Vera Chiang (Elizabeth Tan) in The Singapore Grip review


As disaster looms, the incompetents in charge can offer only complacency, arrogance and grandiosity. Sounds familiar?

But this isn’t Covid-19, it’s Singapore in the Second World War. Based on an acclaimed satirical novel, the glossy new TV series The Singapore Grip has gained in topicality yet received mixed reviews, but are they fair?

The Singapore Grip review

It’s 1942 and the Japanese are moving through Indo-China, poised to attack Singapore, one of the jewels of the British Empire, but the British themselves seem blissfully unaware.

Instead, they occupy themselves with trying to make money out of the war, arranging profitable marriages and partying.

Famously, nobody expected an attack from the land and the guns all faced the wrong way. (Not actually true: the guns could easily be turned, but mostly had the wrong kind of shells for a land battle).

What becomes clear, though, in the first two episodes is that the complacency runs much deeper.

Despite frequent warnings that the enemy is approaching, the garrison commander insists they aren’t brave enough to attack. He rules out a blackout for fear of worrying people. And gives his opinion that the Japanese are poor fighters because they “eat so much fish.”

Damned if you do and damned if you don’t

The targets for satirical attack virtually nominate themselves, as they did in JG Farrell’s original novel. Published in 1978, Farrell wrote with an acutely sharp wit and received high praise, but initial mixed reviews.

It’s a perennial problem with satire. Reviewers often don’t know whether to laugh or cry. They criticise comedy for not being real enough and the serious sections for being too serious.

Adapted by veteran screenwriter Christopher Hampton, critics have said the series is at one moment “too much like Catch-22” in its attack on the army’s incompetents and at another “a jolly marriage farce with a big band soundtrack.” Sometimes you wonder if a satirist can ever win.

Marriage plot

Yet, to this viewer, the Catch-22-style barbs strike home with power.

And the marriage farce turns out to be an acid-laden plot in which the horrific members of the Blackett family attempt variously to ensnare and con the central character, Matthew Webb (Luke Treadaway), who stands to inherit half their rubber-trading business Blackett and Webb.

Meanwhile, casual racism flourishes. The concerns of a plantation manager are ignored because he married a local. And Vera, a Chinese woman who Matthew’s father helps when she is under threat of deportation, is patronised for speaking good English. And then thrown out when the old man has a stroke.

The characters are certainly larger-than-life, but they also feel very true. And funny. Satire may not have so many fall-off-your-seat lines as other kinds of comedy. But I laughed far more often than I have with recent supposedly acclaimed sitcoms.

The parallels with Brexit and Make America Great Again may well have attracted the producers – though they can hardly have planned for the pandemic. But the incompetence, arrogance and racism make the comparisons with today all the more striking.

As ever, a historical story set abroad – or indeed one in the future about aliens – turns out on inspection to be about today and about us.

Well worth a viewing.

(And if you were wondering what the title meant, different characters suggest it’s a way of shaking hands or a macrame basket. Rest assured, it’s neither, but you’ll have to either wait until they tell you in (I believe) episode 3. Or Google it, like I did.

You may never think of handshakes – or indeed macrame – in the same way again.)

See more

If you’re in the UK you can watch The Singapore Grip live on ITV. Or catch up on the ITV hub

How to watch The Singapore Grip online anywhere in the world

The Singapore Grip Season 1 Free Full Season – FMovies

The Singapore Grip – read the original novel by JG Farrell