Written by JG Farrell and published in 1978, The Singapore Grip is 700-page biting satire of the British Empire. It is also now a six-part drama on ITV, starring David Morrissey, Luke Treadaway, Elizabeth Tan, Charles Dance, and Jane Horrocks.
So how closely does the TV drama, adapted by Farrell’s old friend Christopher Hampton, follow the novel?
The Singapore Grip’s depiction of women and minorities
One of the most notable changes between the novel and the drama relates to the character of Vera Chiang (played by Elizabeth Tan) – although this has been a subject of huge controversy in the run-up to the ITV drama’s premiere.
Vera is billed by ITV as a “Chinese refugee” (but described in the novel as “Eurasian”, i.e. having mixed European and Asian ancestry). She is the only Asian main character, and one of a handful of important female characters.
In both the novel and the TV adaptation, we first meet Vera when she’s fleeing Shanghai in 1937 after some kind of trouble with a Japanese soldier. She comes across wealthy Joan Blackett (Georgia Blizzard) and takes her card; later, in Singapore in 1941, Vera asks the Blacketts to vouch for her and save her from deportation. Walter Blackett (David Morrissey) refuses, but Mr Webb (Charles Dance) steps in and invites her to live at his mansion. And when Mr Webb’s heir Matthew (Luke Treadaway) arrives in Singapore, the two fall for each other – but will Joan, or the war itself, be able to keep them apart?
However, ahead of its premiere, the show was came under fire from BEATS, a not-for-profit advocacy org founded by British East and Southeast Asians working in the theatre and screen industry.
BEATS criticised The Singapore Grip’s “harmful (non)representation” and particularly the character of Vera, saying in a statement to Variety: “The television adaptation could have taken a more enlightened perspective in keeping with the progress that has happened in the half century since the novel’s publication.”
The organisation said that the series, like the 1978 book, “features only one Asian character who remotely resembles a protagonist: Vera Chiang, ‘a mysterious Chinese refugee’ (‘Eurasian,’ according to the story, although this nuance is seemingly lost on ITV’s publicity department), whose main dramatic function is to cast a ‘spell’ over the story’s white male conscience, ‘Matthew.’ In the first episode, her every appearance is announced by keening erhu music while, despite her supposed refugee status, she models impeccable cheongsams and enigmatic smiles.
“The other Asian characters are merely heavily accented ciphers, silent chauffeurs, exotic dancers, giggly prostitutes, monosyllabic grunts and half-naked Yogis. Asian womanhood is represented as lurid temptation and subservient availability. Studies have shown that sexualised, submissive stereotyping of East/Southeast Asian women leads to staggeringly high rates of physical and sexual violence against them.”
In response, screenwriter Christopher Hampton told RadioTimes.com: “The most sympathetic and resourceful of the central characters is a Chinese woman, a member of the Resistance against the Japanese, who is able to educate our hero and open his eyes to what he is already becoming aware of, namely the corrupt practices and casual racism of the ruling British elite.”
The role has also been made more central than in the novel, though whether enough changes have been made for a 2020 is clearly a matter for discussion.
Elizabeth Tan, who stars as Vera, previously told RadioTimes.com: “It’s a testament to the brilliant writing and the wonderful adaptation by Christopher Hampton in bringing it to a modern audience. It’s so important, and he obviously understands that, you know, the female characters are also very important and they needed to be fleshed out.
“So that relationship and these characters, especially for Vera that I can speak on, she is written as a very strong independent woman, she’s financially independent and she’s also travelled all over; she’s an orphan. And I think that’s also where you see that not only is she a survivor, a true survivor, but she’s also managed to – in her spare time – put her energy into things that she really believes in, whether it be fighting the Japanese – and in that opening scene she’s in trouble because the Japanese officer has been murdered and they’re wondering whether she has a part in that. So she’s been fighting the Japanese with her ‘doctor friend’… and then she’s also fighting a cause – for the people of Singapore, and that’s why she gets called out and she’s about to be deported.
“So she’s a very complex woman who is independent, who is strong and powerful, she is super intelligent because she speaks all these languages, she’s physically strong, she knows the martial arts and she will protect herself, but she also stands up for the things that are important for her. And for a woman in that time, she’s a wonderful role model… don’t underestimate her, is what I would say to audiences.”
Is the plot different in The Singapore Grip novel?
Not a great deal! Somehow, screenwriter Christopher Hampton has managed to boil down a 700-page book into a six-episode drama without cutting too much out – though we have yet to see whether the ending has been tweaked or not.
And in case you’re wondering about some of the particular details in the TV show, and whether they’re in the original book… we’ve got answers!
The Major’s pitiful dog called ‘The Human Condition’? Yep, that’s in the book. The Da Souza Sisters and the human cannonball and The Great World? All from the book. The confusion over the meaning of the term “The Singapore Grip”? That’s a running joke in the book.
We were particularly curious about the weird, semi-incestuous relationship between Walter Blackett (David Morrissey) and his daughter Joan (Georgia Blizzard)? But we went back to the book and, yes, it’s there too. The strangest moment comes when – as we see also in the ITV drama – Walter is trying to secure Joan’s marriage to Matthew Webb (Luke Treadaway) while the latter is feverish in bed, and Joan strips off and climbs between the covers.
“‘Oh the little rascal,” chuckled Walter. ‘Oh, the little hussy! What d’you think of that, Major? And before her own father’s very eyes! And what, I should like to know, young lady, would your mother say if she could see you now?”
Ultimately, very little of what passes between the Blacketts and the Webbs has been omitted from the drama.
What is different about the TV version?
What does seem to have been slimmed down is Farrell’s long, detailed, meticulous (and very interesting) passages about the deteriorating military situation.
In the novel, we spend a lot more time with Sir Robert Brooke-Popham (yes, he was a real person) and the rest of the military commanders. We even follow the journey of a Japanese soldier and his progress through Malaya; and we see in great detail how Malaya and Singapore were lost.
We also hear far, far less about the ins and outs of running a rubber plantation and how the British businessmen exploited the locals in a variety of devious ways. And we hear less about the dying days of Matthew’s old employer, the League of Nations.
Perhaps these passages were harder to televise? Or considered less interesting to the viewing public than the ins and outs of the drama between Matthew, Walter, Joan, Vera, the Major, Dupigny, Ehrendorf and co?