I read a few reviews before I watched The Singapore Grip, because I was curious as to whether it would be worth my time. The Christmas and New Year break from work delivers me some idle hours, but they aren’t infinite. And so, going into this six-part series, I had some idea what a variety of outlets thought which, in some ways, I wished I didn’t but in other ways, they certainly helped me make sense of what I was watching and whether it was “just me” who didn’t get what the series wanted to be.
Let’s get one thing straight from the outset, however. I did enjoy the series. By the fourth episode, I knew I was going to have to watch it and the final two episodes as quickly as I could as I found myself caring about elements of the plot, and about some of the characters in particular. That’s always a good sign but, at the same time, I fully acknowledge that the series veers all over the place in terms of what it’s trying to be and if I was to review it as a piece of screenwriting, I’d call it quite confused at best.
What I think The Singapore Grip wants to be, is satire. It wants to satirise the English in Singapore – and perhaps 20th century colonialism in general – largely in the time period just before the Japanese invade during WW2, and then for a little time after the invasion. That’s its bread and butter and while the satire’s certainly there, it’s also very light. And it’s mixed in with a sort of romantic farce as a business magnate tries marrying his daughter off to multiple suitors. Then there’s his business itself – which is in the rubber trade – and the deals he’s trying to cut with both buyers and other businesses. Then there’s some real black comedy in places. Then it turns into a war drama which isn’t funny at all. Then it’s satire again. It’s all over the shop but the reviews had me prepared for this in advance.
As I said earlier, I did enjoy the series. I rode the waves of the ever-changing personality of the story, and found that having a character who seems to be made a fool of in early episodes, actually proving to be a very brave gentleman in later episodes creates a very stark contrast and a bit of an, “Oh wow…” moment. And of course, having these rich people who might have gone a bit troppo, living in mansions and ignoring an incoming invasion until its literally right on their doorstep is very disconcerting to watch in general… but are we meant to be laughing at them, or is it meant to be a drama? Will they get killed in the invasion? Will they be captured? Will they escape? You think this of so many characters in the piece, wishing different fates on all of them as the story unwinds.
Speaking of fates, the series plays pretty loose with just about everyone’s fate. You get some resolution with a trio of them (but even that resolution is left up in the air as there’s a long time between when we see them last and when the Japanese would have surrendered), but some other – quite major – characters literally walk off-screen and are never seen again. It all suggests a second series, however, to my understanding the series is meant to be self-contained and has used all of the book it’s based on. And perhaps the loose ends of what happens to these people in the end is secondary to the tale at hand; of riches, and empire, and marrying for convenience, and business deals gone bad, and some other people who just get caught up in it all, through no action of their own.
If you have an interest in this period – and I know many Australians do, as 15,000 Australian troops were captured in the fall of Singapore and 7,000 of them would die in captivity – and you don’t need the series to be razor-sharp satire, then I can’t recommend it enough. If, on the other hand, you’re hoping for this to be razor-sharp satire where everyone’s a complete buffoon and it’s something like a modern Blackadder or similar, then you will be disappointed. There are buffoons, yes. And people do some very stupid things. But some of it – when it comes to the military part of the story – is actual fact, and other characters who might seem ridiculous in one episode, may very well do something unexpected in the next and aren’t cardboard cut-outs whom you have an easy time understanding.
Cast-wise, David Morrissey (no stranger to Doctor Who fans via the episode, The Next Doctor), as Walter Blackett is the stand-out performer here. The whole piece hangs off him, even though it’s really meant to be an ensemble. Georgia Blizzard is perfect as his horrible daughter, Joan. Colm Meaney (well known to Star Trek fans), as Major Brendan Archer is a very likeable and sympathetic character, and I think the role could have also been well done by Peter Davison at this time in his career. Both Luke Treadaway as Matthew Webb and Bart Edwards as Captain James Ehrendorf are new to me as actors, but I enjoyed their performances very much as well. Give this one a try.