The Singapore Grip, ITV’s sumptuous new six-part ITV drama is based on JG Farrell’s (extremely long) 1978 novel, and was adapted by the Oscar-winning screenwriter Christopher Hampton, who counts himself as a “friend and admirer” of the late author. Farrell unexpectedly died aged 44 shortly after this book was published, leaving behind a body of work consisting of three hefty novels – the ‘Empire Trilogy’ – about British colonial rule in Ireland, India, and finally Singapore, and Hampton has labelled it “the most significant chunk of writing about colonialism in fiction that exists.”
That’s not to say it’s all so serious. The Singapore Grip is a satire, poking fun at the leading lights of the British Empire who party on, obliviously, as danger approaches. And in a gentle way, it’s really quite funny! In tone, there’s something of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 about it all, though nowhere near as biting – but still. It’s not one big lecture about colonialism, either; it shows rather than tells.
Take the larger-than-life characters: As chairman of Blackett & Webb Ltd in colonial-era Singapore, David Morrissey’s character Walter Blackett is a wealthy rubber baron (and possibly also a robber baron) who firmly believes in the superiority of the British Empire and the inferiority of the locals.
But Walter also faces a number of challenges, although he’s convinced he can turn them into business opportunities. Firstly, there’s this pesky Second World War raging in Europe and the looming threat that Japan might invade Singapore – but luckily, demand for rubber has never been higher! There’s a fortune to be made if you know your way around the rules! And the Japanese will surely never conquer a British colony anyway… (historical spoiler: they do.)
Secondly, the show’s protagonist Matthew Webb (Luke Treadaway) is on his way to Singapore to visit his ailing father Mr Webb (Charles Dance). That raises the prospect of Matthew taking over his dad’s partnership in the company. Alarmingly for Walter, Matthew is an idealist with a strong moral streak and a distaste for exploitation. (“Bad luck,” says Walter.) But the rubber baron has a plan: his spoilt, self-confident, business-minded daughter Joan (Georgia Blizzard) is perfectly prepared to marry Matthew to secure the family interest. And seducing him, she says, will be no problem at all.
Monty Blackett (Luke Newberry), Walter’s silly and work-shy son, is determined to have a good time and wants nothing more than to see a woman fired out of a cannon (except the other thing he wants, which makes him a regular with Singapore’s sex workers). He is close to his sister Joan, who is deliciously horrible, totally amoral, and treats men as her plaything; one of her games is to make her bewitched victims jump into the swimming pool fully-clothed, and she has a bizarre relationship with her father that borders on incestuous.
Her mother Sylvia Blackett (Jane Horrocks) despairs in Joan’s choice of men and can imagine nothing worse than a ruined garden party; company man The Major (Colm Meaney) is a comic presence, with his dog called The Human Condition; and then there’s philosophical Frenchman Francois Dupigny (Christophe Gybet), who is one of the only people to take the threat of Japanese invasion seriously, but everyone around him thinks he’s very droll.
So when a dazed, naive, and somewhat timid Matthew Webb arrives in their midst, the Blacketts are confident that they can walk all over him and then drag him into their world.
You can see why they might think that. Despite his strong views on exploitation (and his belief that you should probably try to help the war effort instead of hoarding rubber for profit), Matthew is one of the most passive protagonists in any TV series I’ve ever seen. He is horrified by the company’s treatment of workers, by the blatant racism he sees, and by the displays of wealth and excess in wartime – but for the most part, all he does is complain and look shocked. Oh, sometimes you just want to take him by the shoulders and shake him!
That’s especially true when it comes to Vera Chiang (the excellent Elizabeth Tan), a mysterious Chinese refugee who attaches herself to Mr Webb and then to his son, Matthew. The Blacketts keep trying to drive Vera away, but – being a smart and determined survivor – she keeps on coming back. Obviously, she and Matthew fall for each other. But Joan has already begun her campaign of seduction, and Matthew is such a damp dishcloth that he just lets everyone push him around.
Still, if his passivity irritates you like it did me, just wait it out: Matthew’s emotional journey throughout the series is all about growing a spine, and it is delicious to watch him start to come into his own.
Meanwhile, time marches on towards the inevitable fall of Singapore, while the British generals botch the defence and stall on making decisions. And everything leads us back towards the first scene in the drama, where a mud-and-blood spattered Matthew Webb dodges Japanese bombs and searches for his girl in bid to make the final boat out of Singapore.
The Singapore Grip begins on Sunday 13th September on ITV at 9pm. Check out what else is on with our TV Guide.