Comment

The woke crowd are furious at The Singapore Grip. Its crime? Historical accuracy

Complaints that ITV’s period drama is ‘racist’ are madness – it showed the reality of the Empire, and the satirical tone was hardly subtle

Charles Dance enjoys the spoils of Empire in the first episode of The Singapore Grip
Charles Dance enjoys the spoils of Empire in the first episode of The Singapore Grip Credit: ITV

There has for years been a danger inherent in anything on television called “period drama” that the production fails to get the period right. This failing is normally most obvious in the script, in which characters use language, notably clichés, that didn’t exist at the time; or in which historical facts and context are simply wrong.

One memorable example of this in recent years was BBC One’s The Village, set in a Derbyshire community during and just after the Great War, which engaged in an orgy of earnest folk righting social wrongs with aggressive 21st-century wokeness. It also included a notable scene of a band playing Jerusalem as men went off to war in 1914, two years before Sir Hubert Parry wrote it. The drama was supposed to show the development of the village throughout a century, but the project halted in 2014 after just 12 episodes, when it was still applying modern social justice to the 1920s, and there appear to be no plans for its resumption. And, if the new BBC director-general is true to his word about reversing the Corporation’s trend in becoming a Marxist re-education service, it won’t be resumed.

Over on ITV, a period drama that started last night, The Singapore Grip, now finds itself assailed for quite the opposite reasons. Based on JG Farrell’s 1978 novel, set at the time of the Japanese invasion in 1942, the series (to judge from the two episodes I have seen) seems reasonably good on historical accuracy – though as a drama it was, frankly, unconvincing, with too many superficial characters and a script that only sporadically expressed itself as the satire Farrell intended the book to be.

However, it has been attacked by representatives of British writers of East Asian descent for being too “colonial”: in other words, the lives of the British rubber planters and their families are depicted probably pretty much as they were, with the white colonists noticing the existence of the native people only when watching them at work on their rubber plantations or, in the case of the women, when contemplating a transactional sexual service. What the complainants seem to want is for excessive liberties to be taken with Farrell’s novel, importing major Asian characters into it, just to give more clearly a depiction of how colonial life was for the colonised.

Those upset about this seem to be unaware of the satirical nature of Farrell’s book, or of the distinction between education and indoctrination. Although the fall of Singapore was one of the blackest moments in British military history, and inflicted on the population of Malaya three and a half years of oppression and cruelty at the hands of a remorseless enemy whose sadism would shock even some Nazis, it is meant at least in parts to be funny.

Luke Treadaway, Georgia Blizzard and Luke Newberry in ITV's new drama Credit: ITV

And, although the critics of the dramatisation seem to struggle to see this, it is a satire from which the British do not emerge terribly well. Almost the only enlightened British character in the first episode, the rubber-planter Webb, played by Charles Dance, is dead by the end of it. Apart from his boot-faced “idealist” son, who turns up to take over the business, the rest of the Anglo-Saxons are pretty bloody awful.

For example, Webb’s partner, Blackett, played by David Morrissey, is a slimy, greedy colonial exploiter of the first order. His wife, played by Jane Horrocks, is one of those pampered airheads who has never learned that if she has nothing interesting to say she should not say it. Their two children are even more revolting: a son so obtuse that he likely needs to consult a diagram to tie his shoelaces; and a daughter in what seems to be a semi-incestuous relationship with her father, and with whom she is in league to marry (for the good of the business) Webb’s son.

The British officer class, meanwhile, is pure caricature. Those seeking to repel the Japanese invaders are to a man nincompoops. It was far from our finest hour, but it defies belief that the Singapore ops room was quite such a Carry On film as is depicted here. In their tone of voice, mode of speech, dress and general behaviour, the officer class do seem to be convincing: what grates, especially in the light of what really happened, is the apparent association of gentlemanly conduct with being a blithering idiot. 

With the exception of Vera Chiang, played by Elizabeth Tan, a Chinese woman who accidentally comes into Webb’s orbit and to whom he is kind, there are no prominent Asian characters. But then, in the rarefied lives of the white colonists at the time, there would have been no prominent Asian characters either, apart from their largely silent servants. Racist? By today’s standards, almost certainly – if by “racist” one means that a whole ethnicity of people are denied the same opportunities as, and by, another. But this is not today: it is 1942, and the alternative ITV faced in making this series was to falsify history – and Farrell’s intentions – absolutely, and make an unwatchable travesty out of the author’s material.

The beleaguered soldiers, Simon Heffer writes, were not commanded by officers as stupid as depicted Credit: ITV

There is a growing determination by minority groups, and members of the white majority who patronisingly self-appoint as their spokespeople, to intimidate writers and film and television producers out of giving a faithful account of any novel written in the past about the past, where people of other races and cultures are – or could be – featured.

Instead, they would force down the throats of the British public a perspective on history that may well be a better reflection of how life was for those who were not at the top of the heap, but which was not the intention of the original author – as it was not with Farrell – with the result that none of them would want to watch it, except as an act of penance.

Good luck with that, commercially. Kipling and Somerset Maugham have not been familiar on our televisions for some years – despite the latter being one of the most brilliant storytellers of the last century – but then they dared to write about the colonial experience as seen from the point of the view of the colonist.

That view, of course, is just as valid as that of the colonised. If someone can write a story about the indigenous population during colonial times that is sufficiently compelling and entertaining to make good television, then doubtless the money will be forthcoming to produce such entertainment. All that remains is for someone to take up the challenge.