This episode indisputably stands as one of the most memorable of the entire series due to the shocking and tragic suicide of the grief-stricken Sally Markham in its final few minutes. Although Sally’s state of mind and the conversations that lead to her suicide are an important focus of the episode, her storyline does not dominate the whole narrative, as the regime and characters at the new camp continue to be explored in pleasing detail as well.
The degeneration of Sally from the cheerful and naïve girl, who we first encountered politely asking if their captors might let her ‘spend a penny,’ to the withdrawn and confused woman of the last few episodes has made for affecting viewing. So different is the disturbed Sally of this episode that it is hard to remember her former laughing and joking self who jollied everyone along with her optimism and enthusiasm despite the privations they were suffering. This fact is cleverly underlined here in the scene in the cookhouse in which the endearing Daisy asks Sally if her name might be Barbara. The cockney orphan asks Sally this as she confesses that she puts her in mind of her favourite character from The Schoolgirl paper: Barbara Redfern. Crucially, Daisy adds the caveat: ‘… ’cept she was always laughing,’ a detail which reminds us that Sally is now very much a shadow of the bubbly public schoolgirl-type she first resembled.
Sally’s conversations and experiences in this episode are played in such a way that its viewers have a much clearer understanding of why she chooses to commit suicide than her fellow prisoners. Aside from the fact that Sally is obviously feeling removed from reality – as evidenced by her failure to remember either where she is or the clothes she was given the previous day – during the course of the narrative she clearly begins to believe that her death will reunite her with her husband (‘If I was dead I could be with Peter’), with her apparent certainty of this fact being as much a clue to her current mental state as a statement of her religious beliefs. When Mrs Van Meyer describes her desire for death as ‘wicked’ and tells her she has ‘everything still to live for,’ Sally is less than convinced (‘Do I?’), while her conversation with the orphaned Daisy reveals a similarly bleak outlook, this time in respect of loved ones: ‘You’re better off without. You only lose them.’ The strength of Sally’s hatred of the Japanese because of their part in the loss of her friends, her child and Peter, demonstrated by her sudden unflinching pronouncement of: ‘I hate them too!’ as the women discuss their captors, is a further motivating factor for her suicide. However, it is ultimately the seance to which Daisy invites Sally which guides her most directly towards her decision, as for her it confirms her belief that Peter is dead. Joss’s subsequent attempt to encourage her not to write her husband off, just as she doesn’t allow herself to consider that her best friend Monica Radcliffe is dead, falls on deaf ears, until, that is, she inadvertently plants a suggestion in the confused girl’s mind: ‘If I wrote her off now, I might as well do myself in!’ Unfortunately Sally immediately seizes upon the idea, looking at Joss as if she has just provided her with the answer to her problems. From then on it is obvious that Sally is merely biding her time, although it has to be said that she rather too easily convinces her friends that she is back to normal with her fake enthusiasm for the choir. Once Sally is set on her course, she does not have to wait long for a trigger to prompt her to take action: the news, received at tenko, of General Shimojo’s visit and the plan to obtain propaganda ‘pictures of new arrivals happily settled in Japanese prison camp.’ From this point to the episode’s conclusion it is clear that it is firmly Sally’s intention, as Joss puts it, to ‘wreck the bastard’s visit’ by deliberately committing suicide in the middle of it. Although Sally’s plans are spelt out rather plainly, her suicide still comes as something of a shock, partly because there is uncertainty as to whether she will be able to go through with it and partly due to the fact that she is a regular who has been in the series almost from the beginning (she is the most prominent character to die so far). That Sally comes to this tragic end is somehow far more upsetting because of the person she was; nevertheless, there is some comfort to be taken, rightly or wrongly, from Kate’s observation that: ‘She achieved something didn’t she? She wiped the smile off their faces. Ruined the whole bloody visit!’ especially as she dies with what seems to be a knowing smile. There is also some consolation to be derived from the fact that Sally kills herself because she believes it will reunite her with Peter. Before she smashes the mirror which she will use to slit her wrists, she looks into it, incongruously ‘dressed up to the nines’, and smiles, perhaps because she is thinking back to evenings out with Peter before the war, or perhaps because she feels that dressed like this she is ready for him to see her again. Joanna Hole puts in a very strong final performance as Sally which authentically ranges from confused and listless to resolute and gutsy…
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.