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Episode One of 'The Singapore Grip' - A Review and Commentary

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Beanie was bitten by the storytelling bug as a child and is finally doing something about it. Visit about.me/beanielei for more.

‘The Singapore Grip’ is one of a trilogy of novels about the British Empire by J G Farrell, a prizewinning British author of Irish descent and contemporary of Salman Rushdie whose life was cut short. Recently adapted as a satirical drama by ITV, a British TV channel, ‘Grip’ was shown in Australia before being shown in the UK in September 2020.

Although I’ve never read the novel, nor have I heard of Farrell, after reading about initial impressions of the ITV dramatisation of ‘Grip’ from the UK and Singapore, I thought it would be fun to watch the first episode and compare it to all the Asian and British dramas I’ve seen. And where British dramas are concerned, I’ve never seen nor heard of one that’s set in colonial-era Singapore, and in a non-war setting, so I was curious to see how ‘Grip’ would fare.

This episode didn't disappoint.

Some of the characters of ITV's 'The Singapore Grip'

Some of the characters of ITV's 'The Singapore Grip'

A few minutes in, I was puzzled, and began to wonder if Farrell had ever been to Singapore, as the story revolved around rubber plantations, something I’d always associated with neighbouring Malaysia, which has the space and jungle for this. But I pressed on, because bare-chested Mr Webb (played by Charles Dance) appeared in a sarong waist down (not that I’d like to see more of his anatomy tbh), and from what I remember of old photos and descriptions of people like Mr Webb, they didn’t do things by halves; it was either buck naked or sarong + shirt. Was the story about someone like Mr Webb going native?

Then there were the bits about a fancy outdoor party bumping into rainy weather, and the reference to Chinese speakers of quasi-British English from Mainland China being Communist(!!!!!!). I did wonder what I’d let myself into at this point, but soldiered on.

But the more I watched, the more I saw that a lot of the behaviour shown by the non-Asian characters in ‘Grip’ are still very true to some aspects of life in Britain in 2020. The scene with the party and the comments on communists and Chineseness are still identifiable, and in fact, such behaviour has become normal and dare I say celebrated in some instances in the UK.

Though I fully respect the discussions to be had around Black Lives Matter and diversity, there is definitely room for a drama like ‘Grip’. Whether you like it or not, people like the non-Asian characters in this show did actually exist, and they did actually behave like that.

British and English-language dramas always show British colonialism in Africa, the Americas/Caribbean, and South Asia, and when it comes to East and Southeast Asia, very few English-language dramas, and especially dramas from Britain, confront this. ‘Grip’ is the first British drama I’ve ever seen which does this. Is it a good start? With just one episode so far, it’s too soon to tell.

But as a standalone piece of filmmaking of fictionalised history, Episode 1 of ‘Grip’ is nearly faultness. There is only one Asian (ie East, SEA and South Asian) in the room precisely because back then, Asians were only allowed into the room one at a time.

It’s much, much better in Britain in 2020. Boris Johnson’s cabinet, for example, is the first I know of with a Prime Minister of Turkish descent who was born outside the UK working with a Chancellor, a Home Secretary, and a Business Secretary who are of South Asian descent.

But as ‘Grip’ shows, the Asians who were let into the room were either servants, or conformed to stereotypes which reinforced hatred, fear of, and apathy towards knowledge which non-Asians refused to accept. Whether this is still the case in Britain in 2020 is something to think about.

The depiction in ‘Grip’ of apathetic arrogance, a way of thinking which results in living in Singapore long enough to manage a rubber plantation, yet still managing to hold a party at the wrong time of year, and to be blissfully unaware of what ‘The Rising Sun’ refers to, are still so painfully resonant in Britain today.

And the way the non-Asian characters in ‘Grip’ interact with and perceive each other and the only Asian in the room is still(!) very, very, very true to life.

If ITV’s adaptation is faithful to Farrell, then Farrell deserves credit for not introducing more speaking Asian characters, because he could have done a Sax Rohmer. He did the right thing. For a British-born Chinese like me, when it comes to anything in the English language, to have no representation at all is always better than even a bit of misrepresentation.

Instead of introducing more speaking Asian characters (which will definitely lead to overadaptation when it comes to a book like Farrell’s), ‘Grip’ as a drama could have juxtaposed the carefree, partygoing loudness of the non-Asian managers of rubber plantations with shots of the Asian labourers on those plantations, driving home that thanks to colonialism, the enforced silence, exploitation, and backbreakingly hard work of so many formed the bedrock of happiness for a select few.

So while we saw Walter and Joan Blackett (played by David Morrissey and Georgia Blizzard) gushingly treating the rubber factory that is actually old Mr Webb’s as theirs, there could have been a shot or two of the factual conditions their Asian employees had to endure in order to keep said factory running. Simply showing a few sheets of rubber without acknowledging the labour that went into it isn’t enough. If we are to watch and read historical fiction, we need to see if there is anything we can learn from it. Otherwise, we may as well stick with fantasy, and embrace apathy.

So in a sense, this is a white British story on the white British Empire by a white British subject, which rightfully focusses on the white British gaze and white British perspective. But given Farrell’s Irish descent, I’m not surprised that this story is satirical. While not much can be done about introducing more speaking Asian characters because of overadaptation, more could have been done with the medium of film to show what the book couldn’t describe, and what underpins it.

More than any other British drama I’ve seen recently, this episode of ‘Grip’ has the potential to provoke discussion about which behaviours and practices should be consigned to history.

If someone like me finds ‘Grip’ true to life, then crikey, wouldn’t that mean certain decision-making sectors in British society haven’t moved on since the Second World War, even though the rest of the world has?

And shouldn’t this alone form the foundation for actual change?

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Beanie Lei