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A Fine (And Controversial) Piece Of Historical Drama
The Monocled Mutineer has the reputation of being one of the most controversial programs to have ever been made for British television. Based on the novel by writers William Allison and William Allison, this series details the life of Percy Tolpis, rogue and master of disguise, and his supposed involvement in the mutiny at the Etaples training camp in France in 1917. While the historical accuracy has been debated for years (and undoubtedly will continue to be) this 1986 production is nonetheless a fine production with good performances, evocative production values and a fine script.
The miniseries is anchored by a fine performance from Paul McGann. This was one of the McGann's first big roles though one would never it from the performance. McGann effortlessly floats between the various aspects of the Toplis character ranging from his ability to charm almost everyone to scenes such as his final one which shows the melancholy in the man. Even better perhaps, McGann proves himself capable of a whole range characters as well as throughout as Toplis impersonates numerous people as the series goes on. McGann owns the part and the miniseries throughout as a result.
The supporting cast is good as well. The supporting cast ranges from Matthew Marsh as fellow mutineer Charles Strange, Cherie Lunghi as Toplis's lover Dorothy in the later parts, Jane Wood as Toplis's aunt and Charles Strange as Toplis's uncle to name a few. The stand outs of the supporting cast are Penelope Wilton as Lady Angela Forbes a civilian volunteer who attempts to warn the camp's leaders about how their training regimen is festering a mutiny, Timothy West as the camp's commander who finds himself at first unwilling and then swept up in the events around him, and Philip McGough as the secret service man hunting for Toplis. The supporting cast does exactly what it should do: support the leading player and yet stand out themselves.
The production values stand out as well. The production design and costumes evoke the setting brilliantly as they seemingly replicate the sights of coal mine towns, World War I battlefields, army camps and other settings. The cinematography of Andrew Dunn brings out even more reality from them as the viewer is exposed to those settings under all sorts of conditions and moments. It is the cinematography perhaps more then anything that brings out the sheer brutality found not just on the battlefield but also by experienced by the soldiers being trained at the Etaples training camp as well. Add on period era songs (performed well by McGann himself) and the score and the illusion is complete. The Monocled Mutineer is once again a prime example of the BBC's first class ability to bring historical dramas to life.
Which brings us to the script by noted writer Alan Bleasdale. Bleasdale adapted the script from the aforementioned novel by writers William Allison and William Allison. The script is perhaps the biggest source of controversy surrounding this miniseries with its deceptions not only of Toplis but of the Etaples mutiny itself. The historical evidence as it exists offers conflicting evidence as to whether or not the events depicted really happened or even if Toplis himself was ever even at the Etaples camp to begin. The series also remains controversial over its fundamentally anti-war message as the series brings to light is the futility of much of World War I itself. In the first part alone we see commanders ordering the effective gassing of their own troops and see commanders ordering men to face certain death (which is given an ironic twist as Toplis sits with a soon to be executed soldier who reveals who is he really is in the miniseries most touching yet harrowing scene). Outside of that though The script almost effortlessly floats between the dramatic and the comedic as Toplis charms and impersonates his way throughout the series. Overall this is a first class script by Bleasdale who weaves a fascinating portrait of Toplis the man and his life.
The Monocled Mutineer, outside of the controversial aspects, is a fine miniseries. From the fine performance of Paul McGann as Percy Toplis, the performances of the supporting cast, the evocative production values and a first class script by Alan Bleasdale here is a fine example of what a good historical drama should be. Even if that historical drama is controversial...
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