The Singapore Grip's Luke Treadaway explains why ITV empire drama is 'interesting, weird and dark'
Luke Treadaway tells Richard Godwin about ITV's new big budget show, The Singapore Grip.
Before he was cast as the idealistic son of a rubber magnate in The Singapore Grip, Luke Treadaway hadn’t given much thought to the Japanese invasion of Singapore in the Second World War. Nor, he admits, had he spent much time pondering the finer points of the colonial rubber trade, or the lives of British imperialists in the Malay Peninsula, or the people they were there to exploit. And, in fairness, how many British people have?
“It’s not on the syllabus is it, the Fall of Singapore?” says the 36-year-old actor from his coronavirus retreat in rural Devon. He’s wearing a grey cap and sweatshirt, curls and beard untroubled since lockdown began, bearing the dreamy air of a child who has been yanked away from his game to say hello to a grown up.
“We don’t go there in school, funnily enough. We dwell on the victorious battles,” he says. Having once played a prisoner in a Japanese internment camp in Angelina Jolie’s movie Unbroken, he was vaguely familiar with the history, but not the wider context. “So being in this was eye-opening to me.”
The sumptuous new drama, adapted by Christopher Hampton from JG Farrell’s 1978 novel, ought to be eye-opening for TV audiences, too. In February 1942, 80,000 British, Indian and Australian soldiers surrendered to a Japanese force roughly half that size, thanks to a familiar combination of British hubris, aristocratic incompetence and casual racism. Winston Churchill called it “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history”, and all those captured, soldiers and civilians alike, suffered some of the worst PoW conditions of the war at the hands of their Japanese captors.
The surrender is often described as the “day the Empire died”, but given the depiction of those doing the surrendering in Farrell’s book, it’s hard to feel too sad about that part of it. “Empire”, as George Orwell had it, was “in essence nothing but mechanisms for exploiting coloured labour” – and there’s plenty of that going on in the rubber plantations of Blackett and Webb, the family firm at the centre of The Singapore Grip.
But lest you think you’re in for a finger-wagging history lesson, can I stress how sultry, how swoonsome, how delectably cast and darkly comic The Singapore Grip is? Think jazz bands tootling on tropical lawns, spoilt young rubber-brats careering around in vintage Lagondas, Charles Dance pruning roses in a sarong – and Luke Treadaway perspiring handsomely at the centre of it all. “It’s got a different vibe,” is how he describes it. “It’s interesting and weird and dark.” Filmed on location in Malaysia last year, it’s an immersive treat at a time when the mere thought of foreign travel feels off-limits.
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The novel was the final part of Farrell’s Empire Trilogy, published a year before the Irish author drowned at the age of 44, cutting short a brilliant career. The first book, Troubles, was set during the Irish War of Independence of 1919; the second, the Booker Prize-winning The Siege of Krishnapur, unfolded the Indian Rebellion of 1857.
The Singapore Grip refers to – well, I wouldn’t want to spoil it. But Treadaway wolfed it down (“Even the bits about rubber taxation are fascinating”), while Hampton sees it as the greatest of the three books and Farrell as a natural successor to Evelyn Waugh. As with Waugh’s greatest fiction, the six-part series moves from satire to romance to deep gnawing tragedy. “There’s something quite karmic about these characters, who have gone around the world taking what they want from the local people, suddenly realising that they can’t actually escape,” says Treadaway.
David Morrissey plays the buccaneering Walter Blackett, head of one of the most successful enterprises in Singapore and father of two of its most dislikeable children, Joan and Monty (played by Georgia Blizzard and Luke Newberry). When the series opens in 1941, business is booming – the armies in Europe need rubber – but Blackett hopes he can double-lock his future by marrying his daughter to the son of his business partner and mentor, Mr Webb (Charles Dance). However, when young Matthew Webb arrives in Singapore, fresh from a spell in the charitable sector, he has different ideals. Much to the disgust of the Blacketts, he worries about the condition of the native population – and falls for Vera Chiang (Elizabeth Tan), an enigmatic Chinese refugee taken in by his father.
The series arrives at a moment when discussion of the British Empire is more heated than it has been for a generation – witness the toppling of the statue of the slave-trader Edward Colston in Bristol and the Rule, Britannia! episode at the Proms. Treadaway is extremely reluctant to wade into all that (“It’s all so much and so big isn’t it? It’s hard to even wrap your head around. I mean the history and the weight of that…”), but feels the drama has lessons for today.
“It doesn’t feel like a massively didactic piece telling you the Empire was bad,” he says. “It’s showing you the people who were involved in it and allowing them to have conversations about it themselves. People will take different things from it. But what I liked about it is that we are left under no illusions about these characters.”
While much has changed since that time, the characters are still recognisable types. Matthew would surely have just completed a worthy gap-year project. Walter would be the director of a multinational mining company, or perhaps a tax fiddler for a Silicon Valley giant. “There’s still colonialism and imperialism, but they go by different names don’t they?” reflects Treadaway.
“Walter thinks that only by driving profit up and sending it back to the shareholders in England will we bring these poor people into the modern world. But these people weren’t asking to be treated like slaves. It wasn’t a fair pact, it wasn’t a joint decision was it? You can’t claim you’re helping a country if you’re just doing it all on your own.”
It’s a great part for Treadaway – you can almost see him losing his innocence through the series. His most celebrated roles so far have been boyish outsiders: Christopher, the 15-year-old autistic hero in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, whom he played around 300 times between the National Theatre and the West End, winning an Olivier Award in 2013; and the homeless James Bowen in A Street Cat Named Bob (2016). Here, he emerges as a romantic lead.
Treadaway grew up in rural Devon with identical twin brother Harry and older brother Sam. Their mother was a primary school teacher, their father an architect. The twins’ early career moved in lockstep. They entered the LAMDA drama school in the same year and were all but welded together in Brothers of the Head (2005), an indie film about conjoined twins in a punk band.
They have long been central to a sprawling set of now-not-so-young British stage talent that includes friends Benedict Cumberbatch, Matt Smith and playwright Polly Stenham. Both brothers are in long-term relationships with actors, too: Harry’s partner is Holliday Grainger (currently starring in Strike, Sun BBC1); Luke’s is Ruta Gedmintas – they have a son Bodhi, two and a half, and another on the way.
Treadaway winces, in a polite sort of way, when I ask if there is any brotherly rivalry – but laughs when I ask if they have a pact never to work together again. “I would never say never. Possibly, but it’s not something we’re actively pursuing.” While in the past they talked over roles (“It’s always helpful to be able to discuss your industry”), now that task is largely outsourced to partners.
When I ask how his lockdown has been, he does a lot of earnest equivocating. “God, every time I speak about this, I feel it will come across as incredibly unthoughtful as it’s horrendous for so many people.” But yes, he’s had a pretty idyllic time down in Devon. “We were living in a tiny flat in Highgate before lockdown and we just thought, ‘Nah’. We had an option to stay with my brother in Devon, and then we got a place down here ourselves.”
The first couple of weeks were spent “bubbling” with Harry and Holliday, but since then he’s been reconnecting with his country roots, climbing trees, building sandcastles and going for walks along rivers with his son.
“I’ve experienced what a lot of people have told me they’ve experienced, which is having that time to pause. Just having time with my boy. He’s that age where they start coming out with bonkers stuff all the time, but he’s also impressing you every day with how he can climb over this or open that. It’s a brilliant age isn’t it?”
If not for coronavirus, he would have spent the summer in New York, where he had two plays lined up, while Gedmintas was due to film in Italy. But Treadaway is remarkably sanguine about the fate of the industry.
“The small theatres are going to really struggle, I feel so sorry for them. I hope the Government puts its hand in its pocket for culture as much as it has for other industries. But I’m not like, ‘Oh, I must work next week’. I can’t see that happening. It will happen when it happens. There’s no point getting stressed about it.”
Has lockdown changed him? “Yeah, I’ve started looking at the farmers and their tractors ploughing the fields and thinking, ‘Actually I’d like to be doing that’.” He laughs, but leaves a long enough gap for me to wonder if he’s being serious. Sure he misses London, friends, work, haring around Soho. But if we take one thing from this strange time? “I would just like everything to calm down and everyone to just realise that we’re on this tiny bloody marble, hurtling around space.”
Read more about The Singapore Grip
- Where was ITV's The Singapore Grip filmed?
- What is the 'Singapore Grip'? The meaning behind the name of ITV's new period drama
- Meet the cast of ITV period drama The Singapore Grip
This interview originally appeared in the Radio Times magazine. For the biggest interviews and the best TV listings subscribe to Radio Times now and never miss a copy. If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our TV guide.Head to Amazon now to purchase your copy of The Singapore Grip by JG Farrell.