Last Sunday, faced with a disappointing episode of Philip K.Dick’s Electric Dreams (Sony Pictures TV for Channel 4, 2017 –) on Channel 4 and the blandness, not to say offensiveness of watching episode 3 of The Last Post (BonafideFilms for BBC, 2017- ), we turned to a repeat of The Monocled Mutineer (BBC, 1986) on the Yesterday channel. I’d first seen the opening two episodes on a weekend screening led by Ian Aitken on the Film & TV Masters programme at the University of Westminster in the early nineties. More recently, I bought the DVD thinking that I might cover Alan Bleasdale in authorship studies at some point. I was not new to the series, therefore, but was surprised and shocked at its power.
Trailer for The Last Post:
Trailer for The Monocled Mutineer:
To return to our earlier viewing – The Last Post – whereas this series simply fails to address the issues of a continuing British presence in Aden (Now Yemen) after independence was granted, The Monocled Mutineer quickly establishes that there is an untold history of World War 1 and that we need to know more about it. In The Last Post little is upsetting or provoking. (Bar one scene of the aftermath of an attack on a British soldier showing us his charred body.) The trials and tribulations of the post-empirical forces in Aden and their families pre-dominate and the fact that indigenous people might be suffering something rather worse than ennui and a tricky pregnancy is almost completely lost. In three hours I have learnt very little about the occupation of Aden and the trials for all of bringing this outpost of Empire to a close. In complete contrast, The Monocled Mutineer (henceforth TMM), was thought provoking and entertaining even, from the start. The finale of episode 1 is shocking no matter how many times you have seen it and rightly so since it deals with the execution of an alleged deserter. And if one thinks that this is an issue of schedule context, they were both transmitted on BBC 1 at around the same time. (TMM was also transmitted at 9.00 pm (9.05pm to be precise) in September 1986 on Sundays evenings on BBC 1.)
At this stage it would be very easy to paint a rosier past for British Television Drama, at a time when things were better at the BBC and the full force of market competition, really unleashed post ’92, had not yet happened. I recall a day event celebrating 25 years since The Singing Detective (BBC, 1986) – organised by Royal Holloway – at which one participant claimed that there was so much more drama in the 1980’s. There clearly wasn’t, it would easy to demonstrate this and indeed if one got into the murky issues of quality then The Singing Detective was preceded, if memory serves, by Howards Way (BBC, 1985-1990)! (Incidentally this was in the same slot as TMM starting just three weeks later) Whilst it is possible to describe the change in quantity it is much harder to a make a pronouncement on quality that does not sound very much akin to an expression of personal taste. Though, of course one can draw upon a whole range of writings on this –e.g. Charlotte Brunsdon (1990) and Janet McCabe and Kim Akass (2007) – amongst others.
An ability to shock is hardly the sign of a functioning drama. One of the reasons that I turned off the episode of Philip K.Dick’s Electric Dreams was that a cockney geezer, straight out of the Guy Ritchie stable, was threatening to chop off a fellow character’s finger and possibly get his colleague to eat it. Sure shocking, up to a point, but unmotivated, gratuitous and pointless. In TMM the shocking execution, and the raping of two women in episode 2 is I think justified. Firstly, because in both cases minimal gore and nudity were involved and secondly because only a very unhinged viewer would take pleasure at what was shown. Thirdly, and most importantly for me, the purpose of the scenes was to demonstrate the results of barbarism, though one had to trust that these were documented historical events. In the week following the Harvey Weinstein revelations this becomes more pertinent. Certainly, the biggest change in British TV Drama is a move away from purely male writers and male perspectives. Writing in the Guardian this week Kate Hardie suggested that Sally Wainwright should be put in charge of everything drama. An understandable reaction, not least to experiences in her own acting career, as she describes it. But, in turning our back on a male dominated TV Drama past, might we not lose something. (Whilst, I freely admit there could be gains.) Bleasdale has himself admitted that he was not good at writing female characters. I once got locked into an interesting discussion with Terry Lovell as to why there could not be a mixture of female and male lead characters in Boys from the Blackstuff (BBC, 1982). It would have been a cheap shot to say because of the title, but clearly tarmacing was pretty much a male preserve and so whilst there is a drama to be made about a female gang, this would not be the naturalistic one that Bleasdale intended. There was Angie Todd played by Julie Walters, but only in two episodes and perhaps not an ideal female character? The need for reform in television as a whole, and particularly in television drama, was and continues to be necessary, but should we take an essentialist line on this? Just to consider two recent dramas, Liar (Two Brothers Pictures for ITV, 2017 -) and Doctor Foster (Drama Republic for BBC, 2015 -). For Liar this is the product of two male writers, a male director and female producers and Doctor Foster has a similar spilt between male writers and directors and female producers. There has been criticism of Doctor Foster recently – Women’ s Hour – and this might indeed be because of a male writer, but mostly it appears to stem from a treatment of the drama as naturalistic rather than the high melodrama I assume it was intended as.
TMM might also be forgotten because of the continuing interest in the new in television. Despite issues of ephemerality been partially covered by DVD, Box of Broadcasts, Netflix and even Youtube, there remains a real focus on this year and now. Indeed, I certainly feel a pressure to concentrate on the more recent, the more easily accessible in screenings when I teach. This is partly the ‘tyranny ‘of the module evaluation, but also a desire to engage in the lecture room and at the follow up seminar. (My record this year has been to screen the previous night’s episode of Upstart Crow (BBC, 2016 -) on a Tuesday evening session for a PSB module. Less than 24 hours! Starting a module on film and TV authorship a couple of weeks ago, I asked the group if any of them had heard of Dennis Potter. None had. As I pointed out to them, in the context of TV drama this might be seen to be extraordinary given that you would hardly enrol on English and never have heard of Hardy, Dickens, the Brontë sisters and so on. This, as I re-assured them, was hardly their fault – it happens every year that I try this test – but it tells us something about the continuing status of television drama and especially the treatment of its history. Though, of course, one might argue that Potter was a difficult man and wrote for a different time in terms of male and female roles and any debate on gender. Equally, one might argue that his work was ground breaking in British TV Drama.
To return to TMM, Bleasdale it seemed to me was suggesting that the barbarism arose from a particular type of masculinity. So, whilst not shouting that this is the fault of some men and a construction of masculinity, he makes this very clear in episode 2 when Lady Angela Forbes played by Penelope Wilton complains about the treatment of recruits at the training camp at Etaples. The reasons for disregarding her intervention are many, but they end with the fact that she is a civilian and primarily that she is a woman. Here her class, the commanding offer (Timothy West) points out that she knows both the Royal Family and Chiefs of Staff personally, are completely trumped by her sex. (Incidentally, this makes for a very interesting intertextual reference to her role in Downton Abbey (Carnival for ITC, 2010 -15) where she demonstrates the same steely resolve and campaigning zeal, but with a more successful outcome, as Isobel Crawley)
In contrast to any of the military hierarchy Paul McGann’s playing of Percy Topliss, the titular character, portrays a very charismatic form of masculinity. As Bleasdale’s writing indicates this itself is not without problems. Topliss refuses to take a political position stating more or less that it is everyone for themselves in this world. After the war, he even extorts £100 from his old comrade in the mutiny in order to fund his adopted parents retirement. His politics are portrayed as malleable and primarily about survival. Thus, giving a contemporary feel both in 1986, and perhaps today, to parallel debates in the Labour Party. His relationships with women also seem questionable until the latter part of the drama. He visits the town impersonating an officer in part to sleep with prostitutes. Here he is portrayed as better than other officers, more caring, but still making use of the sex trade. To an extent this might be contextualised by the horrendous conditions at the front and the general madness of this grim world of the trenches, but is that a justification after the facts? When he falls in love his relationship, given that he is on the run, is not a straightforward one. But, throughout he is shown as a man abandoned by his mother in childhood looking for love and approval elsewhere. Even his military role is not as a combatant, but working in the medical core as a stretcher bearer. Bleasdale again shows the duality in his character in both Topliss’ attempts to rescue the injured, never at his own personal risk and then him stealing from the dead when he can on the battle ground.
It was Robin Nelson who wrote in 1997 that it was possible to objectively demonstrate that Boys from the Blackstuff was superior as a drama to Heartbeat (Yorkshire TV, 1992-2008). This was largely because of the subject matter of Boys from the Blackstuff and its contemporary relevance to the state of things. John Caughie (2000) in carefully discussing the idea of ‘Serious Drama’ (his quote marks) also suggests that one can definitively distinguish between differing levels of television drama. (Though it should be noted that he states that any discussion of British TV drama cannot proceed without reference to Coronation Street.) In his BFI TV Classic on Edge of Darkness (2007), he also discusses seriality and especially the benefits of the weekly episode. It allows for discussion and reflection and a further thinking through of the narrative story as opposed to presented plot in some ‘serious’ dramas. However, despite the lateness of the hour, I have to admit we could not wait and simply got the DVD out to continue viewing episode 2.
I suppose my conclusion here is that much contemporary debate about British TV Drama deserves closer inspection and the interesting change here is that there is so much popular debate as well as academic. I can stand in my local supermarket and hear a conversation about, say Doctor Foster. When my eldest daughter and partner returned home this weekend, I can wizz through everything on at present and we will find something that we have both watched to discuss. (Both Liar and Doctor Foster in this case). And a hope that both teaching and popular discussion should not fail to discuss the past in TV drama. But, too much of this discussion, both popular and academic, relies on received wisdom about the state of television and society. In other words there is much more to do here. My great hope is that increasingly those of us in the academic world, welcome in the regular viewer and fan to this debate. It’s one of many reasons that I teach Television, because potentially everyone can get involved. Oh, and TMM continues on Yesterday and is available online……
Tom Nicholls is a Senior Lecturer in Media Theory at the University of Lincoln. Initially trained as a Photographer at Birmingham School of Photography his teaching and research interests have gradually migrated to moving image critical theory over the last twenty five years, teaching Film Studies and specialising in Television Studies more recently.
 Though here one might pause to think that firstly, the two female actors concerned were probably paid less that the male actor who mooned later in the episode simply because they did not speak and that filming such a scene might not come without some cost emotionally. There is further female nudity in episode 3 which might need further consideration as to its necessity and the differing contexts in which it is shown a brothel and within a loving relationship.