Truth, integrity and storytelling: the life of Jill Hyem (1937-2015)

imageI am saddened to report that Jill Hyem, who wrote more Tenko than anyone else, died last Friday. She had been stoically battling cancer for several years. I had the great pleasure to personally get to know her well as in 2013 she asked me to collate her life’s work as both an actress and a writer in the form of a physical and digital archive which was gifted to the British Film Institute earlier this year. The following is my obituary for Jill which will hopefully makes its way in whole or in part to national newspapers in due course and seeks to summarise her many talents, her vitality, and her legacy: an incredibly creative and wide-ranging contribution to the fields of television and  radio.

Jill Hyem, who has died aged 78, was an actress and writer who co-created the popular radio serial Waggoner’s Walk, and later became a prominent writer of television drama, best known for co-writing the highly successful BBC series Tenko (1981-85) about the wartime experiences of women prisoners of the Japanese. Despite Tenko’s grim setting and almost entirely female cast, both of which were initially considered to be to its detriment, over three series Jill and her co-writer Anne Valery, in collaboration with Tenko’s creator Lavinia Warner, defied all expectation by delivering one of the most watched dramas of the decade, peaking at 16.75 million viewers. In Tenko, Jill felt that she had struck gold: “Anne and I could not have had a better opportunity, not only to develop the characters over their three years in the camps, but also to examine in depth some of the taboo subjects of the time, as well as the feminist aspects of the series.” Jill was a writer first and a feminist second, but always fought against what she called “unconscious male censorship of her work,” referring to those instances where she found the scenes she had written had been softened or her dialogue termed “unfeminine.” Specifically, during Tenko she remembered fighting to retain a scene between two women that she had set in the camp’s makeshift latrine. While she lost that particular battle and the scene was moved to the more ‘acceptable’ environment of the cookhouse, she was to win a more significant fight to retain a storyline featuring a lesbian relationship which the producer had feared might offend some of the audience. The episode in question remains one of Tenko’s most accomplished fifty minutes. Jill had a bellicose turn of phrase, and enjoyed talking of her many “battles and skirmishes over scripts” which she considered to be an everyday eventuality of working in the male-dominated world of 80s television. However, Jill was never just fighting for fighting’s sake, rather she was determined to seek out the truth and integrity of a script, character, or situation. Her overriding ambition was for proper recognition of women as writers, and an appreciation that they could bring more to a script than just “a feminine touch.”

imageAfter Tenko, Jill penned the opening episodes of such enduring favourites as family sailing drama Howards’ Way (1986-90) and Twenties costume drama The House of Eliott (1991-94), thereby creating characters and settings which the viewing public came to know and love. She was reunited with Tenko’s Lavinia Warner on London Weekend Television’s popular wartime drama Wish Me Luck (1988-90) about female SOE agents operating behind enemy lines (left). The pair, who became firm friends, created the series together, while Jill wrote the scripts. Jill also contributed to many popular series of the day such as nursing drama Angels, Wendy Craig’s Nanny, Margery Allingham’s Campion, and Miss Marple with Joan Hickson. Her writing received two BAFTA nominations, one for Tenko and another for the 1993 drama Body and Soul.

imageJill was born in Putney but spent most of her childhood “running wild” on the edge of Dartmoor. Remembering these idyllic days playing war games with her boy cousins Dan and Chris, she recounted that she simply hadn’t realised that she was a girl: “the inequality of my gender was only gradually revealed.” When asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, the young Jill confidently replied: “I’m going to be an actress first, and in my old age I shall be a writer.” And so it came to pass, although, as she would later comment, “my ‘old age’ came rather earlier than anticipated.” After boarding school in Sussex – where she began a Resistance Movement which saw her put unhappy girls on trains home, but later redeemed herself by becoming Head Girl – Jill attended the Webber-Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art. There she recalls: “I spent two very happy years learning to fence, faint, slap faces, breathe, project, weep, laugh hysterically and all the other skills an actor needs.” Her subsequent work in rep led to her first television roles and parts in several ‘second feature’ films, “playing an assortment of nurses, air-hostesses, dreary daughters, gangster’s molls and French maids, the fodder for young actresses in those days,” many of which were produced by the Danziger brothers in about a fortnight.

It was the experience of playing in a lengthy run of the play Goodnight Mrs Puffin with Irene Handl in the West End, in which she was reduced to saying “Oh Mummy, don’t upset yourself,” and “Oh Mummy, please keep calm,” night after night, that Jill realised: “my mission in life would be to write challenging parts for women.” However, advice received from the BBC Radio Script Department was to: “Never write more than two women in a scene. They catch each other’s tone.” Her typically defiant response was to go away and write a play with six women characters and just one man, which was duly bought.

imageShe elected to leave acting behind after beating Tom Stoppard, no less, to the role of new writer on the long-running radio soap The Dales, formerly Mrs Dale’s Diary. Jill wrote countless episodes including its finale in 1969, and its replacement, the long-running and highly popular serial Waggoners’ Walk (1969-80) which she created with Alan Downer. While writing Waggoners, which gave her the financial security she needed as a wife and mother, Jill had the time to write many one-off radio plays for the BBC and hone her craft. Stand-out plays included: the beautifully sparse A Shape Like Piccadilly (1971) about illiteracy; Equal Terms (1973) which concerned the intrusion of a home help; and the critically acclaimed lesbian love story Now She Laughs, Now She Cries (1975). Jill also loved to write suspense, and won the Giles Cooper Award for Best Radio Play of 1978 for Remember Me, a disturbing tale of a woman scorned.

imageJill wrote 40 radio plays during her career, the last in 2007, and always described radio as her favourite medium: “It combines the intimacy of the novel with the freedom of film. Above all, it requires the creative participation of the listener. Their imagination is challenged just as the writer’s is.” However, she was grateful for her transition into television, following the unexpected axing of Waggoners’ Walk, which had been paying the mortgage of the recently divorced Jill, now a single parent to her son Ben. Tenko fell into her lap at just the right moment and “catapulted me into the forefront of television.” As well as taking great pride in developing the series’ characters, Jill had huge admiration for the commitment of the actresses, “all prepared to lose weight and look their worst,” with whom she developed lasting friendships, and who became important cast members in her own life.

Several of Jill’s radio plays were adapted for the theatre in the 80s and it was a medium she would return to later in life, when as well as being commissioned to adapt Lorna Doone, she was pleased to receive critical acclaim for her last original play We’ll Always Have Paris which was performed at The Mill at Sonning in 2010.

imageJill was an active member of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain. During the 80s and 90s she served on the Executive Council for several terms, and was Deputy Chair to Alan Plater. Along the way she also chaired the Radio and Anti-Censorship committees. More controversially she also co-founded, with Sheila MacLeod, a Women’s Committee which “hoped to encourage more women writers to become active in the Guild at a time when most of the committees were male-dominated and many of the areas of special concern to women were neglected.” The committee folded after a decade, deemed no longer necessary, as by that time women were represented throughout the Guild and also worked across the industry. Jill was made an Honorary Member of the Guild in 2007.

In her final years, Jill was brutally honest about what she described as “my demise” – she had been fighting breast cancer since 2011 – and although she no longer possessed the concentration or energy to write, she still saw the potential for drama scripts all around her, the last being for a comedy set in a palliative care centre where the most unlikely people came together from all walks of life, an experience she enjoyed more than one might expect. Jill was a vocal supporter of many causes during her life, and she would not have wanted to miss the opportunity here to mention the one she was the most passionate about: the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, now called Dignity in Dying.

Jill’s friends and collaborators will miss her integrity, her wit and wisdom and, of course, her gift for storytelling. She is survived by her son Ben, his Vietnamese wife Vy and their two young children Jaden and Gaia.

Jill Hyem, born 8th January 1937, died 5th June 2015.

Andy Priestner

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‘Midas Touch’ producer of Tenko leaves behind amazing body of work: Ken Riddington (1924-2014)

Ken in Singapore in 1980

Ken Riddington on the 1980 Tenko recce in Singapore (Photo: Lavinia Warner)

I didn’t meet Ken Riddington while researching my Tenko book as by that time he had been suffering from dementia for several years, nevertheless I still felt that I got a measure of the man from the memories of those who had worked with him on the show. There was of course the recounting of the infamous incident at the Acton rehearsal rooms when he asked his cast to check with their menfolk if it would be OK with them if they stopped shaving under their arms during production – an indication of just how unfamiliar he was with this new, chiefly female, territory, but there was also much praise for his deft handling of the series and his growing appreciation of its subject matter. Tenko’s creator Lavinia Warner remembers how Ken, who had initially turned down the show fearing it would not work, gradually became one of its greatest exponents and ‘a firm supporter of the women’s ensemble.’ Ann Bell remembered him very affectionately (‘he was a dear man’) particularly his inclination to worry: ‘If he wasn’t worried it would be extraordinary,’ precisely why one of his nicknames on the show was ‘Eeyore’. Stephanie Beacham recalled: ‘You’d say “Lovely day Ken,” and he’d reply: “Oh I don’t know, looks as though it could rain before noon.”’ Another nickname was ‘Madge’ after reading very badly for Athene Fielding’s character at a readthrough. However, Riddington proved he had a good sense of humour and signed his 1981 Christmas cards to many cast members with his new moniker! But the mickey-taking was always affectionate and cast and crew alike recognised how lucky they were to have him as their leader, a fact that was underlined to me by Stephanie Beacham’s unprompted outburst of: ‘God! I love that man!’ and Lavinia Warner’s careful and repeated acknowledgements of his significant contribution to Tenko’s success.

Elizabeth Chambers as Mrs Van Meyer in Tenko’s third series (Photo: BBC)

As well as bringing with him 8 years of experience as a producer, having first taken up that mantle on the second series of The Brothers in 1973, Riddington also brought aboard some of Tenko’s most praised actresses, including Jean Anderson – matriarch Mary Hammond in The Brothers; Patricia Lawrence, who he had worked with on To Serve Them All My Days; and Ann Bell who he first met on An Unofficial Rose in 1974.

Of course, one other actress who he brought into Tenko was much closer to home, so to speak. When a Dutch actress proved unsuitable for the part of Mrs Van Meyer, Ken asked his actress wife, Elizabeth (‘Liz’) Chambers, to step into the breach. It proved to be a fantastic decision as Chambers would of course go on to immortalise the character of the maddening but ultimately loveable ‘Metro Goldwyn’. I have been lucky enough to meet Liz several times, most memorably when we enjoyed a fish-and-chips lunch by the Thames at the legendary Grapes pub in Limehouse, where she fondly recalled not only her own memories of Tenko but also related to me how important the show was to her husband. I got a clear impression that although he had enjoyed producing so many series and clearly had ‘The Midas Touch’ – three immaculately realised R. F. Delderfield serials (A Horseman Riding By, To Serve Them All My Days, Diana), the acclaimed House of Cards trilogy, thriller Mother Love, classic detective drama Campion, hugely popular period drama The House of Eliott, and the off-the-wall A Very Peculiar Practice, to name just a few – Tenko had a very special place in his heart.

kens legacy

Some of Ken’s most popular and successful dramas: House of Cards (Ian Richardson and Susannah Harker), To Serve Them All My Days (John Duttine and Frank Middlemass), Mother Love (Diana Rigg and David McCallum), and A Very Peculiar Practice (Barbara Flynn, David Troughton, Graham Crowden and Peter Davison) (Photos: BBC)

 

Ken Riddington

Ken in Singapore in 1984 (Photo: Jill Hyem)

Nominated for six BAFTAs, two Emmys, and winner of at least three further awards, including the 1985 Television and Radio Industries Club drama award for Tenko’s final series, thankfully most of Ken’s work is now available to us to appreciate all over again on DVD, so there’s little chance that his amazing legacy of work will ever be forgotten.

Ken died on 26 December and his funeral will take place tomorrow (Monday 12 January) at 11.45am at West Norwood Crematorium in South East London.

Andy Priestner

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

sylvia ashburton4

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.

stink

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.

blott

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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