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TV review: The Singapore Grip

Benjie Goodhart / 10 September 2020

The Singapore Grip, a six-part retelling of Brideshead Revisited, arrives on ITV, and Sir David Jason visits the HQ of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.

The Singapore Grip 1/6, Sunday 13th September, 9pm, ITV

Don’t read this column. I’m a colossal idiot who really should never be listened to.

I’m not allowed to finish this week’s article there, or I won’t get paid. But it’s true, I clearly don’t know what I’m talking about. A couple of weeks ago, in a blog about the greatest ever TV theme tunes, I harked back to the time when ITV showed Brideshead Revisited, and lamented the fact that never again would they be likely to adapt a complicated, highbrow novel into a lavish TV drama and show it in Prime Time. And lo and behold, weeks later, they’ve gone and done just that.

If I didn’t know better, I’d say that someone at ITV has been taking note of all the mean things I’ve said about Jeremy Kyle over the years and decided to make me look stupid. Although it’s just possible that my conviction that they’ve made a massive, intelligent, star-studded international TV drama simply to spite me might be indicative of something of a rampant narcissism problem on my part. Either way, as I say, I’m a colossal idiot who should never be listened to.

And yet you’re still here. Well, don’t say you weren’t warned.

So, The Singapore Drip. It’s a new six-part drama based on Booker prize-winner JG Farrell’s 1978 novel, and adapted by Oscar-winning playwright Christopher Hampton.

It’s February 1942, in Singapore. A British cine newsreel film suggests the Japanese are casting covetous eyes at Singapore. “Well, let them try” boasts the film, lauding the invincibility of the British garrison there. Yep, that turned out well. Pretty soon, the roads are choked with refugees, and a young British soldier despairs at the prospect of an imminent British surrender.

Just as this is beginning to look like the rest of the series is going to go all Tenko, we jump back six months. A different conflict is taking place – between Sylvia Blackett (Jane Horrocks) and her daughter Joan (Georgia Blizzard). A mother-daughter row has the potential to eclipse even the fall of Singapore in terms of awfulness, so husband-and-father Walter Blackett (David Morrissey) wisely opts to play the role of Switzerland.

In his business dealings, though, it seems Blackett is a little less neutral, and a little more merciless. Of course he is, he’s played by David Morrissey, who’s been a baddie more often than anyone except Charles Dance. As it happens, Charles Dance plays his business partner, Mr Webb. Rather confusingly, Mr Webb appears to be a goodie. (I know, when you’re talking about highbrow literary drama, you should see things in more delicately nuanced terms than goodies and baddies, but that’s still largely how I operate.) Anyway, you can tell Mr Webb is a decent sort, because he paints. It’s Rule of Drama No. 176: If someone paints, they are kind and sensitive.

Anyway, kindly old Mr Webb has an idealistic son, Matthew (Luke Treadaway) who journeys to Singapore when his father falls ill. Walter Blackett has plans for young Master Webb – plans that involve his mercenary and spoilt daughter Joan. But waiting in the wings is a mysterious Chinese woman, Vera Chiang (Elizabeth Tan).

So far, everyone in Singapore seems to spend most of their time drinking champagne at cocktail parties, or sipping G&Ts on their verandas while reading books. It all looks rather idyllic, and makes me think that perhaps colonial life, for all its ethical dubiousness, was rather delightful. Although preferably without the threat of imminent invasion. And also, it was ruddy impossible to get decent Wifi.

There is a good deal of establishing characters in this opening episode, so if you’re expecting regular explosions and motorbike chases, you’re in for a disappointment (although, to be fair, which part of ‘literary drama’ did you not understand?) But if you’re looking for an intelligent and visually opulent drama with a fine cast, this may very well be your cup of tea.

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Flying for Britain with David Jason, Tuesday 15th September, 8pm, ITV

Until just over a year ago, I worked part-time in an office in Central London. Whilst there I was, quite frankly, a legend in my own lunchtime. Well, a legend in the sense that everyone thought I had very peculiar lunchtime habits. I had the same sandwich every working day for 15 years. Turkey, ham, lettuce and mayo, on ciabatta.

That, I’ll admit, could be considered quite weird. But the fact is, there was one chap in the sandwich shop who made it better than anyone else, so I would always attempt to ensure that it was him who served me. If I got to the front of the queue when someone else was serving, I’d either pretend to be making a phone call, or have to do up my shoelace or (and this was the killer) pretend to be still trying to decide what I was going to have. Before stepping forward and ordering the precise same sandwich I had ordered every lunchtime for fifteen years.

Anyway, aside from being the office lunch weirdo, I loved my lunchtimes, because there was a lot to do. I would always spend it walking. Our offices were near parliament, so I would go along and see who was demonstrating about what. I’d have a stroll along the banks of the Thames, or pop to the park.

Most of these lunches blend into one – that tends to happen, when you have the same thing to eat every day. But I know what I was doing on 10th July 2018, because it was remarkable. I went to The Mall – along with tens of thousands of other people – and watched an extraordinary flypast to commemorate 100 years of the RAF. Over 100 aircraft took part in the flypast, but the most moving moment of the lot was when the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight team passed above us in a Lancaster flanked by Spitfires and Hurricanes.

This month sees another anniversary – the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain – and to commemorate it, air enthusiast and qualified helicopter pilot Sir David Jason is travelling to the HQ of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight for this delightfully nostalgic one-hour documentary.

In a very special hangar at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire there sits an extraordinary collection of 12 World War II aircraft, including six Spitfires, a Hurricane, and an Avro Lancaster. These are the planes that are flown all over the country, attending over 1000 events every year, to help maintain the memory of the bravery and sacrifice of the RAF in World War II.

In these peculiar times, the Flight’s schedule for 2020 has been severely curtailed. But cameras follow the team as they honour Captain Sir Tom Moore on the occasion of his 100th birthday, the 75th anniversary of VE Day, and the funeral of Dame Vera Lynn.

Jason talks to the RAF pilots who now have the responsibility (and considerable honour) of flying these planes, under the leadership of Squadron Leader Mark ‘Disco’ Discombe. He also meets the ground crew, led by Squadron Leader Mandy Singleton (so that’s one change right there – I suspect not many Squadron Leaders in WWII were called Mandy).

The coolness and professionalism of the pilots is remarkable to behold – whether passing over Dame Vera’s funeral at the precise second the cortege stops, or flying in absurdly tight formation (they’re closer than I like to get to the car in front during a traffic jam). It’s an uplifting, visually beautiful film, but there are occasional moments that bring you up sharp, like the realisation that the average age of the pilots in the Battle of Britain was early 20s, and that they were sent up into the air with only 14-seconds’ worth of ammunition. This is a film about the pilots who saved the nation every bit as much as it is about the ones who fight to keep their name alive 80 years later.

The best… and the rest

Saturday 12th September

Last Night of the Proms, 8pm, BBC One: The Proms season comes to its traditional end, with the controversy about Land of Hope and Glory still boring the pants off everybody. If you want to ban something, I’d ban that weird bobbing up and down thing they do.

Match of the Day, 10:20pm, BBC One: The last football season finished, oooh, twenty minutes ago, so obviously it’s time for the next one. Woo hoo! Pick of the four opening day fixtures has to be champions Liverpool at home to newly-promoted Leeds United.

Sunday 13th September

Extinction: The Facts, 8pm, BBC One: David Attenborough explores the science of extinction, and how this has consequences for us all. I know I have to watch this, and I absolutely will, but today is my birthday, and I don’t want to spend it crying about Lemurs.

Piers Morgan’s Life Stories: Captain Sir Tom Moore, 8pm, ITV: Sadly, this programme was not available for preview, but the wonderful and inspirational Captain Sir Tom Moore tells his life story to the slightly less inspirational Piers Morgan.

Monday 14th September

Inside the Bomb Squad, 8pm, Channel 4: New observational documentary series looking at the work of the Bomb Squad, the British Army unit that defuses bombs in the UK. The series follows their unique training at ‘bomb school’ in Bicester.

Des 1/3, 9pm, ITV: This fact-based drama is a chilling portrait of the serial killer Dennis Nilsen, played here by the always-watchable David Tennant. A strong cast includes Jason Watkins and Daniel Mays. Continues tomorrow and concludes on Wednesday.

Tuesday 15th September

Harbour Cops, 7:30pm, ITV: New series following the work of the Dyfed-Powys Police force, the smallest force in the UK, patrolling the largest area. Including, presumably, some harbours.

Britain’s Biggest Dig 1/4, 9pm, BBC Two: Professor Alice Roberts and Dr Yasmin Khan investigate the excavation of a disused Georgian cemetery near Euston Station to make way for the HS2 rail link, and explore the stories of those interred there.

Wednesday 16th September

Ambulance 1/8, 9pm, BBC One: New series of the show that follows paramedics as they attend to the emergency needs of London’s 9 million people. This series was filmed in autumn 2019.

Lost at Sea: My Dad’s Last Journey, 10pm, Channel 4: One-off documentary charting Louis Bird’s journey to discover what happened to his father, a daredevil explorer lost at sea on a 1996 solo voyage.

Thursday 17th September

Saving Lives at Sea 1/10, 8pm, BBC Two: Series five of the strand that showcases the work of the RNLI, the volunteers up and down the country who risk everything to save the lives of strangers in trouble at sea.

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