This fifth episode which, apart from the opening scene, is set two months after the women were imprisoned, chooses to depict the day-to-day grind of life in camp. Alongside the problem of low morale is the far more serious situation of the spread of disease as the first few cases of malaria are diagnosed. Unfortunately there proves to be no easy solution to either problem and it is very apparent that impromptu and rather pathetic renditions of ‘Ten Green Bottles’ will have little impact on morale.
Although this instalment is very much an ensemble piece with almost all the principal characters receiving their fair share of screen time, Marion is once again the main focus as her leadership comes under further scrutiny. Her leadership burden is depicted as thankless and lonely, as her fellow prisoners selfishly block her attempts to establish order and raise spirits. None of the other women are prepared to put in the same amount of effort as Marion and yet they are more than willing to criticise her for not being a ‘proper leader.’ Such criticism, taken together with her failure to secure either quinine or an additional hut for the sick from Yamauchi, understandably prompts Marion to doubt her suitability and consider standing down. The reality of course, as Beatrice points out, is that she is far more viable than any alternative candidate, and Kate’s description of her to Nellie: ‘a nice, upper-class pommie lady who’s never roughed it before in her life… very good at handing out cups of tea to refugees, but here… right out of her depth,’ woefully underestimates her qualities. In fact, via her audiences with Yamauchi in which she bravely makes demands on behalf of the women, her refusal to accommodate the endless complaints about the hut moves, and her attempts to seek engagement from the disaffected Rose and Dorothy, Marion displays considerable practicality and mettle. However, it is at the moment at which she is prepared to leave the role behind, if the vote at the meeting she has called goes against her, that Marion proves once and for all that she is unquestionably the leader they need. The way she turns the tables on the women who have refused to offer assistance (‘What will you contribute, Rose?’) and simultaneously lifts morale by suggesting an ambitious building project, that she has already seen fit to clear with Yamauchi, is admirably deft. After this performance it is clear that the leadership vote is a foregone conclusion and so it proves. The subsequent building of the new sick bay engenders real camaraderie, even happiness, amongst the women and this is entirely down to Marion. Of course, Tenko being the sort of series it is, Marion is given no opportunity to enjoy this accomplishment and instead is rewarded by being almost immediately whisked off for interrogation by the Japanese equivalent of the Gestapo.
Ann Bell gives a bravura performance as Marion here, especially in those moments when the strain becomes too much. Her imploring outburst to Yamauchi (‘Surely if people are sick!’) and her breakdown while confiding in Beatrice (‘I can’t bear this place’), a conversation which leads to Marion’s manic laughter at the prospect of Sylvia’s leadership resulting in them all being put against a wall and shot, are just two examples of Bell’s impressive range.
Stephanie Beacham’s Rose is once again depicted as thoroughly self-obsessed. Marion goes so far as to say to her that she’s never ‘met anyone quite as selfish as you,’ but thankfully this is tempered here by some explanations for this behaviour. In one of the strongest scenes of the episode, she relates to Blanche the details of her dismal marriage to a middle-aged planter (‘You think this is dull’) and her earlier mistreatment at the hands of a handsome subaltern who proposed to her, bedded her, ‘then buggered off.’ Through her comment ‘Was I ever that naïve?’ Rose is shown to be scarcely able to remember the simple innocence she possessed at the tender age of 18. Life has since taught her to be hard and cynical, prompting her to declare to Blanche: ‘If anyone does the using now, it’s me.’ However, there are obvious chinks in her protective armour and it is these that Marion later exploits in order to get her on side as the ‘Head of Entertainment’. Rose’s agreement to this idea marks an important turning point for the 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.