The Singapore Grip has had a troubled launch. ITV’s new six-part Sunday-night costume drama is an adaptation of JG Farrell’s satirical novel from 1978 about English colonial families in Singapore during the Japanese invasion. Discussing the programme on Radio 4’s Front Row, the writer and actor Daniel York Loh accused it of erasing the city-state’s east Asian population and recycling racist old tropes about exotic temptresses.
The title refers to an apocryphal trick employed by local sex workers and its only east Asian main character, Vera (Elizabeth Tan), is a well-spoken beauty who shows the white male characters the error of their ways. Others agreed with York Loh’s assessment. Beats, a non-profit advocacy group for Asian actors, said the programme could have been “more enlightened”. Simu Liu, the Canadian actor cast as the first Asian Marvel superhero, Shang-Chi, tweeted “No… just… no” in response to the trailer.
Sir Christopher Hampton, who wrote the screenplay, defended his work: “It shows the corrupt practices and casual racism of the ruling elite. Any fair-minded viewer will easily understand this.” If you wanted to give the programme the benefit of the doubt, you might argue that it is a period satire, necessarily inflected by the time it was written, and that its target is clearly the white elite who live in ignorance of the local population except when they want another G&T or more rubber tapped at the plantation. But for York Loh, and many others, The Singapore Grip “replicates the racism it attempts to critique” by staying faithful to its white, male 1970s authorial perspective. Opinions will differ, but the point is well made.
A simpler question is whether The Singapore Grip is worth watching as TV on its own terms: no. It can’t decide how sharp to be, veering between a Catch-22-style black comedy about the horrors of war and a jolly-old-marriage farce, complete with a relentless big band soundtrack. David Morrissey plays Walter Blackett, a rubber trader working for Mr Webb (Charles Dance), a many-tentacled colonial merchant who displays a soft spot for Vera Chiang, an alluring Chinese refugee. Walter’s wife Sylvia (Jane Horrocks) is a nag, his eldest daughter Joan (Georgia Blizzard) is a vampish blonde, and his son Monty (Luke Newberry) is a chinless wonder. (The wait continues for a focused, upstanding Monty on television.) Webb’s son, Matthew (Luke Treadaway), on the other hand, is an idealistic young man who is summoned to this snake pit when his father falls ill.
The cast do their best with dialogue that’s often too mannered to be taken seriously, but not funny enough to be funny. The whole thing struggles to find its feet, perhaps because of the anxieties described above. Glossy as they are, the sets and costumes and extras and CGI Japanese bombers can’t add much to this uneasy picture.