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I wasn’t sure what to make of Episode Two of ‘The Singapore Grip’, the dramatisation by British channel ITV of J G Farrell's third novel on the British Empire. This episode came across extremely old-fashioned because characters did lots of talking with very straight faces regardless of what was going on. Having said that, the scenarios they were in were so strange, and bordered on the unbelievable.
So what worked? Which scenes were true to life?
The most realistic parts of Episode Two involved Matthew Webb (played by Luke Treadway) and his arrival in Singapore. Fresh out of Oxbridge, Matthew hadn’t or perhaps had never been to a place like Singapore before, but showed up because he’d inherited his newly-deceased father’s rubber estate. When I saw his clothes, I wondered how long it would take before he fell ill. It was a miracle that he didn’t sweat, and that he could function with some semblance of normality. The way the two main female leads treated him is so cringeworthy, but so true to life. He is very well cast; you'll just have to see a photo of Luke Treadway in character to understand why.
And what didn't work?
I found it completely unbelievable that Matthew Webb, as the owner of a rubber estate and a boss, had his first evening meal in his new home with the manager of said estate Walter Blackett (played by David Morrissey), and Walter’s wife Slyvia (played by Jane Horrocks), son Monty (played by Luke Newberry) and daughter Joan (played by Georgia Blizzard). I took this as a sign that perhaps Matthew Webb was ill. Another possibility is that the class system I've seen in action in the UK was more relaxed in Singapore back then. The class system is something I thought a drama like this would have spun cartwheels on, but the silence I heard was deafening.
The way the young female lead characters Vera Chiang (played by Elizabeth Tan) and Joan Blackett are depicted in this episode are also very interesting, and I wonder if that is how the novel describes them. I did find the way they behaved very true to life, but they do come across as crass.
There was a missed opportunity to show how people like the Blacketts perceive and treat Eurasians and Asians who do not pass as white, as opposed to people like Matthew Webb’s father Arthur (played by Charles Dance). Any message Episode Two might have had about this got lost amidst certain scenes which should have been trimmed.
There were too many scenes featuring the British Army, and I wonder if these scenes are part of the novel this drama is based on. My understanding is that the novel was published in the 1970s, not too long after WW2, when lots of information would still have been classified and kept secret. Any tidbits about the British Army would have enticed people to read the novel to get a better understanding of what happened in Singapore in WW2. But if these bits are not part of the novel, then I would urge caution with watching Episode Two. What happened during WW2 is history, and I think it would be far more helpful to watch a documentary than a fictionalised drama that revolves around a rubber estate.
The addition of certain scenes in Episode One and Episode Two slowed the pace of this drama down considerably, and I think both episodes should have been combined to form one episode. There should have been more about class, rubber production, and the issues around Eurasians and Asians who do not pass as white in Episode One, not Episode Two. I do also wonder about the relevance of the scenes with the British Army – if they are not part of the novel, should they even be there?
So all in all, Episode Two of ITV's 'The Singapore Grip' is a mixed bag. The scenery and costumes are nice and move the story forwards, but the pace is a tad too leisurely, with scenes which perhaps shouldn't be there, and the realism seen in Episode One isn’t present in Episode Two. Nevertheless, let’s see what Episode Three brings.