7 Questions with… David Morrissey: 'The Singapore Grip shines a light on a side of British colonial history that is less than heroic'
The British acting legend stars alongside Luke Treadaway, Jane Horrocks, Colm Meaney and Charles Dance in ITV’s adaptation of JG Farrell’s novel The Singapore Grip.
By turns a World War II epic, a satire and a love story, The Singapore Grip is going to be must-watch TV.
Adapted from JG Farrell’s classic novel by Sir Christopher Hampton (Atonement, Dangerous Liaisons), the series zooms in on a British family living in Singapore during the Japanese invasion from 1942 to 1945.
Leading the incredible cast are Luke Treadaway (Ordeal by Innocence, Traitors) as reluctant hero Matthew Webb and David Morrissey (The Walking Dead, State of Play) as ruthless businessman Walter Blackett.
BT TV caught up with Morrissey to find out why this epic period drama captured his imagination and looks set to be a big hit on BritBox...
1. Why did you want to be part of The Singapore Grip?
The reason I wanted to do the piece is because we’re very selective about what we choose to remember about our history. We seem to come back to the 50s, the end of the War, the First World War, the Second World War, we look at those years as the glory years of our Empire.
But these years are often brushed aside, forgotten about and not written about. One reason is that it happens at the same time as Pearl Harbor, so as a world event, it took a lot of the news quite rightly. But Churchill called this the biggest military capitulation of our time. And I think because of that, it’s not celebrated in our schools and history books.
And I really wanted to look at that and shine a light on a side of British colonial history that is less than heroic, that has a lot of racism about it, a lot of greed about it. And a land grab about it and unscrupulous behaviours. It’s interesting for a drama to use that as its arena, it’s quite fascinating.
2. What was it like filming in the heat and storms of South East Asia?
It was heartbreaking seeing our wonderful set designer Rob Harris setting up a whole garden party that was so intricate and beautiful and painted, and then this storm would come in. The whole art team would come running in with umbrellas and bits of bunting and stuff. And we couldn’t help because we all had our costumes on.
Then we also had the heat and the humidity. So when you had the storms, the humidity brings the bugs and the flies.
But that is what it would have been like for my character and the people we’re playing. So it’s not like we’re in a studio in Twickenham and somebody has turned the heating up. It is exactly as it should be.
This is what these people were like, this is what their life was like for them. They were building businesses out there and sweating cobs. And the local crew were just absolutely fantastic and they knew how to operate within the weather restrictions we had.
3. How would you describe the relationship between Walter and his daughter Joan?
I think the relationship with his daughter [played by Georgia Blizzard] sums him up. He’s prepared to use his daughter in a very crass commercial way. Even though he loves her dearly, he uses her as a commodity.
That was one of the reasons I took the job. Their relationship is fascinating. Before the business proposal comes in, there is something going on there that is slightly strange. I don’t think it’s incestuous, but I think it’s on the wrong side of attraction.
He admired his daughter above and beyond a normal father/daughter relationship, and that fascinated him. And also his son disappoints him, his son is a wastrel, indulging in a hedonistic lifestyle in Singapore.
He’s prepared to use his daughter in a very crass commercial way... He uses her as a commodity.
- David Morrissey
Without giving anything away, there is a vacuum waiting for a power grab. So he approaches his daughter to see if she would facilitate his power grab and she goes for it 100%. She isn’t coy or shy about his proposal. He’s effectively whoring her out.
He’s doing something, which is marrying his daughter to get power somewhere. He sees his daughter as a pawn in his game. That is something that has been part of British history for years and years. What he’s delighted about is that his daughter doesn’t say she’s in love with someone else or "please no", she says, "don’t be silly, don’t say another word".
4. How much has changed in British attitudes to the rest of the world?
There has been a lot of change, of course there has. But there is still an element of white privilege, colonial privilege, of the idea that with what we’re giving the world, we have a divine right to be at the top table, that we are the educators of the world, both in education, religion, and we’re the arbiters of that. I think there’s an element of that we still see.
5. Did you find it hard to play such an unscrupulous character?
From a business point of view, many a businessman may look at him and say, "Yes, that is what we should be doing". There is a ruthlessness about him. There is an unquestioning nature about him, an arrogance.
You go to book shops and see ‘How to Be a Success in Business’ and Walter could write one of those books. He is someone who many businessman and politicians may look at and admire. He’s also a survivor. He does go through this great battle, a physical and emotional battle and he survives, at the expense of many, many people.
He’s never going to give up his place on the Titanic for anyone. And that, depending on where you’re standing, could be admired. He is the embodiment of ruthlessness and from his point of view, he’ll have been taught those things. He’s taken those lessons he’s learned from the cradle and he’s surrounded by people who also have those lessons.
He’s not someone sitting there thinking whether he is morally right or questioning whether the nation should be doing things. Those qualities have wonderful aspects to them, when they are applied to what we believe to be morally right and terrible when they are applied in the pursuit of greed.
As an actor, I can never stand back and say, "He’s a villain" or "He’s a bad person". David Morrissey might not like him, but I have to understand him and where he is coming from. He’s a product of this time, this place, this education system, this country and then I can do him justice.
6. The show looks stunning – do any particular sets stick in your memory?
It was all very exciting. There is a great World's Fair. That is fantastic. When you see what they’ve created, Rob Harris our designer is a genius. The garden party is fantastic. There is lots at the Docks. We drove down this market at the Docks and it’s stunning.
I always take photographs on my phone and then put them all in a book at the end of filming. Normally it’s 10-20 pages but this one is about 40-50 pages. Everywhere you turned there was something beautiful. Not just our sets, but also the landscape. The whole thing is a spectacle. I was delighted to watch it back, because you only see the bits you’re in when filming. My breath was taken away by the scale of it.
7. And how did you find the stiff suits and grand moustache?
All my own work, I should add. I did like that. The thing about facial hair is that it looks great, but there’s quite a few shots of me, when we’re not working, where I have a bib on. Because if you’re drinking with facial hair you’ll often find yourself dripping onto your costume. You have to be very careful with that.
The costumes were absolutely fantastic. They were a light linen most of them, but even then they were absolutely sweltering. The dresses the girls wear are fantastic, the incredible prints they had.
It’s a wonderful period to be in those costumes, they just fit so well, those high-waisted trousers, I love them. And that weird thing where they dress for dinner. You’re in the middle of sweltering heat and they put on these big stiff shirts with massive collars.
How did these people live? How did they survive? And they were eating this terrible British food in the Malaysia that these people insisted on eating? They had no desire to integrate themselves or acclimatise into that culture.
Watch every episode of The Singapore Grip on BritBox.