Fiction and fact: Which characters in ITV’s The Singapore Grip are based on real people?

The historical drama weaves together a mixture of invented characters and real-life figures.

The Singapore Grip history

Fact and fiction come together in The Singapore Grip, ITV’s historical drama set in World War Two-era colonial Singapore. While most of our main cast of characters are fictional, the events that take place are very real – and so are many of the people involved.

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So who’s who in The Singapore Grip cast? Here’s what you need to know.

Are the characters fictional – or based on real people?

The Singapore Grip is based on the novel of the same name by JG Farrell, and the vast majority of Farrell’s characters are fictional: in reality there was no Walter Blackett, no Matthew Webb, no Joan or Monty or Ehrendorf or Dupigny.

However, a handful of key characters are based on real-life historical figures – particularly the Generals and Commanders and Governors who appear throughout the story, like Robert Brooke-Popham and Sir Shenton Thomas.

Screenwriter Christopher Hampton, who was friends with Farrell before his untimely death, told RadioTimes.com: “Yes, all the military characters are [real]. He [Farrell] was a very, very conscientious researcher… given he only wrote three big novels in his life, he spent a terrific amount of time researching, and all the military characters in the book are the real people, and all of their mistakes. Sightly burlesqued in one way or another by both of us.

“But basically those were the characters: Brooke-Popham who was the man in charge of Singapore who was recalled, and then General Percival who ran up the white flag, and Brigadier Wavell who came in to give them Churchill’s message that they should die rather than surrender, which was not a very helpful message at that stage.”

Who was Sir Robert Brooke-Popham?

The real brooke-popham

Sir Robert Brooke-Popham (1878-1953), who is played by Sam Cox in the drama, was the Commander-in-Chief of the British Far East Command (i.e. the top military leader) until he was replaced a few weeks before Singapore fell to Japanese troops. As Farrell writes him (and as Cox plays him), he is a weak and indecisive leader who prevaricates on taking action until it is too late.

The real Brooke-Popham was an Air Force man, who served in the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War and then steadily climbed the ranks, becoming Governor of Kenya in the 1930s. That was a post he left at the start of the Second World War in 1939, and the following year (at the age of 62) he was given the Commander-in-Chief role with responsibility for defence matters in Singapore, Malaya (now “Malaysia”), Burma, and Hong Kong.

Things did not go well, to put it mildly.

Brooke-Popham was not given any authority over the Royal Navy ships and troops in the area; he had insufficient planes and anti-aircraft guns to mount an aerial defence; military resources were directed elsewhere, and he was lacking in tanks. His plan to protect Malaysia, Operation Matador, was a failure of botched timing and limited British forces – though to what extent this was Brooke-Popham’s fault, or the fault of the top brass in London, is a matter for debate.

As the Japanese advance continued, a decision was made to replace Brooke-Popham who seemed near nervous collapse. That decision was finally carried out in December 1941 at the height of the battle for Malaya, with Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Pownall taking over the job.

Shortly afterwards, on 15th February 1942, Singapore fell to the Japanese. Brooke-Popham bore public blame for the defeat, and lived the final decade of his life largely in retirement.

Who was the real General Percival?

General Percival

General A Percival, who is played by Richard Lumsden in the drama, commanded British Commonwealth forces in Malaya and Singapore. He was the one who had to surrender to Japan.

Having served in the First World War, Percival (1887-1966) went on to fight in Russia and Ireland in the interwar decades. (His behaviour in Ireland is the subject of particular controversy, and he has been accused of being sadistic and vindictive towards the Irish.)

Over the years he rose up the ranks, and in April 1941 was sent off to Malaya to become General Officer Commanding (GOC). He set about training his troops and trying to establish defences, but on 8th December 1941 – an hour before the attack on Pearl Harbour which brought the USA into the war – the Japanese launched its assault on Malaya.

The Japanese advanced rapidly, and Percival was forced to order a general retreat. Finally, after Japanese troops landed on Singapore island and closed in on the city, Percival agreed to surrender. As pictured above, he personally marched under a white flag to the Old Ford Motor Factory for the meeting to negotiate the surrender, which took place on 15th February 1942. The question of how far he was culpable for the fall of Singapore has been hotly debated.

After the surrender, Percival was held as a prisoner-of-war Singapore, Formosa, then Manchuria. He later campaigned for compensation for former POWs.

Who was the Governor, Sir Shenton Thomas?

Sir Shenton Thomas (1879-1962), played by Martin Wenner, was the last Governor of the Straits Settlements.

After a series of administrative and leadership roles around the British Empire, he was given the Governor role in 1934; this was a civil government role rather than a military post, unlike the other figures we’ve discussed so far.

The Governor had been set to retire five years later, but stayed on after the outbreak of war. Thomas became chairman of the local defence committee, but struggled to get state governments to play ball with the military forces.

On the eve of General Percival’s surrender, Thomas had informed London that Singapore could not realistically hold out against the Japanese. He was right, and after the surrender he was taken as a prisoner-of-war.

Who was General Wavell?

General Wavell (1)

General Wavell (1883-1950), played by Mark Tandy, had a long and varied military career. He comes into our story when he is made Commander-in-Chief of “ABDACOM” American-British-Dutch-Australian Command.

It was to General Wavell that Churchill wrote in January 1942: “I want to make it absolutely clear that I expect every inch of ground to be defended, every scrap of material or defences to be blown to pieces to prevent capture by the enemy and no question of surrender to be entertained until after protracted fighting among the ruins of Singapore City.”

This was very dismaying to the people on the ground, and Wavell telegrammed back detailing the true state of British defences. Churchill later moderated his stance.

In one notable incident in 1942 (five days before the surrender of Singapore), Wavell was preparing to board a flying boat. He stepped out of a staff car, but failed to notice (thanks to his glass left eye) that it was parked at the edge of a pier; he plunged directly downwards, broke two bones in his back, but survived. This is translated into a memorable scene in the novel.

Did Blackett and Webb Ltd really exist?

Charles Dance stars in The Singapore Grip on ITV
Charles Dance stars in The Singapore Grip on ITV
ITV

No! But many companies very similar to Blackett and Webb certainly existed. And they were very valuable to the British Empire.

As Professor James Hagan and Professor Andrew Wells put it in their paper on The British and rubber in Malaya, “To promote a prosperous rubber industry in Malaya was a continuing principle of British imperial policy in the 40 years before the beginning of World War II.

“Malayan rubber plantations were not only a source of considerable wealth for British companies and their shareholders; they provided the British Government with a strategically essential product in times of war, and in times of peace one which earned valuable overseas credits. The good health of Britain’s balance of payments depended in no small measure on exports of Malayan rubber.”

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The Singapore Grip airs from Sunday 13th September at 9pm on ITV. Check out what else is on with our TV GuideYou can buy JG Farrell’s The Singapore Grip on Amazon now.