Due to its groundbreaking depiction of a potentially homosexual relationship, this is one of the most memorable, and certainly most frequently cited, episodes of Tenko. Despite the absence of a kiss – in fact, we see little more than hand-holding – the content was still considered risqué by the television audiences of 1981. Looking back now, from our far more permissive and accepting society of 2012, it is difficult to imagine just how pioneering this plotline was; however, the fact that this was still some 13 years off the media storm which surrounded the portrayal of lesbianism in Brookside (in 1994) puts it in some perspective. Tenko was not portraying here the first lesbian relationship on television, in fact the first lesbian kiss was broadcast back in 1974 (between Alison Steadman and Myra Frances in the drama Girl). However, because this was a depiction of homosexuality back in World War II, perhaps this Tenko episode seemed more provocative than it otherwise might (even though such relationships were known to have existed in the camps).
The relationship between Nellie and Sally is virtually the sole focus of the episode and is handled sympathetically and, importantly, without any sort of sensationalism. Both Jeananne Crowley and Joanna Hole offer sensitive performances throughout, with Nellie’s fiercely held love and Sally’s hopeless naivety coming across as equally believable. Crowley manages an electric screen presence for the first time in the series, befitting her National Theatre pedigree, most notably in her delivery of the line in which she refutes Beatrice’s assertion that she must remember that first and foremost she is a nurse: ‘No I’m not; first and foremost I’m a person.’ Hole meanwhile makes Sally engaging and loveable as we witness how her superficially jolly exterior is offset by her deep-seated fears. The dynamics between Nellie and Sally are particularly interesting because of their complexity. While on the one hand Nellie has recognised her own sexuality and is seeking a full-on relationship, Sally is merely looking for affection and comfort due to Peter’s absence and the horrendous experience of having a stillborn child. Sally fails to register the depth of Nellie’s love, despite the clear signs: her jealousy as Sally dances with Blanche at the night of her birthday party; her precious gifts of chocolate and sugar; and her protective ‘Peter-like’ concern for Sally’s safety when around the guards. For Sally, the friendship is exactly as Marion describes: natural and not unlike the hand-holding that goes on between girls in school. So much so, that when she eventually sees the graffiti which reads: ‘Nellie and Sally are filthy perverts,’ she is in a complete state of shock, breathlessly asking: ‘Is that what people really think?’ This moment of revelation inevitably uncovers Nellie’s alternative take on their relationship, as she answers: ‘Does it matter?’ Sally’s incredulous reply: ‘Of course it matters! Do you want people thinking we’re like that?’ serves to underline the complete disparity between Nellie’s and Sally’s outlook and intentions and, moreover, the fact that, as a result, their relationship can never be as close again. The fact that Sally’s complicity was unwitting, due to her innocence and immaturity, makes it clear that their relationship could never have gone anywhere anyway. Whether Nellie knew this to be the case or not is unclear; either way is it apparent that she must have hoped against hope that her feelings might be reciprocated.
Despite the graffiti and Dorothy’s decidedly negative take on the relationship, it is appropriate and interesting that many of the characters are able to see its positive side given the straits they are currently in. Rose comments: ‘At least they care about each other’; Blanche, inevitably more earthily, states: ‘What if they were, what are we supposed to do for sex in this bloody place?’; while Marion simply asks: ‘Since when was feeling a crime?’ Thankfully these interjections never feel as though the episode’s writer, Jill Hyem, is forwarding an agenda, instead they are absolutely in keeping with both the narrative and the characters given these lines, although it is somewhat inevitable that a more forward-thinking ‘right on’ Eighties stance on these issues is represented in the narrative rather than a narrow-minded Forties one.
However, it seems likely that with one particular line in the episode, delivered by Madge Pritchard at the discipline committee – ‘One wouldn’t wish to put a name to it’ – Jill Hyem is poking fun at her producer’s insistence that the storyline could only go ahead as long as the word ‘lesbian’ was not mentioned…
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.