Given the outstanding quality of this reunion special it is something of a mystery that this final feature-length slice of Tenko does not enjoy a better critical reputation. This state of affairs is even more curious when one considers just how many inferior and ill-conceived specials and spin-offs have positively littered the TV schedules over the years. It is no exaggeration to say that this beautifully scripted – and acted – finale, which is chock full of nostalgia, suspense, humour, adventure and romance, ticks all the dramatic boxes. More importantly it does justice to all of the returning characters as we revisit them five years after the end of the war.
The prospect of witnessing their reunion is a truly tantalising one, as the questions of what has happened to them since the war, how they will now interrelate and whether their time in the camps will still bind them, are set to be explored in some detail. It is incredibly gratifying to almost immediately see all the characters again in new surroundings, as the settings, script, costumes and make-up come together effortlessly to give a real sense that years have passed since we last saw them.
Quite rightly former leader Marion is the focus of the narrative, initially anyway, as she rather desperately sets about ensuring that the reunion takes place. We quickly learn that Marion’s chief motivation is simply loneliness, following her divorce from Clifford two years earlier. While news of their divorce is surprising, especially given how much of the screen time of the final episodes of the third series were given over to the pair’s attempts to save their marriage, the idea that in the end ‘the effort was too much’ makes sense and reminds us that one of Tenko’s great strengths is its realistic approach to relationships.
It is glaringly obvious that Marion needs the reunion more than most of her former internees. She is once again at a very low ebb and her relationship with the gin bottle is flourishing. Nevertheless, on returning to Singapore, it takes some time for her to be honest about how she feels, and she is instead compelled to put up a front about how full her life is: ‘I have Ben, I have friends. Did I tell you I work for the Red Cross library service?’ That she has actually packed a bottle of gin in her suitcase tells another story entirely, while her use of the word ‘amicable’ several times to describe her divorce from Clifford is also revealing. Interestingly it takes Ulrica to state: ‘Divorce cannot be easy, even if it is amicable,’ making it clear that she does not entirely buy the front her friend is presenting. Although news that her ex-husband and his new wife are having a baby has got to her, the real trouble is her deep frustration with only ever having ‘been known as part of Clifford, except in the camp’ and, now that she is divorced, having ‘no identity at all.’ Her off-screen rejection by a supposed old friend, ostensibly because she would put the numbers out at dinner, emphasises her predicament perfectly.
Once the women go ‘up country’ to Johore, it isn’t long before Marion finds her identity again. Dominica introduces Marion to her husband as ‘our leader’ and although Marion corrects her, stating ‘ex-leader,’ it doesn’t stop Teddy from asking her if he can give her name to his solicitor should a bandit take a pot-shot at him. After agreeing to do whatever she can for Dominica should such a thing happen, she admits: ‘I know it’s stupid, although I’m no longer their leader I still feel responsible for all of them.’ It is soon proved that these are not merely idle words, as the bandit attack on the plantation casts her once again as the reliable ‘tower of strength’ who holds the women together as they face a terrible threat to their lives. It is Marion who firmly tells her charges to do as the bandit leader says (momentarily prompting the bandit to think that she is the ‘woman of the house’) and who demands that Christina translate for them. And after Ulrica is shot, it is Marion who asks – just as she so often did in camp – to see to their wounded friend. Once the bandits flee, Marion comes into her own, immediately springing into action and issuing instructions in order to save the lives of Ulrica and the wounded servants, before electing to drive them to the nearest hospital herself. Throughout these scenes it is as if Marion comes to life again, as the duty of care that she feels so deeply is affirmed. As Ulrica notices once she has recovered, Marion ‘has bloomed since she had to cope again with all of us.’
However, the question remains as to how Marion can continue to feel useful after the reunion, as one would hope that she would never find herself in such a life-or-death situation with the other women again, indeed a repeat scenario would stretch credulity unduly. The answer turns out to be rather simple: the return to England of many of her dear friends, where she can be near them, and specifically her close friend Beatrice coming to live with her in her large, empty house. It is Ulrica who realises the importance of this arrangement to Marion and alerts the doctor to it: ‘She needs you Beatrice, more than you need her.’ As the special ends, with Marion hosting a veritable houseful of guests for Christmas, the former leader is once again in her element as a past (represented by her friends from the camp) that was in danger of slipping out of her reach entirely has instead become an integral and fulfilling part of her present. There is a sense that Marion’s quest for a purpose in her life, which started in the very first episode of series one, is now at an end.
Dorothy’s almost triumphant return as a confident and glamorous ‘woman of means’ is arguably one of the most gratifying elements of Reunion. The bewildered young woman who, following the tragic deaths of her husband and child, was set on a path towards self-destruction is barely recognisable here. Her transformation into the tough businesswoman whom we first meet in front of her own shop, who knows what she wants in life, is remarkable and yet thoroughly believable…
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.