This third episode marks the beginning of Tenko proper, as the series starts to document the women’s endurance of day-to-day life in a dilapidated and insanitary internment camp. As well as introducing their Japanese captors and the camp itself, we also meet a raft of new characters who we will come to know just as well as the women whose experiences we have followed so far.
Most prominent among the new characters is Renée Asherson’s Sylvia Ashburton, a general’s wife whose values and stubbornness are seen here to test the patience of her fellow prisoners as much as they do the Japanese. When we first meet her she is unnecessarily pushing past some of her fellow prisoners and it is not long before she is unwisely shouting at a Japanese soldier, warning him that she will report him to his commanding officer! She continues to throw her weight about under the guise of upholding ‘certain standards’, standards which are seen to include her refusal to sleep beside Christina because of her race. Rose’s retort: ‘Oh, come on, Ducky. This isn’t the golf club you know!’ perfectly sums up Sylvia’s complete failure to grasp that she won’t be able to hold on to her old-world values in the camp. Despite this characterisation, writer Jill Hyem is careful to ensure that Sylvia is not simply portrayed as a stereotypical class-obsessed snob: her heartfelt evening prayer is shown to be a comfort to all those present; while her reluctance to undress in front of the other women engenders Marion’s sympathy if not ours. Sylvia’s subsequent plucky refusal to bow during tenko and her imprudent use of the crystal set make her personify the sort of British woman whom Yamauchi believes must have their arrogance ‘destroyed,’ which is presumably why he does not immediately acquiesce to Marion’s plea that she be released.
Louise Jameson’s shameless Blanche, who is set to become one of Tenko’s most vibrant and engaging characters, brings some welcome colour to proceedings. Blanche stands out not only because of her peroxide hair and defiant make-up, but because she doesn’t appear to care what anyone else thinks of her. She is the only woman to selfishly complain about the noise that Dorothy’s baby is making, while her approach to ablutions – which sees her remove all of her clothes without hesitation – is in stark contrast to the rather prudish behaviour of her fellow prisoners. However, her brash exterior belies a softer, more sensitive side. It is Blanche who suggests Violet be put to Dorothy’s breast (and is clearly touched to see this solution work) and, soon after, prevents Debbie from touching a sack due to its likely infestation. Later still, she is seen to show more consideration than anyone else for Sylvia, stating that while they are busy pointlessly apportioning blame, it is likely that she is being kicked to death.
Quite understandably, given the amount of screen time available, several of the new characters are given rather less to do than Sylvia and Blanche. The tragedy of Dorothy Bennett’s situation – the recent loss of her husband and as a result having to shoulder the responsibility for her baby daughter alone – is emphasised by the brilliant performance of Veronica Roberts, who proves that she needs very few lines to make an impact. While Sally, played with wide-eyed innocence by Joanna Hole, looks sure to have her ‘jolly hockey sticks’ innocence shattered by life in camp. Her sheltered upbringing, which makes her totally unequipped for this terrible experience, is best underlined by her ridiculously polite turn of phrase that is completely out of keeping with her new surroundings: ‘Do you think we could ask again about spending a penny?’ Sally’s reflection that she and her husband had so wanted a baby is beautifully played by Hole and confirms her as yet another worthy addition to the cast…
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.