Tenko’s Grand Dame of the Raj bows for the last time: Renée Asherson (1915-2014)

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Sylvia refuses to bow   (Photo: BBC)

Veteran actress Renée Asherson, Tenko’s Grande Dame of the Raj Sylvia Ashburton, died on 30 October 2014 at the age of 99. Her petite figure and elfin features unmistakeable, Renee was rarely out of work, making her mark on stage, film and TV.

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Renee Asherson in the Forties

In a career that spanned eight decades, Renée ’s year in Tenko was really little more than a footnote. Married for a time to the actor Robert Donat, Renée also worked alongside the likes of Olivier, Gielgud, Alec Guinness and Vivien Leigh. Her high profile roles included a wide range of classics, with plum roles such as Princess Katherine in the groundbreaking and seminal 1944 film version of Henry V and as Iris Winterton opposite John Mills in The Way to the Stars. Her final film role was as a blind medium in the spooky ghost story The Others with Nicole Kidman.

Classic TV roles included Mother Ancilla in another spooky story, Quiet as a Nun, the garrulous Miss Gailey in Clayhanger, a memorable appearance as the ill-fated Dora Bunner alongside Joan Hickson’s Miss Marple in the BBC’s unbeatable adaptation of A Murder is Announced, and Charmian Colston in the acclaimed Memento Mori with Stephanie Cole.

As Andy Priestner discovered while researching his book Remembering Tenko, Jean Anderson was the original choice to play Tenko’s Sylvia; but director Pennant Roberts chose to offer the role to Renée instead. After the first series, changes were made to the line-up of characters, and Sylvia was dropped. Speaking with Andy Priestner many years later, some of those behind the camera stated that they felt the character of Sylvia Ashburton was too energetic and spry, and was not the creaky and doddering woman that had been imagined. For Tenko series two, Jean Anderson joined the cast at last, playing the creaky and doddering Joss Holbrook, and went on to become one of the show’s most fondly remembered characters.

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Sylvia in reflective mood  (Photo: Radio Times)

Asherson seems to have brought too much of her own innate liveliness – her keep fit routine is a memorable moment – to the role of Sylvia, and this is in part may have led to her contract not being renewed for Tenko‘s second series. Ann Bell (Marion) was particularly upset about the news as she had very much enjoyed acting alongside her.

Sylvia’s first of many encounters with her captors         (Photo: Evgeny Gridneff)

In her single year in Tenko, Sylvia makes a huge impact: overcoming her racism towards Christina; putting her class aside and seeing a kindred spirit in Blanche; giving cash to Dorothy in her hour of need; and perhaps most memorably of all, intrepidly facing down the Japs with a defiant mutter of “God Save The King”. Sylvia represents the do-or-die attitude of the “old guard”, unafraid to give birth in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by jabbering natives.

Last seen among the internees leaving the first camp for the long march, in episode 1.10, Sylvia is sent off elsewhere and eventually dies off-screen. Her friends in the camp would remember her for years to come, and were pleased to have considered her a friend. Every inch the Memsahib, Sylvia’s change in attitude over the course of her eight episodes is a great example of intelligent writing and strong performance. Even if some members of the production team felt Renée Asherson’s performance lacked something it is certain that many fans of the series conversely rate her portrayal of Sylvia very highly indeed.

Chris Winwood

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Tenko script editor’s first novel

evgenyEvgeny Gridneff, the man who script edited Tenko’s first two wonderful series has written his first novel. A Stink in the Tale is purportedly ‘a rip-roaring comedy-thriller replete with intrigue, adventure and unexpected twists and turns’. I’m definitely bagging myself a copy.

Released on the 15th October, you should buy it direct from the publisher – Telos  as then Evgeny and Telos get more of the profit than if you were to buy it from Amazon. If you didn’t know, Amazon have this nasty habit of screwing over small press publishers for such incredible discounts that they can barely operate (just sayin’!). Which is why you should also buy Remembering Tenko direct from Classic TV Press.

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The cover reminds me of a Tom Sharpe book which is fitting given that Evgeny produced the memorable TV adaptation of Sharpe’s Blott on the Landscape back in the day.

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Apart from being a master of story, narrative and structure, Evgeny is a thoroughly nice man who helped me enormously when I was writing the Remembering Tenko book by offering me a treasure trove of memories and photos, so do go buy it…

Andy

 

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Tenko grips us all over again

tenkogripsYou’re probably here as you’ve just watched an episode of Tenko on UK Drama and want to find out more about this amazing 80s’ drama that is just as compelling now as it was back then? If so, you’ve come to the right place. Grab a Singapore Sling or a bowl of rice and have a good look around…

Check out the characters pages or the gallery or read reviews of the episode you’ve just watched. The episode reviews on this site are tasters for the fuller reviews (triple the length) available in Classic TV Press’s critically-acclaimed book ‘Remembering Tenko’, which also contains interviews with all the cast, behind-the-scenes photographs, and the whole story of the making of the series.

Here are some ‘5-Star’ Amazon reviews of this book:

‘Superb book on a superb series’ (Alan James)

‘A beautifully written and illustrated book, about my all-time favourite TV series! A must for anyone who enjoyed the series and would like to read more about the actors and real-life details about WW2 internees.’ (‘Pianojan’)

‘I don’t think I’ve ever read a non-fiction book that had me shedding as many tears. The start of the book pays proper homage to the real life internees of Japanese camps during World War II. The true story and the inspirational women behind Tenko were really brought into focus. 15 pages in I was holding back tears. Not only did I cry for the tragedy of the real women prisoners but also when I heard how generous the actresses were to each other even years after the show had ended.’ (Melanie Strong)

‘Andy Priestner has written a magnificent companion to this classic TV drama. It contains hundreds of photos and so much background info about Tenko. 740 pages of painstaking research by the author, a true labour of love. A gift of gold to all Tenko fans. Highly recommended.’ (Dylan Parry)

‘Meticulously researched and with contributions from the creator, writers, directors and of course the cast it’s full of interesting facts and lots of great photos (a lot of them taken by the cast themselves on location).’ (S. Hughes)

‘I loved hearing about the relationships which developed between the cast and the dramas which occurred in filming the series… I raced through it! I also feel I have to mention the huge amount of photos –  portraits, behind-the-scenes, of parties, locations, the real women.’ Janis Chambers

‘It details every aspect of production, from character creation, storylining, scripting, casting, direction, you name it, it’s in there with flair and detail! If you’re a fan of ‘Tenko’, or even just interested in learning about how a television drama develops from script to screen, then buy this book – it’s a must-have. Informative, engaging and beautifully-written.’  (Chris Joslin)

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Tenko for Christmas?

RememberingTenkocoverhollyWhether you’ve found your way here because you watched the recent Drama Channel repeat run of Tenko or you just wanted to check out what sort of information was out there on the web about this amazing drama series, we just want to make sure that you know about the 2012 book Remembering Tenko from Classic TV Press which would make the perfect Christmas present for anyone who enjoyed the series.

Packed full of interviews with the series actresses – Ann Bell, Stephanie Beacham, Louise Jameson, Stephanie Cole and many more – and behind-the-scenes anecdotes about the making of this wonderful series, this acclaimed book (currently fifteen 5-star reviews on Amazon) is also illustrated throughout with hundreds of photographs, as well as drawings by Tenko’s original titles designer.

The book also boasts a foreword from the series creator Lavinia Warner who fully endorses the work, while the real-life story of the women prisoners of the Japanese, which inspired her to create Tenko, is also documented in detail.

The book can be purchased from Amazon as a regular book or as an ebook for Kindle.

N.B. Memorabilia from the series is available here.

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Reunion (Review of the feature-length special)

reunionimagesGiven the outstanding quality of this reunion special it is something of a mystery that this final feature-length slice of Tenko does not enjoy a better critical reputation. This state of affairs is even more curious when one considers just how many inferior and ill-conceived specials and spin-offs have positively littered the TV schedules over the years. It is no exaggeration to say that this beautifully scripted – and acted – finale, which is chock full of nostalgia, suspense, humour, adventure and romance, ticks all the dramatic boxes. More importantly it does justice to all of the returning characters as we revisit them five years after the end of the war.

The prospect of witnessing their reunion is a truly tantalising one, as the questions of what has happened to them since the war, how they will now interrelate and whether their time in the camps will still bind them, are set to be explored in some detail. It is incredibly gratifying to almost immediately see all the characters again in new surroundings, as the settings, script, costumes and make-up come together effortlessly to give a real sense that years have passed since we last saw them.

Quite rightly former leader Marion is the focus of the narrative, initially anyway, as she rather desperately sets about ensuring that the reunion takes place. We quickly learn that Marion’s chief motivation is simply loneliness, following her divorce from Clifford two years earlier. While news of their divorce is surprising, especially given how much of the screen time of the final episodes of the third series were given over to the pair’s attempts to save their marriage, the idea that in the end ‘the effort was too much’ makes sense and reminds us that one of Tenko’s great strengths is its realistic approach to relationships.

It is glaringly obvious that Marion needs the reunion more than most of her former internees. She is once again at a very low ebb and her relationship with the gin bottle is flourishing. Nevertheless, on returning to Singapore, it takes some time for her to be honest about how she feels, and she is instead compelled to put up a front about how full her life is: ‘I have Ben, I have friends. Did I tell you I work for the Red Cross library service?’ That she has actually packed a bottle of gin in her suitcase tells another story entirely, while her use of the word ‘amicable’ several times to describe her divorce from Clifford is also revealing. Interestingly it takes Ulrica to state: ‘Divorce cannot be easy, even if it is amicable,’ making it clear that she does not entirely buy the front her friend is presenting. Although news that her ex-husband and his new wife are having a baby has got to her, the real trouble is her deep frustration with only ever having ‘been known as part of Clifford, except in the camp’ and, now that she is divorced, having ‘no identity at all.’ Her off-screen rejection by a supposed old friend, ostensibly because she would put the numbers out at dinner, emphasises her predicament perfectly.

Once the women go ‘up country’ to Johore, it isn’t long before Marion finds her identity again. Dominica introduces Marion to her husband as ‘our leader’ and although Marion corrects her, stating ‘ex-leader,’ it doesn’t stop Teddy from asking her if he can give her name to his solicitor should a bandit take a pot-shot at him. After agreeing to do whatever she can for Dominica should such a thing happen, she admits: ‘I know it’s stupid, although I’m no longer their leader I still feel responsible for all of them.’ It is soon proved that these are not merely idle words, as the bandit attack on the plantation casts her once again as the reliable ‘tower of strength’ who holds the women together as they face a terrible threat to their lives. It is Marion who firmly tells her charges to do as the bandit leader says (momentarily prompting the bandit to think that she is the ‘woman of the house’) and who demands that Christina translate for them. And after Ulrica is shot, it is Marion who asks – just as she so often did in camp – to see to their wounded friend. Once the bandits flee, Marion comes into her own, immediately springing into action and issuing instructions in order to save the lives of Ulrica and the wounded servants, before electing to drive them to the nearest hospital herself. Throughout these scenes it is as if Marion comes to life again, as the duty of care that she feels so deeply is affirmed. As Ulrica notices once she has recovered, Marion ‘has bloomed since she had to cope again with all of us.’

However, the question remains as to how Marion can continue to feel useful after the reunion, as one would hope that she would never find herself in such a life-or-death situation with the other women again, indeed a repeat scenario would stretch credulity unduly. The answer turns out to be rather simple: the return to England of many of her dear friends, where she can be near them, and specifically her close friend Beatrice coming to live with her in her large, empty house. It is Ulrica who realises the importance of this arrangement to Marion and alerts the doctor to it: ‘She needs you Beatrice, more than you need her.’ As the special ends, with Marion hosting a veritable houseful of guests for Christmas, the former leader is once again in her element as a past (represented by her friends from the camp) that was in danger of slipping out of her reach entirely has instead become an integral and fulfilling part of her present. There is a sense that Marion’s quest for a purpose in her life, which started in the very first episode of series one, is now at an end.

Dorothy’s almost triumphant return as a confident and glamorous ‘woman of means’ is arguably one of the most gratifying elements of Reunion. The bewildered young woman who, following the tragic deaths of her husband and child, was set on a path towards self-destruction is barely recognisable here. Her transformation into the tough businesswoman whom we first meet in front of her own shop, who knows what she wants in life, is remarkable and yet thoroughly believable…

This is an excerpt from Andy Priestner’s acclaimed book Remembering Tenko in which this episode is reviewed in full. The book also explores and details how the series was made and boasts hundreds of behind-the-scenes photographs. You can purchase Remembering Tenko on Amazon.

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Going Home (Review of Series 3, Episode 10)

3.10The unenviable task of penning a final instalment which would stand as a suitable conclusion to all three series and wrap up all of the loose ends (there being no certainty at the time that the series would return for a reunion special) fell to Anne Valery. By and large Valery achieves this aim, with an episode most notable for: the unexpected death of Joss, whose last wishes are to have far-reaching consequences for Beatrice and Stephen; the forging of a ‘new honesty’ between Marion and Clifford; and suitable remembrance of all of the women who did not survive internment.

Despite the frequent references throughout the final series to the fact that Joss is ‘done in’, her death still comes as something of a surprise, perhaps because she has always seemed to be such an indomitable character (as Beatrice tells Phyllis, she has ‘broken more bones than I’ve had hot dinners and she’s always bounced back!’), or perhaps because it seems unlikely that they would kill off one of the regulars just before the long-anticipated sail home. Of course, as it stands, the decision to kill her off is very Tenko. It is after all a series that is defined by death and the unfairness of life, so in this way it is perfectly in keeping. Joss’s passing also pays many dramatic dividends: not merely reuniting the women in grief for one last time, but also leading to the appointment of Beatrice and Stephen as joint trustees of a new foundation, as each is given a renewed purpose in life and prepares to go into affectionate and comedic battle with the other.

Jean Anderson makes the most of her solitary final speaking scene as Joss – the quintessential difficult patient – who, as always, has no intention of making life easy for anyone around her. Her wilful disruption of the ordered job Beatrice makes of her hospital bed is ‘pure Joss’, a fact that we are later reminded of as, after her death, the doctor surveys her neat Raffles bed, clearly uncomfortable with ‘how very tidy it is.’ That Joss signs off by recounting a typically riotous story of an escapade she enjoyed with Monica involving a motorbike, Blackshirts and – inevitably – some swearing, feels just right. One of Beatrice’s lines in the same scene, in which she tells Joss that Stephen is ‘lost without you to goad him,’ has more significance than she can possibly imagine, seeing as it either confirms Joss’s decision to cast Beatrice in that very role in the future, or is the actual birth of the idea.

The moment in which Beatrice reveals the news of Joss’s death to the others with the words: ‘Our dear friend Joss,’ delivered by Stephanie Cole with a slight crack in her voice, makes for suitably emotional viewing. While the scene at the Centre which immediately follows, framed with Stephen in the foreground and Beatrice in the background, is an obvious contender for sequence of the episode, as the former, very truthfully, fails to come to terms with having Joss taken away from him. Stephen is full of recrimination, musing: ‘If I’d stopped her doing so much,’ while Beatrice allays his guilt by sagely pointing out that no-one could have done that. Ironically, given the yet-to-be-revealed contents of Joss’s will, his grief makes him hate the Centre (‘every stick and stone’) and want to ‘close it down for ever.’ Another piece of eloquent scripting is Beatrice’s line about the washing she’d done for her friend: ‘Folded them so neatly, edge to edge, ready for use,’ echoing Joss’s ‘too tidy’ bed. This scene ends with Stephen’s heartfelt request that they shouldn’t think ‘for a long, long time,’ a sentiment with which we can fully identify.

Joss’s ‘Jap boots’ and her battered old hat, which only in the last episode Stephen had said would remind him of her when she’d gone, serve that function very redolently here, especially when the latter is thrown down onto her coffin. It is a nice touch that it is Mrs Van Meyer of all people who also remembers Joss’s makeshift card table and is affected by the sight of her polished stone, recognising its value as ‘her pride and joy’ in their previously reduced circumstances.

That Joss reaches beyond the grave as the architect of the Monica Radcliffe Foundation – a set-up which she insists will rely upon Stephen and Beatrice working alongside each other – is one of the most pleasing elements of the episode. The initial sparring that takes place as a result between the pair is hilarious, as each tries to gain the upper hand in a kind of preliminary warm-up bout before the fight is due to begin proper on Beatrice’s return. Stephen’s terrifically unwise suggestion that the doctor will ‘just have to buckle under and have done’ kicks off hostilities and it isn’t long before Beatrice (who states that she has ‘never buckled under’ in her life) is asserting authority over him as a doctor, stating – in a wonderfully blunt manner – that she is ‘coming back, if only to see you don’t louse it up, assuming by then I can still bloody well see what you’re up to!’ Stephen greets the riposte with smiling eyes, reminding us – as he recently told Joss – that he thinks there are ‘Not many people you can have a decent row with without their taking umbrage.’ He is clearly delighted to find that Beatrice, like Joss, is one of these people. Before Beatrice leaves Singapore, the fact that, as she tells him, she’s got his ‘measure’, is best suggested by her clever bribe of a bottle of gin per report, per week. However, Stephen’s twinkling response: ‘Mason, I wouldn’t bank on it. Not if I were you,’ implies that the road ahead is not going to be as smooth as she imagines and that he has many more tricks up his sleeve (or indeed down his silk pyjama bottoms). There is in the hugely amusing performances of Stephanie Cole and Preston Lockwood a basic template for the popular Nineties BBC sitcom Waiting For God, so much so that one wonders if this episode – and the reunion episode that follows – might have been the direct inspiration for its writer Michael Aitkens.

Although Stephen’s hostilities with Beatrice are hilarious, they don’t tell us that much more about him. Thankfully, however, a number of other scenes take the time to present him as a more fully rounded character…

This is an excerpt from Andy Priestner’s acclaimed book Remembering Tenko in which this episode is reviewed in full. The book also explores and details how the series was made and boasts hundreds of behind-the-scenes photographs. You can purchase Remembering Tenko on Amazon.

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Tenko memorabilia now available

tenkoseries3Signed photographs of some of the stars of Tenko and a very limited number of signed copies of Remembering Tenko are now available here.

The beautiful limited edition Tenko prints produced by Tenko’s original title designer Ray Ogden can also still be purchased.

Enjoy!

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