Beanie was bitten by the storytelling bug as a child and is finally doing something about it. Visit about.me/beanielei for more.
Instead of writing separately on each episode of ITV’s ‘The Singapore Grip’, which is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by J G Farrell, I have found it more useful to review Episodes Three, Four, and Five together and my comments span across all three episodes.
The pacing was too slow. Nothing happened in all of Episode Three and much of Episode Four.
Episodes Three and Four were documentary dramatisations without the documentary. In the absence of context, someone unfamiliar would be struggling dreadfully to actually get what is going on, because the scenes were just so tedious and boring.
This meant that when something did actually happen, especially in Episode Five and the end of Episode Four, the dramatic and emotional impact just wasn’t there.
I still think some scenes in earlier episodes should have been emphasised, and others trimmed. For example, although we see Matthew Webb’s concern for his employees, and though we do hear from his employees, we do not see how these employees are actually treated, lessening the emotional and dramatic impact of this important side to Matthew Webb. This is rather puzzling because showing all these characters in action, rather than relying on them recounting their stories, would be the best way to actually show all this.
There was a noticeable tension as to what the storyline actually was.
Francois (played by Christophe Guybet), the French guest of the Blacketts, had the best scenes and actually stole the show from everyone else. But he is a side character, and yet a guide for the uninitiated, and the flaw of this is that when the show focusses on storylines which do not involve Francois, any dramatic and emotional impact disappears. In particular, this affects the storylines featuring Charlie Tyrell (played by Joe Bannister; he did really well), Vera Chiang’s unnamed elderly Chinese friends (good grief; considering what they have done, they don’t even have memorable names, and they should have featured in more than one notable scene), and Walter Blackett (his character suffers from much overexposure in some instances and underexposure in others).
I think the main problem that affected these episodes was that the satire that was so prevalent in Episode One got lost along the way, and never came home.
It would be very, very difficult to find the satire in a storyline involving someone like Charlie or Vera Chiang’s friends, and that is not actually where the satire would be.
One example of where I thought the satire fell completely flat was when Matthew Webb was trolled by being told he was having genuine white mice as a meal. The dish he is having is called ‘white mice cake’, but it’s made up of rice flour and contains no meat in it, and it looks nothing like a mouse. So the satire would be that someone like him is meant to be an automatic lord and master over all he surveys because he’s a man, white, English, from the UK, and from Oxbridge, and owner and manager of a rubber plantation, but frankly he hasn’t got a clue, and he is too naïve, so any help he tries to give will actually make matters worse. I think a point like this, and other similar points, got lost in this drama because of what got shown.
I tried to make the characters the reason for watching this drama, and it says too much that I watched Episodes Three, Four, and Five just to see what happens to Francois, who isn’t even a main character. Not even The Human Condition, a dog which the characters adopt, could keep me motivated.
It was rather shocking to see the women in the show. They were all pathetic. The mum of the house, Sylvia Blackett, came across as an oddball, while both Joan Blackett and especially Vera Chiang came across as crass and vulgar in that they only knew of constantly using sex to advance.
This drama was successful at making the Asian characters as supporting, mostly silent players (Vera Chiang is the exception), and making the non-Asian characters so, so boring. In this respect, it isn’t true to life at all.
I also had a lot of trouble with Vera Chiang’s character because she’s supposed to have a certain background. But as soon as she opens her mouth, she shatters all those illusions, because her accents in various languages and what she knows are all over the place.
And speaking of accents, I find it incredibly unbelievable that the British authorities of the day would have treated her as an undesirable element, or that she would have jumped into bed with someone who looks like Matthew Webb. I had to suspend my disbelief at her character, and I wonder if the satire in the original novel is at the way her character is portrayed.
On the Title
So after all the scenes I’ve watched, I personally think that the author of the novel placed this made-up phrase, ‘The Singapore Grip’, not only to hook an audience, but to also function as a device or in-joke used by the seasoned pros in his novel to mock a newbie like Matthew Webb. Ultimately, though, the joke's on them.
I think if we the audience were to take this phrase seriously, and assign a fixed meaning to it, we would completely lose the point: that a story like ‘The Singapore Grip’ is meant to be a satire of so-called ‘seasoned pros’ who mock newbies like Matthew Webb, as well as newbies like Matthew Webb.
A Missed Opportunity
‘The Singapore Grip’ could have explored Britain and Singapore’s rubber industry, and how the colonial apparatus intersected with industry, commerce, and race relations. But it didn't.
A period drama with Brits outside Britain is needed to counterbalance dramas like ‘Downton Abbey', and I think none has been made so far because it is very hard for certain sectors in the UK to understand what it means for a place to be a British colony.
In a place like Singapore, most of the people there are Asian, most of the non-Asians would not have been seen as ‘white’ or ‘British’ or ‘English’ back in the UK, and to those from the UK, the British class system would have exerted a grip that would not have been felt by those who are not from the UK. As a result,'The Singapore Grip’ doesn’t even scratch the complexity of what 'Britishness' and 'colonialism' are, and its satire falls flat.
Would I Watch Episodes Three, Four, and Five Again, and Should You Watch Them?
I wouldn’t watch this drama again, but if you’re interested in costumes, scenery, and furniture from that part of the world, ‘The Singapore Grip’ is actually a good place to start. The ceiling fans were wonderful, and I was sorry (spoiler alert) to see one of them go. And I’d only be watching Episode Six because I want to see what happens to Francois next :-)
© 2020 Beanie Lei