along, it was the only decent thing to do. It still is, no matter how much it’s sneered upon now, how much Labour have abandoned the merest thought of it. Back then, though, as we saw in Etaples through Thomson and Strachan and the rest, the idea of treating these people as human was unthinkable.
Sorry, bit political, not apologising for it. It’s woven into the series though, inescapably.
Percy Toplis doesn’t want to get involved. He’s seing his rich widow love, Dorothy, once every five weeks or so. He won’t say what he’s doing at other times and neither does Bleasedale, because to get too close to what the real Percy Toplis is doing in these times, including a year in prison for fraud, is to present a version pf the character that not all Paul McGann’s charm could obscure. But Dorothy – and Cherie Lunghi is as superb in this episode as McGann has been throughout – wants more. She’s in love. She will end up carrying Percy’s baby. Thjey both evewntually admit their secrets to each other: Dorothy is as much of a conwoman as Percy. Like him, she comes from a dirty, drab, despairing village. She accepts him for what he really is (though we never see exactly how much truth he tells her and how much he conceals). The only thing that shocks her is to discover that her lover is only 21 (Lunghi was 34 the year of the series: mind you, McGann was actually 27).
But Percy’s life is one long drift, from this to that, the pursuit of money without working for it or caring about anyone he robs or cheats, or himself that much for that matter. But what he did at Etaples marked the end of his life: the effects will follow him to his death.
The episode starts to pick up momentum in its second half. Percy re-enlists in the Army as ‘Johnnie Walker’ – cue much jokes about whisky – the name Dorothy has known him by. He’s recognised by anothe Etaples Mutineer, Tommy Turner, now a racketeer with a petrol scam. Percy joins the business as its front man, its negotiator. Unfortunately for him, he’s dogged by Harry Fallows (Aran Bell), too young for the actual war, a naive, talkative, hero-worshipping idiot. You know he’s a disaster in human form, a stupid bomb waiting to go off. When the taxi driver representative Sydney Spencer (Jim Carter) weasels down the price by threatening to dob them in to the cops, Harry puts a gun to the back of Spencer’s head. Then the stupid git shoots him. With realistic effects that he is completely unprepared for.
And naturally he shops Percy to the Police as the killer, the utter scrote. So begins the endgame. Percy goes on the run, despite Dorothy’s loyalty, to save her from her association with him. He’s chased all over the country, to Scotland and back. He gets wilder and wilder, more violent and threatening. On a lonely country road in Cumberland, on a Sunday afternoon, he is cornered, and shot dead.
There’s a final touch of Establishment cruelty. Percy’s funeral is secret, not even his family allowed to attend, they diverted by a disgusting trick. Only the minister insists of a proper service, pointing out that at his death Percy Toplis had been connvicted of no capital crimes and thus the only judgement he has to face is not here on Earth.
So it ended. I’m reminded of another line from another comic, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s superlative From Hell, the exploration of the myth of Jack the Ripper. I made it up and it all came true anyway. It’s pretty clear that there’s not that much of absolute truth in The Monocled Mutineer. The Etaples Mutiny remains one of the biggest mysteries in British Military history. All records have been destroyed, the series was attacked as unBritish, unpatriotic, as all such things will be. Alan Bleasedale has had to make an awful lot of it up. He never pretended it was anything but a fictional drama. I made it up and it all came true anyway.
Because even if none of it happened the way it was shown, I believe it all to be true. I believe in the underlying truth of everything in the series. I believe this because I have read histories of the period, because I have read writings by J.B. Priestley about that era. I believe because of my entire life and the things I believe in. The Monocled Mutineer was written as a condemnation, and it is a condemnation. And I stand by what it says.