In many respects this second episode is the beginning of the second series proper, as it introduces a new camp, new characters and a new regime. All of the above elements are as unsettling as they are unexpected, investing the narrative with a palpable sense of intrigue and tension and serving to reinvigorate Tenko at a crucial point in its run.
By placing the series’ regular characters in a strange, and at times dreamlike, new context, our affinity and identification with the new arrivals is cleverly reinforced, as we react in a similarly uncomprehending way to their new circumstances. All is clearly not what it seems and only one thing is initially certain: as Dorothy states, there is ‘something creepy’ about their new camp. Sensibly, the reality of day-to-day life in what superficially appears to be a better camp than the one they’ve left behind is only gradually revealed in order to maximise viewer engagement and interest, indeed some questions will not be fully answered for many more episodes to come.
The number of mysteries in the new camp are as extensive as they are unusual. Early on, as well as the absence of a welcome from its residents, there is: the question of the emptiness of the camp (exaggerated by direction that suggests that its internees are in hiding rather than, as we later discover, simply out at the factory); a lack of explanation as to why the new arrivals are locked up; and the incongruous sound of a cat. All have simple explanations but are cleverly played so as to increase tension. As the narrative progresses so the mysteries multiply: Why is their swearing frowned upon?; Why do this camp’s inmates insist on using curiously quaint expressions?; Why is the camp being run by a Malayan woman? By the time the women meet the improbably well-turned-out Verna Johnson, who greets them as if she were the host at an English country garden tea party, some of the women have even begun to question the reality of their new surroundings. While the already distressed Sally feels compelled to run away, exclaiming to herself that ‘it’s not real, none of it’s real,’ and Joss describes the set-up as ‘like something out of Alice in Wonderland,’ Dorothy asserts that: ‘It’s like being on another planet.’
The character and motivations of the ice-cool Verna Johnson are arguably the most intriguing aspect of the new regime. This intrigue partly arises from the fact that she remains out of sight for a good proportion of the episode and yet is important enough for other new characters to mention her. When she finally does appear on her verandah, after a tenko that apparently doesn’t apply to her, the exaggerated courtesy with which she greets the new arrivals (‘Won’t you all sit down so that I can?’), her elegant appearance, and the fact that she proceeds to ‘hold court’, all come together to suggest a thoroughly self-serving woman who revels in the position she has found herself in or, more likely, has created for herself. When she explains that it is her ‘miserable fate to be in charge of distribution,’ which she claims she’d happily exchange for shifts at the factory because ‘it’s a thankless task,’ it is very difficult to believe her, partly because of her manner, but mainly because she is far too perfectly coiffured for this to be true. In effect, her vanity betrays her. Further conclusions can be drawn from the fact that she is the owner of the cat which the women heard earlier. The existence of a healthy cat in the camp strikes as nothing less than disgusting when we know of at least one woman in the hospital, the charmingly garrulous Betty, who is suffering from malnutrition. Despite Verna’s assertion that she tries ‘to leave a little food in hand for those most at risk,’ she clearly doesn’t try too hard. That in dopey Daisy, even within the constraints of a prison camp, Verna has effectively managed to secure herself a ladies’ maid is further evidence of the sort of woman she is. She even considers it appropriate to complain about her as if she were having a ‘you can’t get the staff’ conversation in a drawing room.
Verna’s evasion of Joss’s question about what Miss Hasan is like with a quick ‘not too bad’ is also illuminating, as it only serves to emphasise her assessment as an obvious lie…
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.