The Singapore Grip review: A questionable satire which misses the mark

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Launching on ITV on Sunday, September 13 at 9pm, The Singapore Grip is an adaptation of J.G. Farrell’s 1978 novel of the same name. The Singapore is one third of Farrell’s The Empire Trilogy, an exploration of British Imperialism and the effects of colonialism. Set in 1942 during The Fall of Singapore, a ferocious attack by the Japanese on the British which prompted one of the worst wartime surrenders in history next to Dunkirk.

The Singapore Grip follows scheming and arrogant rubber magnate Walter Blackett (played by David Morrissey), a businessman looking to make a quick buck from questionable practices as war looms on the horizon.

Enlisting his equally duplicitous daughter Joan (Georgia Blizzard), Walter instructs her to use her womanly wiles to win over his business partner’s son and eligible bachelor Matthew Webb (Luke Treadaway), ultimately in the hopes of retaining the business.

Enter Vera Chiang (Elizabeth Tan), a beautiful and mysterious Chinese woman – not to mention suspected communist – who threatens to up-end Walter’s plans to ensnare Matthew.

All of this takes place against the backdrop of the catastrophic Fall of Singapore where lives are lost amid a bloodthirsty military campaign.

The Singapore Grip has been adapted by Oscar-winning playwright Sir Christopher, who serves up an unexpected comedy-drama.

This is a watchable show – the gorgeous locations in Malaysia are an aesthetic treat – and the lavish 1940s costumes will reel in the viewers, offering up some easy Sunday night escapism to ease them into a new week.

There’s no disputing how wonderful The Singapore Grip all looks, however, the tone feels wildly out of step with the global conversations around representation and diversity onscreen and off and the Black Lives Matters movement.

The show has already been criticised by advocacy group BEATS, which has been founded by British East and South East Asians working within the screen and theatre industry. The group branded the show a “kick in the teeth” after the trailer was broadcast – and it’s not hard to see why.

For a show set in Singapore and filmed in Malaysia, there’s hardly an Asian person in sight apart from the one main character.

Vera’s depiction feels uncomfortable with an underlying sense of exoticism and perhaps even fetishism. While she is supposed to be a strong woman, the enigmatic aura around her feels off somehow.

Even the title The Singapore Grip references a sexual technique, which is said to have been used by sex workers of the time – again adding to this sense of orientalism and perpetuating stereotypes.

Despite being of the era, the casual racism is cringeworthy and doesn’t ever feel like it’s being played for laughs.

Modern man Matthew is in fact mocked for taking the moral high ground by those around him revelling in their odious pomposity and colonialist superiority.

The Singapore Grip is intended to be a satire of colonialism and the British Empire, but it all feels too subtle to really bite or offer up any sort of meaningful commentary or subversion.

However, the programme-makers have suggested after the first two episodes of the six-parter, viewers will start to see the tables turned with the status quo reversed by the end.

Hampton also responded to BEATS’ criticism, telling Variety how “any fair-minded viewer will easily understand that [The Singapore Grip] is an attack on colonialism”.

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Speaking to media including, director Tom Vaughan said: “Everything that happens from episode two onwards begins to begin to break that [social hierarchy] down and undermine and challenge that and twist it.”

He added: “By the time you get to episode six, things have really changed from where you are in episode one.”

But whether this will be a little too late remains to be seen if people switch off before then.

At a time when questions are being had about adding colonialism and the legacy of the British Empire to the curriculum, The Singapore Grip is hugely jarring and a misstep.

The Singapore Grip starts on ITV on Sunday, September 13 at 9pm

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