The first series finale is set ten months into the women’s imprisonment and some three months after the events of the previous instalment (hence Blanche is back on loudmouth form from the outset), at a point at which the privations they now face have become even more extreme. The most memorable and successful elements of the episode are the mental degeneration of the previously indomitable Dr Mason and the efforts of the women to extract some seasonal good cheer through a Christmas concert; a deliberate juxtaposition of despair and joy, which is played out once again when the women learn the respective fates of the male prisoners.
Stephanie Cole ensures that Beatrice’s downward spiral is as believable as it is affecting. Given that the doctor has effectively taken on the responsibility of the health of all the prisoners in the camp, it is little wonder that an outbreak of the dreaded beri-beri triggers such behaviour. Mason knows that bad diet is the cause and that the only remedy is a supply of Vitamin B1, for which she can only look to ten tiny bean-producing plants provided by Yamauchi which, as she pointedly tells Nellie: ‘might or might not make it, like us!’ Her increasingly unhinged desperation to ensure their survival is best demonstrated by the way she overstays her welcome at the meeting about Christmas plans, as an embarrassed Rose seeks to silence the doctor’s unnecessarily detailed description as to why none of the women should feel tempted to acquire the plants. As Beatrice shuffles off, Ulrica correctly observes that: ‘Our doctor is not the woman she once was.’ Dr Mason’s single-minded determination to save her patients also leads her to ask Nellie to secure ‘livestock’ (bugs and maggots) from a work party trip, ostensibly in order to fertilise the bean plants, but in reality to supplement the diet of her ailing patients. Such measures can only lead us to sympathise with the terrible responsibility she faces, so much so that when Sylvia turns up requesting to use the camp’s only pair of scissors to cut the hair of a rag doll, we can fully understand Beatrice’s plea not to bother her with such trivialities. Both Kate and Nellie recognise that the doctor is close to the edge; the former even attempts to comfort her with a hug but is immediately shrugged off. Further evidence of Beatrice’s state of mind comes after the tenko at which the women are informed of their impending move, news which – much to Nellie’s dismay – she elects to tell her patients immediately rather than protect them from for a time.
It is only thanks to Sister Ulrica’s intervention that Beatrice is ultimately pulled back from the brink, as Mrs Harris’s Bible is sacrificed to the guards for their cigarettes in exchange for yeast tablets. That Beatrice is initially unable to take in what Ulrica has done, effectively delivering her patients from certain death, is also very telling. Once it does sink in, her reaction is simply to cry, presumably out of relief as she is finally able to let go of the emotion she has been holding in check. The fact that Ulrica, unlike Kate, chooses not to hug Beatrice even though her shaking frame is clearly crying out for comfort, is significant. Either it is not in her character to consider such intimacy acceptable or she decides that Beatrice would be better served by a practical exhortation to pull herself together: ‘No need for that, there is work to do, an example to be set. I shall expect you in your right mind tomorrow.’ As it turns out, Ulrica’s assumption, and perhaps her methods, are quite correct, as Beatrice appears to have almost fully recovered by the time the women begin their journey to their next camp. Stephanie Cole is spellbinding throughout the episode as she delivers perhaps her finest performance yet.
Thankfully, a character who has been rather overlooked since her introduction, the indomitable Mrs Van Meyer brilliantly played by Elizabeth Chambers, is given some more attention here. The fact that she has now earned herself a moniker, Metro-Goldwyn (after the Metro Goldwyn Mayer film studios), suggests a familiarity – if not affection – amongst the women for the troublesome Dutch woman. Van Meyer is more aware of her entertainment value than one might expect (‘I know I am the camp’s joke. Ha ha!’) and has even begun to play up to the role. When Kate responds to her question as to whether she can make a suggestion with: ‘We’ve never stopped you yet!’ her quick-witted and playful reply is: ‘And you can be sure you never will.’However, she is not always so aware of how humorous her contributions can be, with her questions to Debbie and Sally: ‘What is this Lambeth walking?’ and ‘What is this ‘Oi’?’ being good examples. Her most amusing moment, however, comes in the sick bay after she has been diagnosed with beri-beri and is nevertheless still practising for the concert, when she tells Ulrica: ‘I shall perform at the concert come what may. You can do your worst,’ to which the latter sensibly replies: ‘I would not dare!…
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.