An obituary by Chris Winwood
“They can call me anything they like as long as I get paid and my name is spelt correctly”
Carving out a long career playing a variety of Chinese, Japanese and Korean roles, moving from sinister oriental baddies through action-packed slapstick, Burt Kwouk’s instantly recognisable face and voice ensured he was never out of work. Burt gained a cult following, with his appearances in James Bond, The Avengers and Doctor Who giving him a nice little earner on the autograph-signing circuit in later years.
Work alongside Harry Hill introduced him to a new audience, and Burt kept on reinventing himself. There was always something different and always something new. By the early 1980s, he was firmly established in the public consciousness as Inspector Clouseau’s houseboy Cato; it was at that time that his career moved in another tangent, and he won the role of Tenko’s Commandant Yamauchi. He was later to muse as to whether the Second World War was held specifically for the benefit of his career! From his first film role, alongside Ingrid Bergman in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, onwards through Empire of the Sun and Tenko, Burt played a range of wartime roles. Alongside his “sinister Oriental” roles in TV series such as The Return of the Saint, Jason King, The Avengers, Danger Man and many others, he gave life to roles that often had little subtlety or depth. After several years of Cato being described as ”my little yellow friend”, Burt was asked whether or not he was buying in to the underlying racism and stereotyping that beset the entertainment industry at the time. His reply: “They can call me anything they like as long as I get paid and my name is spelt correctly”. With few Asian actors around, and fewer with the breadth of experience and ability as Burt Kwouk, it is hardly surprising that his career took off and he became so well known.
When Ken Riddington and Pennant Roberts came to cast the Japanese characters in Tenko, they were disappointed to find that only one-and-a-half Japanese actors were registered with Equity. With Eiji Kusuhara given the role of Lieutenant Sato and the “half an actor” lacking the professional experience, Tenko’s producer and first director found themselves hunting for actors of other nationalities who might look the part. Kwouk was actually Chinese, but was felt to fit the bill perfectly.
Jeananne Crowley (Tenko’s Nellie Keene) recalls, “I think what mostly surprised Burt when he got cast, was what he suddenly got cast into. The BBC never expected Tenko to be the hit it became. Don’t think Burt did either”. In correspondence several years later, Burt told me that he considered Tenko “one of my more successful efforts”.
One of the great successes of Tenko is that it always places “character” first. There is no “black and white” morality; with few exceptions, every character is made up of “shades of grey”. Moral dilemmas and crises of confidence underline every aspect of the series, and every character undergoes a significant change in their mindset between their first and last appearance. Commandant Yamauchi is no different. From his first appearance on the verandah outside his office, as the camera slowly pans up his immaculately uniformed body to his face while he casually swats aside a fly; to his last appearance, in discussion with his former internees in a cell at Changi, wearing little more than a nappy; Yamauchi radiates dignity. Speaking to Andy Priestner for the book Remembering Tenko, Kwouk reflected on his teenage years in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, and felt that he had drawn upon these experiences to inform his portrayal of a Japanese officer.
Understandably, the series tended to hint at the violence suffered by the real-life internees, rather than show it directly. Jeananne Crowley recalls that he was “most helpful with the younger actors (playing the Japanese guards), who didn’t like some of their direction, ‘now hit her’, for instance”. Yamauchi, of course, would prefer to leave such violence to his underlings, and would distance himself from such unpleasantness. He was a man doing a job, with his unswerving obedience to the Empire coming first and foremost, but taking no pleasure from the task. “Here is a man in a situation that he does not want to be in”, Burt told Andy: “He can only cope with it by being extremely formal and rigid. It’s a nicely underwritten role and, with very little screen time, Yamauchi has to dominate the camp”. Inevitably, this made Yamauchi a conflicted character, taking more and more medication for an ulcer that would eventually see him hospitalised. The glee with which some of the prisoners received this information is counterpointed by the reaction of those who have spent most time with him: Marion and Christina. Marion’s excitement and admiration of Yamauchi when she is able to gain even a minor concession from him underlines her own desperation and the loneliness she feels as leader of the prisoners; meanwhile, Verna’s sly suggestion that Christina may have been “got at” and Dorothy’s speedy denunciation of Christina as “Belle of HQ” both serve to indicate that closeness to Yamauchi, even under orders or under duress, only serves to taint those who are doing their bit for their fellow prisoners. It comes as a real shock, in episode 2.10, when Yamauchi’s acceptance of Christina’s allegations of corruption regarding Red Cross Parcels turns into sheer rage directed at her after the air raid on the camp. In a rare show of violence, he shoves Christina out of his staff car and barks orders that the women will be shot. This sudden change in attitude is a reminder that he has the capacity to be extremely dangerous.
The human side of Yamauchi shines through from time to time. There are mentions of his family and his own love of children, all of which are counterpointed against the stillbirth of Eleanor Markham. He is secretly keen that enough hats are made to allow Blanche to be released from the stake and even allows his own rules to be cheated in order to achieve this. He makes a show of ‘mag-a-nan-imous’-ness in assisting the children in having an early Christmas party, and clearly dreads telling Marion that the women will be marched to a new camp in episode 1.10. While in the second series he immediately sees Miss Hasan for what she is.
The ultimate ironies are that he knows (indeed, condones) Christina stealing paper from his office: paper that makes up Marion’s diary, eventually sealing his fate as a war criminal. Furthermore, the irredeemable Sato and Miss Hasan both suffer heroically noble deaths in the line of duty, while Yamauchi’s determination to follow his code of honour leads to his surviving the war and the ignominy of execution. This, plus the knowledge that his family have died at Nagasaki.
Amongst the most powerful scenes of the series are, firstly, where Marion takes control of the camp and sits in Yamauchi’s office chair while he tells her of the last days of the Nippon Empire; and secondly, when Marion visits Yamauchi in Changi and hears of his family. Her concern for him as she offers to help find the missing Yamauchi family is truly touching. Beautifully underplayed by both Kwouk and Ann Bell.
Tenko’s youngest star, Kerry Tovey, who played Cockney urchin Suzy Rankin, recalls “Burt was a magnificent actor and although I was only young in Tenko the scenes I did with him and his performance as a scary Japanese commander made me act better! Off set he was funny and kind and I’m privileged to have worked with such a legend!”
In a career of extremes, Tenko was Kwouk’s big break into “serious” television drama, and served to seal his reputation as a great character actor. After Tenko, he made guest appearances in TV staples such as Howards Way, Boon, Silent Witness and many more. His comedy performances continued, with a long stint in Last of the Summer Wine, playing Entwhistle, who came “from the East”. (i.e. Hull).
His fondly remembered voice-work in The Water Margin led to innumerable voiceovers, including Channel 4’s unforgettable spoof gambling series (in which he was reunited with Eiji Kusuhara). He was a regular on Harry Hill’s various TV series in the late 90s and early 2000s, and continued to be seen on TV until relatively recently. He joined a Tenko Reunion with a number of his co-stars on The Paul O’Grady Show in 2007, and participated in the Remembering Tenko book. He was awarded the OBE in 2011.
Burt is described by our own Nurse Nellie, Jeananne Crowley, as “a great colleague (who) led a long rewarding life in the business. May his soul rest in peace”. Given the significant coverage his death has received in the media, it seems that countless others would agree.