Following the previous episode’s terrifying cliffhanger, it seems only right that the majority of this episode is devoted to the aftermath of Rose’s rendezvous with Bernard, as two related questions are levelled and explored: Will Rose survive and who betrayed her? The suspicion which is aroused over the latter brings the very darkest side of human nature to the surface, as Blanche’s knee-jerk reactions to scant evidence leads to Christina being cast as the chief suspect largely due to the colour of her skin. The real truth of the matter, which forms yet another breathtaking finale, is eventually shown to have been under the women’s noses all along. In a narrative which is otherwise irretrievably bleak, virtually the only affirming content sees Beatrice take rightful control of the hospital, albeit in less than ideal circumstances, as she dishes out medical expertise and the sort of common sense wisdom that make her, along with Marion, one of the few truly decent and well-rounded individuals in the camp. As usual the performances of the entire ensemble are superb, but Louise Jameson and Ann Bell deserve particular mention.
For the majority of the first third of the episode, as Verna appositely puts it: ‘You can almost feel the camp holding its breath.’ As this is Tenko, a series which is singularly unafraid to kill off its major characters, the tension which accompanies the scenes in which Rose is operated upon is real edge-of-the-seat stuff. When Kate and Beatrice finally emerge from the hospital in their grittily blood-smeared medical gowns and the former states: ‘It’s over,’ we can be forgiven for initially thinking that Rose is no more. That she turns out to be alive and later regains consciousness and furthermore is clear-headed, if paralysed, is a surprise; however, it is quickly obvious that no miracle full recovery will be on the cards. Instead Rose is set to symbolise the women’s impotence: their continuing powerlessness to do anything about their circumstances as cruelly subjugated, incarcerated, half-starved prisoners, with little prospect of survival. As Blanche asks in the camp’s ever-growing graveyard: ‘Fourteen months, one week and three days, and where has hope got us?’
It is hardly surprising that Blanche’s inability to do anything about Rose’s situation leads her to channel her energies elsewhere, initially into a rather inane, if amusing, prank which sees Miss Hasan come face-to-face with a large rat. However, it is when Blanche’s restless attention settles on another target that her inner turmoil is in danger of leading to a deplorable miscarriage of justice. The first indication of her suspicions about Christina’s guilt comes in a scene in the cookhouse in which she wastes no time telling Dorothy and Joss, in a typically direct way, what she is thinking: ‘The chilli cracker, look at her, fresh as a dawn daisy, makes me puke… She’s getting extra rations from somewhere, I’d stake my life on it, but what with, eh?’ Blanche calling Christina a ‘chilli cracker’ is nothing new, but using the term pejoratively is. As Blanche needs to find Rose’s betrayer in order to recompense for what has happened to her friend and to offset her personal guilt for not staying on lookout on the night in question, she is not above making Christina fit the bill at all costs, subconscious process or not. By the time Beatrice delivers her report on Rose’s health, it is clear from the way that Blanche eyes up Christina that she has made up her mind. Regrettably Blanche is encouraged in such thoughts by Dorothy, who in a mock Chinese accent describes the Eurasian as: ‘Sweet little Christina. Belle of HQ,’ and comments on how she is ‘nice and cosy in an office,’ before later, and quite incredibly, asking: ‘Anyway, what do we know about her? Nothing! She never argues. Never says a bloody thing,’ as if her quiet character is all the evidence they need to convict her. Besides, we know this just isn’t true, especially towards the end of her time in the first camp when she started to gain the confidence to come out of herself. Blanche takes the racist polemic several stages further: ‘And she speaks their lingo. And is half one of them, come to that. And you know what they say about chilli crackers. They are neither fish nor fowl! Be honest.’ It is difficult to hear this coming from the lips of one of the series’ most endearing characters, but having Blanche say this, rather than someone like Van Meyer or Verna, makes the point so much more effectively: given the right, or rather wrong, circumstances, ‘good’ people are just as capable of blatant and inexcusable racism.
Her racist reactions aside, it is easy to understand Blanche’s frustration at the idea of putting the case against Christina before the discipline committee or, as she calls it: ‘that cosy middle-class tea party,’ especially given that it is largely populated by Verna’s cronies. However, compared to Blanche’s preferred alternative of ‘an eye for an eye,’ it is the only viable option. Although the committee was a seemingly inconsequential element of the preceding episode, the fact that its members will now come together to decide Christina’s fate makes the reason for its previous screen-time readily apparent…
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.