Christopher Hampton on adapting his friend J.G. Farrell’s novel The Singapore Grip for ITV: ‘I never imagined I would do it’

Four decades after J.G. Farrell's death, the author's final novel has been made into a drama starring David Morrissey, Charles Dance, Luke Treadaway and Elizabeth Tan.

The Singapore Grip main cast (1)

J.G. Farrell’s The Singapore Grip was published in 1978, just a year before the Booker Prize-winning novelist’s tragic death in a fishing accident at the age of 44. And now that final novel has been adapted for ITV by his “admirer and friend” Christopher Hampton – who says he could “never” have imagined he would get the chance to bring it to the small screen.

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“I must say it was possibly the most enjoyable job I’ve had for, oh, for years and years and years,” the Oscar-winning screenwriter and playwright told RadioTimes.com. “It was just sheer pleasure doing it, and digging into the book and trying to work out how to make it real and stay faithful to it.”

Farrell published three novels before he died, and at first the focus was on the big screen. Film rights were sold for his Booker Prize-winning The Siege of Krishnapur (1973); directors and producers were attached, but the movie never materialised.

“Scripts must have been written, but the film was never made, and I suspect the reason for that was that it just was impossible to contain everything in the space of a two-hour film,” Hampton said. “The landscape has changed so much. We’re talking about 40 years ago, so the landscape has changed so much.”

Christopher Hampton during filming for The Singapore Grip
Christopher Hampton during filming for The Singapore Grip (ITV)

So, four decades after his friend’s death, Hampton – whose credits include Atonement and Dangerous Liaisons – was approached by Mammoth Screen. The TV production company, known for shows including Poldark and Victoria, which wanted to discuss an idea.

“They said, ‘Do you know a book called The Singapore Grip?'” Hampton recalled. “I just said: ‘Well, I’ll do it!'”

The Singapore Grip is the third in “Empire Trilogy” of novels, which look at different facets of colonial rule in Ireland, India and finally World War Two-era Singapore. This final satirical novel centres on a British family and their friends, and their attempts to build (and consolidate) their wealth in the run-up to the Japanese invasion and the fall of Singapore.

The ITV drama stars David Morrissey as wealthy (and amoral) rubber trader Walter Blackett, Charles Dance as his business partner Mr Webb, Luke Treadaway as Webb’s son (and “innocent abroad”) Matthew, Georgia Blizzard as Walter’s daughter and Matthew’s would-be fiancée Joan, and Elizabeth Tan as Chinese refugee Vera.

Matthew Webb with the Blackett siblings in The Singapore Grip
Matthew Webb with the Blackett siblings in The Singapore Grip (ITV)

Hampton was given the task of converting the 700-page novel into six episodes, which drove home how much better-suited it was for a TV adaptation rather than a feature film.

“I can’t imagine how you’d ever do this as a movie,” he said. “The benefit of television adaptations is that you can delineate all those minor characters and give them their bit and their proper weight and not skip anything, really, but deal with every aspect of the book.”

Looking back on his friendship with the author, Hampton said: “I met him through my friend Margaret Drabble who knew him very well… and he was a very, he was a very good cook, a famously good cook, and he lived in a tiny bedsit not far from here [Notting Hill], and it was so small that when he had a dinner party he had the table up against the wall until he was ready to serve. The table was then lowered with him on the end, so he’d come and go from the tiny kitchen. And he was very convivial, and sort of amusing – very dry and amusing in that Irish way.

“And I don’t think I saw very much of him towards the end of his life because suddenly his circumstances changed when The Siege of Krishnapur won the Booker Prize, and he got an American publishing deal and so on.

“And he bought this little house on the West Coast of Ireland, and he was also in the Far East a good deal researching Singapore Grip which only came out the year before he died… I don’t think I saw him after Singapore Grip. I may have dropped him a line saying how much I liked it. But of course when he died he was only 44, so it was a big shock to all of us.”

Hampton added: “He was quite sort of gossipy and just a person you enjoyed spending time with. He was a particular favourite of mine, I hope I conveyed that to him. I liked all of his books very, very much.”

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The Singapore Grip will be start Sunday 13th September on ITV. While you’re waiting visit, our TV Guide to see what’s on tonight.