Director Tom Vaughan of The Singapore Grip explains how the series recreated a bygone era – and where the crew relaxed in KL, George Town and Langkawi
Malaysia’s frenetic cities and dazzling landscapes have been well-documented on the international silver screen, whether it’s the glitzy blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians or classic caper Entrapment, to name a few. But this month, it appears on a British TV series produced by ITV. Based on Lost Man Booker Prize winner JG Farrell’s 1970 novel of the same name, The Singapore Grip is set in 1940s Singapore and revolves around the lives of a British family in the aftermath of the Japanese occupation.
While the dramatic series lays bare the good, the bad and the ugly of the colonial era, the cinematography is undeniably beautiful – and likely familiar to Malaysians – with key settings recreated in the colonial houses of Carey Island, the rice fields of Penang and the streets of George Town.
Here, director Tom Vaughan tells us about the settings that featured in key scenes and his standout memories of shooting in Malaysia.
Where were some of the locations you shot in KL?
We filmed mostly in and around KL before heading to Penang for about a month to shoot on the streets of George Town. In KL, we mainly shot in the two beautiful colonial houses – Carcosa and Seri Negara – located near the botanical gardens. These became the homes of our main characters and were a great size for filming. They were very convenient and easy to travel to; despite being in the middle of KL, it looked like a jungle setting. We also filmed at a beautiful old restaurant called Coliseum, which dates back to the 1940s, so we didn’t have to do much to it before shooting.
And outside of KL?
We travelled to Carey Island to the southwest of KL; there are a group of incredible colonial-era plantation houses which we used for various scenes. They were built in the 1920s and 1930s, so they were perfect for our period. In Penang, we were able to take over the streets of George Town to create our version of Chinatown. The architecture is stunning, and it looked wonderful on film. We made lots of use of the old warehouses by the docks and were able to fill the downtown area along Beach Street with vintage cars to create bustling street scenes. We also did a night scene at Cheong Fatt Tze – The Blue Mansion in George Town – which was very special.
Any standout memories while shooting in Malaysia?
Although they stopped us from filming, I’ll never forget the incredible electrical storms, especially in KL. Watching the sun setting as we got ready for a night shoot on the beach in Penang. Filling the streets of George Town with background artists and actors and period cars to re-create the 1940s was a spectacle. Filming the final shots in a rice field in western Penang was also very moving, as was standing in a rubber plantation in the middle of the night, while special effect explosions went off and Japanese and Indian “soldiers” staged the Battle of Slim River.
Where did the cast and crew go to eat and unwind while filming?
In KL, we were based at Lanson Place in Bukit Ceylon, so we spent a lot of time at the many restaurants and bars on Changkat Bukit Bintang and eating the street food from Jalan Alor. I loved the food and design at Isabel Restaurant on Jalan Mesui. The cast and crew also had plenty of fun at No Black Tie jazz club and Pisco Bar on the same street.
In Penang, where we were filming for a month, we all spent time at the restaurants on Love Lane. My family and I stayed in 23 Love Lane! They put us in the annex, which is on Lorong Stewart, and is actually an entire house. It was a wonderful experience.
What was it like filming with Charles Dance and David Morrissey?
David absolutely embodied the power and certainty of Walter Blackett and gives a performance of immense force, cunning and wit. Charles – whom I’ve worked with before – was a joy and as charming as you might imagine. He cared deeply about his character, Mr Webb, and as a result, made him into a wonderful presence with a deep resonance across the story.
How did you cool off after you wrapped?
I think most of the international crew made trips to Langkawi when there was time off. My family and I really enjoyed staying at Temple Tree and Bon Ton resort while there. Charming accommodation, great food and lots of cats!
The Singapore Grip will air on ITV on 13 September 2020.