When The Singapore Grip‘s “naïve and innocent moralistic” young protagonist Matthew Webb (Luke Treadaway) arrives in colonial Singapore, he is disgusted by what he finds: his father’s friends and business partners living a life of excess, all while sneering at the locals and exploiting their labour and resources. Meanwhile, the threat of Japanese invasion looms – but the leading lights of the British Empire are too busy partying (or are too convinced of their own military superiority) to pay attention.
“I think it’s a really bold satire of that part of history, really, and how we were in the world as a country,” says Treadaway, who leads this timely ITV drama. Written by Oscar-winning screenwriter Christopher Hampton, the six-parter is based on the 1978 novel by JG Farrell which follows the events around Japan’s entry into the Second World War.
Hampton tells us: “It starts very light and it just gradually, it darkens, and becomes more serious, pretty well continually, until the actual fall of Singapore. And I liked that, I liked setting it up with that kind of frivolous pre-war colonial blasé party-going rich atmosphere and then gradually subverting it, which is what the book does.”
Matthew’s opposite in the story is Walter Blackett (David Morrissey), the business partner of his ailing and semi-retired father Mr Webb (Charles Dance). Walter is the ruthless chairman of the profitable rubber merchant company, Blackett & Webb Limited, and he has raised his son Monty (Luke Newberry) and daughter Joan (Georgia Blizzard) to believe fully in the superiority of the white Englishman and the benevolent good of the British Empire.
Matthew’s arrival presents a problem – but it’s one he’s sure he can subdue.
“Matthew is sent for to come and visit his dying father,” Treadaway explains. “And he arrives in Singapore with very different views to Walter, and very different views to a lot of people who were sort of, those people who were running business empires during the time of the Empire.
“So he’s very different, and he’s been working for the UN and the League of Nations, trying to better workers’ rights, and just very progressive and different views to those of David’s character. And he’s kind of an idealist, I suppose, and maybe naively thinks that it would be easy to solve some of these problems when they’re actually ingrained and entrenched from decades of colonial rule.
“So he’s probably a bit naive to the bigger picture, but his heart is definitely in the right place and he certainly sees workers’ rights and enhancing the local area as something which is as important as lining the pockets of the shareholders. Which is completely the opposite to Walter’s character, so it’s a really good conversation about those things which are had right at the forefront between these characters.”
Speaking about the complexities of portraying an empire on screens, Treadaway says: “There are many people now and many people at the time who would have thought, would have genuinely believed that it was something that was of benefit to these places, and I couldn’t sit here today either and say that there wasn’t one – that some certain person along the way did feel some benefit of something. I’m sure that that existed.
“But the overall architecture of how that was manifested across the world at the behest of one country and a supreme arrogance thinking that they were going to save parts of the world that somehow needed saving, as opposed to maybe they were going to develop in their own way at their own time – and who’s to say that that wouldn’t have worked out better for them in many ways?
“So it’s really interesting, during this sort of TV show, to have the blend of these conversations and topics I think, and a war film coupled with a love story coupled with these sorts of political and military questions.”
But Treadaway is concerned about whether the misdeeds of the British Empire or military failures (such as the fall of Singapore) make it onto the school curriculum and into public knowledge.
“It’s great to learn about the Great Fire of London and the Second World War at school, but the quote that I remember my history teacher at school telling us all to write on the front of our books was: ‘Only by fully understanding our past can we begin to understand our future.’
“And that’s completely true… and we owe it to our kids, and the future of our whole planet really, to not sugar-coat history and just cherrypick and show moments of valour from our fighting troops – that’s great to have those to look at, but all parts of history – you can’t just make it one-sided, because otherwise people grow up thinking that their world, their country, is a certain way. And we’re all citizens of this tiny planet spinning around in space.”
The Singapore Grip will start Sunday 13th September on ITV. While you’re waiting visit our TV Guide to see what’s on tonight.