Interview: Jane Horrocks stars in ITV's The Singapore Grip

The actor, singer and comedian talks to Janet Christie about the playing a character so different from her other roles

Saturday, 12th September 2020, 11:46 am
Jane Horrocks as Sylvia Blackett, a colonial matriarch in The Singapore Grip, ITV
Jane Horrocks as Sylvia Blackett, a colonial matriarch in The Singapore Grip, ITV

In The Singapore Grip, Jane Horrocks plays Sylvia Blackett, the matriarch of a wealthy colonial family whose world of privilege is about to come crashing down after the Japanese invasion in the Second World War. The acclaimed actor talks to Janet Christie about the lavish ITV drama and the appeal of playing a character so different from her other TV roles

MORE than ever right now we’re indoors watching our screens and the entertainment we’re lapping up can be split into pre-covid and post-covid fare. What the future holds is still unknown, but much of what we’re enjoying was made in the days when busy sets were full of cast and crew and travel to exotic locations a possibility. In the new normal it now seems a very lavish world, none more so than with The Singapore Grip, ITV’s epic new drama series starring Jane Horrocks.

“You knew it was going to look very sumptuous and reflective of that period. You knew it was going to be a classic piece of television,” she says over Zoom as she takes part in publicity for the show, which launches tomorrow.

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Horrocks with David Morrissey as Sylvia and Walter Blackett, wealthy rubber merchants in The Singapore Grip, which combines satire and period drama.

Set in Singapore during the Second World War, a six-part drama series adapted from Booker Prize winner JG Farrell’s novel by Oscar winning screenwriter and playwright Christopher Hampton (Atonement, Dangerous Liaisons, for which he won an Oscar).

Full of satire about Britain’s colonial past, the series will also chime a note of recognition with contemporary audiences as it portrays a world full of people oblivious to the change that is about to hit them.

Focusing on the lives of the Blackett family, British rubber planters who have been living a life of parties and privilege, it follows the family’s fortunes during the Japanese invasion and Allied surrender. Ultimately leading to the demise of the British Empire in the Far East, the Fall of Singapore saw 80,000 Indian, British and Australian troops and civilians imprisoned in Japanese POW camps. Many did not survive.

Filmed in Kuala Lumpur and in Penang state in Malaysia, where the old colonial buildings doubled for wartime Singapore, the production by Mammoth Screen has a big ensemble cast, including as well as Horrocks, Luke Treadaway, David Morrissey, Colm Meaney, Charles Dance and rising stars Elizabeth Tan and Georgia Blizzard.

Set in Singapore during the Second World War, The Singapore Grip is a six-part ITV drama series adapted from Booker Prize winner JG Farrell’s novel by Oscar-winning screenwriter and playwright Christopher Hampton.

Now aged 56, Horrocks has a three decade career as an actor, singer and comedian behind her. Highlights include playing the frothy Bubble in Absolutely Fabulous to starring in Mike Leigh’s Life Is Sweet in 1990, singing her way to an Olivier nomination for Best Actress in the stage version of The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, and Golden Globe and Bafta nominations for the film adaptation Little Voice in 1998 and playing opposite Peter Mullan in the musical Sunshine on Leith.

Born and raised in the mill town of Rawtenstall in Lancashire, she studied at Oldham College then Rada, and now lives in London with her husband, screenwriter Nick Vivian, and their children Molly and Dylan. As well as The Singapore Grip, she was due this year to be working on Bloods, for Sky, also starring Bafta-nominated Samson Kayo (Timewasters), a return to comedy as a paramedic who is to medicine what Bubbles was to PR. Her role in The Singapore Grip has comic moments too, as well as tragedy as she portrays a character unaware that the colonial lifestyle is about to come to an end.

What drew you to The Singapore Grip?

I was keen to play a character like Sylvia. I’ve never played a colonial woman before and I’m not an obvious choice to play a colonial mother either. So it was nice for me, even though I’ve played those parts in theatre lots, to play somebody who is very different to me on TV was very satisfying.

Photocall for premiere of Sunshine on Leith, 2013. Left to right: Kevin Guthrie, Peter Mullan, Antonia Thomas Jane Horrocks, George MacKay and director Dexter Fletcher. At the back The Proclaimers, Charlie and Craig Reid.

Also it was beautifully written by Christopher Hampton, I’ve known him from Les Miserables days when I first went to the Royal Shakespeare Company. My career started when that play first came about so I’ve been a great admirer of his work over the years.

And the luxury of it was that it had money behind it so you knew that it was going to look good as well, that it wasn’t being made for threepence, that the camera used was the latest on the market, which makes it look wonderful. So you knew it was going to look very sumptuous and reflective of that period. You knew it was going to be a classic piece of television.

The Blacketts are roughly based on the kind of people who would have lived in Singapore in real life. Is there an awareness of this when portraying them?

It’s good to always present people as much as they were as possible rather than softening the edges and I think the characters are oblivious of what’s going on in outside world and I think that’s what we did, that the characters ARE in this bubble and they are non apologetic for it, that was their world.

Horrocks with Antonia Thomas and Peter Mullan at the international premiere of Sunshine On Leith in Edinburgh, 2013

You possibly could have gone even further with it in making them more ridiculous because there was a ridiculousness about them so I think there would have been scope for making them even more lacking in any conscience than they already were.

As a parent were there any elements of yourself that you tapped into to play Sylvia Blackett?

I didn’t really tap into any aspect of it to be honest. I suppose she’s a bit of a control freak and I can relate to that, but as far as trying to pair your children off, certainly your daughter off with the most suitable man, I couldn’t relate to that at all, ha,ha.

But that’s what I liked about her, that she was so different to me. She’s a bit Mrs Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, isn’t she? She’s that sort of type. And we kind of know women like that. But no, it’s not how I’ve parented my children. I can’t think of anything really I relate to about her. Which I prefer, that’s what I like about playing a character, when it’s nothing like yourself.

Is it true that in The Singapore Grip your shoes were too small because vintage sizes were smaller?

Yes, in the garden scenes, Mr Webb’s (Charles Dance) birthday, which is in the first episode, I was wearing these shoes which were absolute killers and definitely a size too small. One of the actresses said, ‘I really like your walk, you’ve created a great character walk for Sylvia, it’s brilliant. I said ‘it’s the shoes, it’s got nothing to do with me creating a character walk. I’m in agony.’ I think she thought I wanted to play someone who had had a hip replacement or needed one, that I’d been very studious about my walk, but I wasn’t. It was killing. And in that heat.

Jane Horrocks moving to centre stage starring in Little Voice, 1998, a role for which she was Oscar nominated, with the film winning multiple awards. Ewan McGregor, Brenda Blethyn and Michael Caine also starred.

Were the rest of the costumes, which are beautiful as well as authentic, difficult to wear?

No, my costumes weren’t. They were nice material and made for me, so they fitted beautifully, and it wasn’t that you were squeezing yourself into them. It was just the shoes. And the heat was sometimes intense. One of the worst days was when we filmed the birthday party for Mr Webb: that was punishing, it was so hot. I found the best thing to do was just to stay very still. Just not move. Stay still.

How would you describe Sylvia Blackett and her relationship with her daughter, played by Georgia Blizzard?

Sylvia’s very old fashioned, and ideally would like a daughter who would toe the line and who would marry into money, taking advice from the parents, so she finds her hot-headed nature very frustrating.

It’s interesting too that her son is a reprobate. I don’t have any scenes with Luke’s character which is a shame, because I get the impression that she allows him to get away with much more than she allows her daughter to get away with. That she has a fondness for her son even though he’s drinking his life away, living the high life, and yeah, he’s a reprobate. She turns a blind eye to that, that’s OK, but her daughter has to toe the line.

When you were filming in Malaysia, how did you cope with being away from your family?

It was tricky, but others were there for a lot longer. I was there for seven weeks in total, and yes, it felt like a long time. I struggled being in Kuala Lumpur because I didn’t warm to it as a city; it just didn’t do anything for me. I found it hard to understand where the centre of that place was, what the vibe was and the nightlife. Because I didn’t respond to it at all I did feel quite lonely at times there, but not in Penang. I liked Penang, because there were relatable things there, like street art and cafes, it just had a much more artsy scene to it. I think when you’re not working every day as well and you’re trying to find things to do, and in that heat as well, yes, I did miss home quite a lot during those times.

When you’re younger those jobs are much more exciting, when you don’t have a family and there’s no pull from home. I’m sure if I’d been in my twenties – not that I didn’t have a ball – but I think I probably wouldn’t have felt any of those homesick feelings if I’d been in my twenties doing it.

Did you get time off to go sightseeing?

Yes, I had a lot of time off so I got to do my gap year at a very late age! I went to Vietnam and Cambodia, and Borneo. So it was great actually. I must say I didn’t really respond to Kuala Lumpur, where we were filming. It just felt like a not very attractive city to me, so I was really glad that I was able to go and see the places lots of my kids’ friends had talked about from their gap year. It was really great to be able to experience that first hand and it certainly didn’t fail to impress. It was really, really fantastic.

I went with Luke Newbury who plays my character’s son and Nicholas Agnew who plays Nigel Langfield. I BLUDGEONED them into coming with me. I nagged them on a daily basis, so they just ground to submission in the end and said ‘yes, yes, anything to shut you up!’ And they came, and they loved me for it! We had a brilliant time.

How have you been in general in the last few months and does it feel strange to look back at a show that was filmed pre-lockdown?

I’ve felt in a bit of a bubble to be honest, getting on quietly with things, enjoying things in a much more simplistic way. It’s been quite pleasant actually, I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve enjoyed slowing down and not really doing very much to be honest, apart from just enjoying nature and being outside.

You are due to start making Bloods, a comedy about paramedics, for Sky. Did you have any paramedic training to prepare for the role?

No, I don’t think there are many really serious paramedic duties that these characters do. Ha, ha. They’re not very good at what they do. It is definitely a comedy, it’s not Casualty or Holby, it’s very silly and fun.

How do you feel about your industry in the future?

It’s an interesting one because productions can’t get insurance now and that’s the biggie. I’m starting something soon and if somebody did get Covid on that production then I suppose the whole thing would shut down and have to resume at a later date, and what that date would be you don’t know. So it’s really difficult for production companies to have any sort of guarantee that anything will be finished or to get through it. It’s a challenge. Can we get through this and all remain well? It’s a ‘suck it and see’ situation really for film and television. It’s a new way of making programmes and everybody’s learning so nobody knows the answers yet. We’ll just have to see how it goes and we’re all in the same boat. You kind of just have to go with the flow really.

The Singapore Grip is on ITV at 9pm tomorrow. All six episodes will be available on BritBox following the first episode

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Horrocks as Sylvia Blackett on the eve of the Fall of Singapore, a defining moment in British colonial history.
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