It is no accident that, as the women fly back towards Singapore and an uncertain future, the very first word spoken here is ‘scared’. Throughout this episode, the gradual realisation that the women will find it very difficult to rebuild their lives – the central theme of this final series – is sensitively detailed for the first time. The ensemble cast predictably rises to the occasion as the women begin to appreciate that freedom is a far more complicated prospect than they might have imagined.
The women’s arrival at the airport and the reception which follows are far too much for them to take in at once, and their wonderment at the ordinary trappings of their pre-war existence such as cups and saucers, soap and biscuits are particularly well conveyed. Not only do they talk about these items in such excited tones (‘My very own piece of soap!’) but they respond with all their senses – smelling, touching and eating, scarcely able to believe that what they are experiencing is real. Considering their recent living conditions it is unsurprising that they find their new ‘digs’, Raffles Hotel no less, as equally astonishing, and they variously describe it as palatial, sparkling and ‘bloody heaven.’ Even the hemline on the dress of a passing woman in the hotel prompts them to gasp in amazement, making them realise that the world has moved on while they have been in captivity. Joss’s quip that she feels like Rip Van Winkle is highly apposite. The marvels continue unabated as the women sit down at a ‘real table’ with a ‘real tablecloth’ with ‘real cutlery’ to eat good ol’ bangers and mash, and are furnished with Singapore Slings into the bargain. The fact that the women polish off the meal in seconds rather than minutes and the unadulterated joy on their faces as they do so, are the sort of details that this episode does so well.
There is, however, a much darker side to all this new luxury, and this is emphasised by some of the reactions of the women to their new existence. We observe Dorothy palm a pile of digestive biscuits (and later a cruet and an ashtray), Alice pack away her plate amongst her belongings without thinking, and Marion start a second letter to Ben after she realises that she no longer needs to conserve paper (taking great joy in scrumpling up and discarding her first draft). On one level these moments underline the fact that old habits die hard, however it goes much deeper than this. Marion may eventually learn to automatically set out a letter in a normal fashion again and Dorothy may reach a point at which she no longer feels she needs to steal, but these are just rather inconsequential and superficial manifestations of their scars. What this series will go on to detail is that captivity has irrevocably and permanently altered the very characters and personalities of these women, so much so that they can never hope to fill the same roles in society or react to the world around them in the way they did before the Japanese invasion. Dorothy, for example, now realises that while she was happy to let Dennis make decisions for her before the war, now she needs to be in control, shaping her own future.
It was a beautifully judged decision on the part of Lavinia Warner to bring the series ‘full circle’ by returning the women to Raffles, the setting for much of Tenko’s first two episodes. As the hotel has been talked about so nostalgically and longingly by the women during their internment, the place is now imbued with an almost mythical quality which accentuates perfectly the unreal and dreamlike feel of their new-found freedom. However, even Raffles quickly loses its initial shine, as Dorothy remarks how shabby their room, with its peeling wallpaper, looks in daylight. The dream is to her mind quickly broken. At the evening dinner dance, Marion and Kate, who were present at Raffles for the 1942 New Year celebrations, cannot help but both be reminded of the last time they were there, with Marion describing it as: ‘New Year’s Eve before the Fall.’ She adds that this ‘makes it sound like the Garden of Eden.’ Mindful of how much the camps have changed their lives, Kate’s response: ‘Perhaps it was,’ is left hanging meaningfully in the air.
For Marion, the chief adjustment she has to make here is her acceptance that she is no longer the leader of the women she is with and that she must try to curb her now natural instinct to organise and discipline them. Maggie, for one, tells her in no uncertain terms: ‘You’re not our leader now, you know, nor our conscience!’ Although Marion seems to accepts this, it cannot suddenly stop her caring for the women who have been in her charge for so long, and when she later observes Dorothy stealing an ashtray she makes a point of saying that although ‘it’s none of my business’ she still wants to understand why. The close of this scene, in which Marion reminds Dorothy that she was ‘on look-out for all those years,’ also makes it clear that despite the privations they endured the women will come to look back on their time in camp almost affectionately. Ann Bell’s performance is notable here for the care she takes to show that Marion is not in the best of health – coughing before she digs in to her bangers and mash, and almost hyper-ventilating at the first sign of clean paper and a writing desk.
Dorothy, who pointedly comments at the start of the episode that camp life ‘had its moments,’ is easily the least certain of the women that freedom and a return to civilisation is a good thing…
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.