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The Singapore Grip is a classic Sunday night ITV period drama, packed full of romance, glamour and history.
An adaptation of JG Farrell’s novel by Oscar-winning playwright Sir Christopher Hamption (Atonement, Dangerous Liaisons), the series tells the story of a British family living in Singapore during World War II.
A biting satire on colonialism, a war story and a romantic drama, all filmed on location with the stunning backdrop of Kuala Lumpur, The Singapore Grip has already got millions of viewers hooked on ITV and BritBox.
Here are the cast and characters at the heart of the sizzling story.
Matthew Webb – Played by Luke Treadaway
Matthew Webb is a rather naïve and innocent moralistic young man who travels to Singapore from Europe to visit his ailing father.
Having spent his years working for international charities, he is unprepared for the harsh landscape into which he is thrown. He is drawn to Joan and her beauty and the way she is smitten with him but then he meets Vera Chiang and is utterly captivated by her noble integrity .
He is determined to right the exploitative wrongs being done to the locals by the Blackett and Webb company – their tax evasion schemes and attempts to put native companies out of business. But he is thwarted by the impending threat of war and, being terrified of offending his father’s long-term business partner, the commanding figure of Walter.
Talking about the role, Treadaway said: “I’ve done things before set in the Second World War and one that was in the immediate aftermath in Asia in a Japanese prisoner of war camp [Unbroken].
But I hadn’t done Singapore with gin and tonics on the veranda and the total head in the sand thinking that they were going to be fine because they all had nice suits on and were white, British and therefore untouchable.
“I liked the way this story shows that wasn’t always the case but there’s something quite karmic about these characters who have gone around the world taking what they want from the local people suddenly realising that they can’t actually escape.”
Walter Blackett – Played by David Morrissey
Married to Sylvia and father of Joan, Monty and Kate, Walter is the ruthless chairman of the illustrious rubber merchant and agency house of Blackett and Webb Limited, whose success is founded on the exploitation of the native communities and economy.
He is keen to secure an advantageous marriage for Joan in order to enhance and secure the fortune he has so carefully built. Recognising similar qualities to his own in her, he brings her into the business world from which he has excluded his troublesome son, Monty. His doggedness blinds him to realities however, and he is one of the last to acknowledge the Japanese threat for what it truly is.
David Morrissey said: “I think he’s very interesting for me as far as his world view is concerned. I think it’s recognisable to us right now in the current state of the country and world. His idea of Britain and Britain in the world and what Britain has brought to the world.
“I’ve met quite a few [Walters]. In their modern guise. They are timeless. We’re seeing more and more of them on our screens. There is something about Walter that is in the DNA of a certain class of British man.
"The other thing about him that is interesting is the idea of masculinity. There’s something in there that is about hierarchy. It’s about order. It’s about entitlement. It’s about being a white man. A rich white man. How that informs his masculinity and that entitlement.”
Mr Webb – Played by Charles Dance
Father to Matthew Webb and semi-retired partner in Blackett and Webb limited, Mr Webb is a different kettle of fish to Walter. He is quirky, and instead of being put off by it, he admires the idealistic nature of his son, and prefers to spend his time ‘educating’ the local Chinese population, whom he believes to have been deprived of such.
When Walter refuses to vouch for the mysterious Vera Chiang due to the communist suspicions around her, he steps in and promises to do it himself. He invites her to stay in the home and the two develop a close platonic relationship.
Charles Dance said: “It feels like a bit of a throwback actually. Being out in Malaysia I could almost have been doing The Jewel in the Crown. They’re both period dramas about the end of Empire and set in this part of the world with the threat of war and Japanese invasion.
“Although this drama is set in Singapore, it was extraordinary to be filming it in Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur was just astonishing. What I tend to do when I go to new places is I pound the streets. I maybe go to one or two tourist places, but I’m happier just going off, walking, exploring and listening to people. It really is an extraordinary place.”
Joan Blackett – Played by Georgia Blizzard
Daughter of Walter and Sylvia and sister to Monty and Kate, Joan is a beautiful and rebellious young woman, with no qualms in stringing a number of men along – so long as they are, in some way, advantageous to her. She relies on her sexual allure and sharp intelligence to ensure that men fall under her spell.
When we meet her, she is defiantly struggling with her mother to retrieve a love letter from Barry – ‘a most unsuitable young man’, before setting her sights on Captain James Ehrendorf.
More on The Singapore Grip
She continues to play with Ehrendorf’s love for her at her father’s request, to glean key information on the demand for rubber. That is, until Matthew Webb arrives and appears to offer the prospect of a union of the Blackett and Webb fortunes. Joan takes after her father in her ruthless attitude towards the feelings of those around her – a quality he sees and admires – prompting him to share his secrets of the trade and bring her into the rubber fold.
Newcomer Blizzard said: “I know that people will be Team Vera but I’ve always been Team Joan. She’s a product of the life she was born into. You look at her parents and there is no question about why she is the way she is. She’s so much of her dad but a bit of her mum too. I don’t think it’s fair to just label her that way. She’s so strong and so intelligent and ruthless in a positive way.
“She knows what she wants and as was the way then, and is the way now, when a woman knows what she wants that’s what people say. I’ve never disliked her. The writing is so witty and she has some great lines so I’ve always stood behind her. I would go about things in a different way but knowing her circumstances I can justify and understand every action that she’s making.”
Vera Chiang – Played by Elizabeth Tan
Vera is a mysterious Chinese woman with an unknown past. She claims to have been born in Russia to a Chinese tea merchant father and a Russian princess mother. She speaks perfect English, having fled to Manchuria and been educated by Americans. When we first meet her she is caught up in the death of a Japanese Officer in Shanghai.
When Joan meets her again she offers her father’s card, not knowing of the consequences, should she ever need help in Singapore. Later, Vera arrives into their lives and Mr. Webb agrees to vouch for her. She is a survivor, and fiercely independent, having travelled the world and managed to get out of every situation unscathed. She falls in love with Matthew, but the odds are against them with Matthew’s naïve nature and of course, Joan.
Talking about the character of Vera, Elizabeth Tan said: “We’re so lucky to have Christopher Hampton. A writer who is able to encapsulate both the war and the drama of that and how horrific it is in a very real way, as well as bringing a level of humour. Quite dark humour in some ways. And also, a sensuality. There’s a sexiness about it as well in regards to Vera and Joan vying for Matthew’s affection.
“There’s definitely a lot of elements brought together for a period drama. Christopher Hampton has also brought to life a character in Vera who is very modern. She’s a true survivor. She’s from a place called Harbin which the Japanese occupied and did biological testing.
"Not a lot of people know about the history of Harbin. It was one of the Top 10 Japanese atrocities during the Second World War. The centre was called Unit 731. There was biological testing on prisoners under no anaesthesia.
“Thousands of people were tortured and killed and experimented on. Imagine how much of a survivor Vera must have been to be able to escape that environment. I think people who know their history will love the fact that Vera is from Harbin.”
Sylvia Blackett – Played by Jane Horrocks
Wife to Walter and mother to Joan, Monty and Kate, Sylvia is a respectable pillar of local society. Used to the colonial life of ease and luxury that Walter and their rubber business has provided, her main concern is the string of unsuitable men Joan seems intent on flirting with. She wants nothing more than an advantageous match for her.
She laments her poor choices to Walter, who, believing patience will win the day, takes a softer approach. She, too, finds it difficult to face the realities of the situation facing them, but is knocked hard when her brother Charlie goes to fight
“It was an adventure. I’ve not done anything on television for quite some time. As it wasn’t a dark and gritty murder show I thought it sounded good and fun,” said Jane Horrocks.
“Obviously the story has its serious points but I quite liked the family dynamic. They have a lightness and a bit of a silliness about them. Also, it was an opportunity to come to Malaysia.
“I’d not been to that part of the world before. I went to Borneo which was fantastic. We saw the Orangutans in a wonderful sanctuary. I went on a rainforest hike. It was a relief to get away from the city of Kuala Lumpur which was quite full on.”
Monty Blackett – Played by Luke Newberry
Monty is Walter and Sylvia’s spoiled, brash and insensitive son. He exploits the native economy in different ways, in his numerous paid sexual encounters and lavish spending habits, and rapidly disappears at the sign of any hard work or good will.
He is determined to show Matthew what he considers to be the main sights of Singapore: brothels and crass entertainment at the Great World, a type of amusement park where the weird and wonderful are crammed together, desperately trying to make money. Monty shows little understanding or interest in running the family business.
The Major – Played by Colm Meaney
The Major is a partner in the Blackett & Webb company who oversees the Mayfair and its operations. He is reserved and considerate but, despite his caring nature, is aware of the callous ways of business adopted by the company he is a partner in, and does nothing to upset the status quo.
When Vera arrives at the Mayfair he keeps an eye out for her but when she’s later asked to leave, the embarassed Major is stricken with guilt. He remains a constant presence throughout, befriends Matthew and forges close bonds with Dupigny, Matthew and Vera, and his adopted dog, The Human Condition.
Talking about why he signed up for the show, Meaney said: “Christopher Hampton is a beautiful writer. I found his script really entertaining and interesting. The dialogue is clever, it’s subtle and it’s classy. I’d not worked on anything of his before, so that was a big draw for me.
“I’d also never really done a World War II period piece. I’m fascinated by history so it was the subject that interested me as well. And this character The Major is an interesting fella. I’ve never really played anyone like him before. He’s quiet, nice and thoughtful. So, for a character actor, that is always an attraction to play someone who is a bit of a departure.”
Watch The Singapore Grip on Sundays at 9pm on ITV.
The full series is available to stream now on BritBox.