Last Tenko (Review of Series 3, Episode 1)

3.1The third series opens with an episode which initially seeks to document the ongoing day-to-day captivity of the women now that they have been interned for almost three-and-a-half years. However, the emphasis suddenly shifts halfway through to the question of the women’s immediate survival as the narrative builds towards a nail-biting last tenko at which they ready themselves to fight for their lives. Instead the women are to discover that the war is over and long-term viewers are finally rewarded for their loyalty as the prisoners celebrate and Marion takes charge of the situation. The direction, scripts and performances are accomplished as ever, with Ann Bell and Stephanie Cole in particularly fine form. However, it is not all plain sailing as several elements arguably detract from this opening instalment.

Most unfortunate of all is the discovery that the much-loved Blanche, who was always played with such vigour and charm by Louise Jameson, is no longer part of the action. Worse still, we learn of her death courtesy of a quick camera sweep across the camp’s burgeoning graveyard. It is hard not to feel cheated by the abrupt way in which Blanche has been written out of the series, simply because she was such a big character who viewers had come to invest in emotionally. However, her absence from this third series may well hit the new DVD audience harder than it did the audience of 1984, as for the former, who do not have to wait two years between series, it is only a matter of two episodes ago that the equally colourful Rose was killed off. At least in Rose’s case there was a carefully handled on-screen exit. Of course, Blanche’s absence and the need for her off-screen death (due to Jameson’s unavailability) was beyond the production team’s control. Her absence is made harder to bear especially as it is fairly obvious that her persona and storyline has been transferred to the character of Maggie Thorpe. Thankfully, Lizzie Mickery, who plays Maggie, is a fine actress who takes on the role with appropriate gusto. Maggie’s response to Edna’s wish that Alice has a happy birthday (‘Fat chance!’), her exaggerated conducting of the women as they sing a birthday chorus, and her sudden decision to go after Sato (‘Oh no you don’t!’) are all very ‘Blanche’. Fortunately, as the series progresses, Mickery and the writers succeed in establishing Maggie as a character in her own right, but it has to be said that in these early episodes it takes some time for her to shake off the spectre of the outspoken Londoner.

The discovery that Verna, Daisy and Suzy have died as well is also disappointing. In Daisy’s case this is no real surprise given that she received such extensive injuries in the series two finale, while in Verna’s it was probably felt that her storyline had run its course. Cindy Shelley makes a strong start as reserved Alice who has spent all of her adolescence in the camps, achieving a believably gauche and naïve demeanour for the formerly privileged teenager. Comparing Alice with the mentally-challenged Daisy and the much younger Suzy, it is easy to see why she was introduced instead. Alice was set to be a more straightforward player in the unfolding story than Daisy would have been, and the sexual naivety storyline would have been unsuitable for the much younger Suzy.

Changes of personnel aside, the sheer amount of time that has passed since the end of series two is also a jarring factor. Over the first two series we followed the women’s first 18 months in captivity, from February 1942 to September 1943, but here we are suddenly forced to accept that we have missed almost two more years of their internment (unfortunately Joss’s dialogue about the women having spent over two years in this third camp cannot be correct as the Area Three camp was bombed only twenty months previously). Although there is no question that the gap in the action engenders a feeling that we as viewers are ‘late to the party’, it is nevertheless eminently sensible that the third series fast forwards to the war’s end here, as it would have been difficult, misguided even, to attempt to wring original drama out of yet more episodes set in the camps. By choosing to move beyond captivity and follow the women as they come to terms with their freedom and seek to rebuild their shattered lives, Tenko is about to enter new, and exceedingly rich, dramatic territory which will more than make up for the gap between series. However, before the narrative can go off in this new direction, it must first wrap up the story of their internment and it does so admirably.

It is almost impossible to imagine the women enduring even more time as prisoners than we have already witnessed over the first two series, but the early part of the episode gives at least a flavour of the privations they have experienced since the bombing of the second camp in 1943. The morale of the women is clearly much lower for a start, indeed only Joss and Kate seem to be able to put a positive spin on anything. In the former’s case, Marion remarks that she’d ‘see good signs in a teacup full of maggots,’ while Mrs Van Meyer counters Kate’s belief that: ‘When God shuts a door, he always opens a window,’ with the pessimistic rejoinder: ‘And puts bars across it!’…

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.

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Not For Long (Review of Series 2, Episode 10)

2.10Given that it is the finale of the second series, this tenth episode begins in relatively inconsequential fashion as day-to-day inanities of camp life come to the fore, such as petty thieving (biscuits and looking glasses), hospital visits, dirty drains and Joss’s latest plans for ‘nipping the Nips.’ Thankfully the narrative heats up in its second half, as the corrupt administration plotline, which has dominated the second series, finally reaches its conclusion and Verna and Miss Hasan are set to receive a comeuppance which promises to be cathartic to loyal viewers. However, it is an Allied plane which brings the series to a thoroughly unexpected cliffhanger; an ending which is all the more surprising when one considers that this could easily have been the very last Tenko episode of them all.

Set in September 1943, some 20 months into the women’s captivity, one of the main concerns of the narrative is to illustrate how conditions within the camp have deteriorated. Beatrice and Kate are overrun with patients in the hospital (‘They’ll be hanging from the rafters next’) and there is a new quota for admissions. Due to the fact that more of the women are working at the factory, the compound is looking more rundown and the drains are filthy. Even the guards’ uniforms are more ragged and dishevelled. However, it is the sight of the previously immaculate Verna with sores on her face and lank, unwashed hair which really drives the message home that things are not what they were.

As a consequence of these reduced circumstances, the mood in camp is very black indeed and it seems that the captors are just as miserable as the prisoners, regularly acting out a ‘pecking order’ of misery (as described by Joss to Mrs Van Meyer): ‘Yamauchi demands more production, takes it out on Sato, who takes it out on Hasan, who takes it out on Verna, who’s foul to everyone!’ A dirty drain provides the perfect opportunity to illustrate this chain which ultimately sees the women’s self-serving leader bear the brunt of Miss Hasan’s fury.

Although she continues to enjoy the luxury of stuffing her face full of chocolates, Miss Hasan still spends the majority of the episode in a state of incandescent rage. There is some not inconsiderable pleasure to be had in witnessing her bad temper as it transpires that she (accurately) traces the point at which the camp started to fall apart back to the arrival of Marion and the other women from the first camp. It is deeply satisfying to know that the new intake have caused her so much trouble, despite their status as mere prisoners. That she despises Marion particularly – ‘But then I’ve always mistrusted women like Mrs Jefferson. With her ‘oh so polite’ manner’ – vindicates our belief in her as the women’s rightful leader. Despite the fact that Marion has had no official status in this second camp she has still demanded the attention of her captors and gamely fought for the rights of her fellow prisoners. Verna’s reaction to Miss Hasan’s observation that, in Marion’s case, pride will come before a fall: ‘Not always,’ suggests that she, at least, has accepted that Marion is a force to be reckoned with. Of course, by the episode’s end, Marion proves Verna right by finally succeeding in discrediting her.

As Verna’s downfall has been so long in coming, its dramatisation is all the more gratifying. It is no accident that throughout the episode the store cupboard key sits more visibly around her neck, nor that her fingers fitfully play with it, as the question of the missing Red Cross parcels looms ever larger. However, before we get to the point at which Verna is forced to account for her crimes in front of the women she has wronged, we are party to yet more evidence of her selfishness. Her treatment of Daisy here is particularly abominable given just how afflicted the girl is with terrible blisters all over her hands. Verna shows no sympathy whatsoever for her terrible predicament, just obvious disgust. And to make matters worse, she even has the audacity to tell Daisy, while sat stroking Pudding, that she is having to work ‘more than most’ these days. Worse still, even if Daisy was physically able to clean Verna’s room to the required standard, she has no means of paying her. As Miss Hasan is demanding immediate payment of the money she is owed, Verna effectively has Daisy working for nothing. When Verna later gets it in the neck after Daisy fails to post up a new rota, she ruthlessly lays into the girl, actively seeking to destroy any comfort she might have derived from her association with the women in Marion’s hut: ‘Like you? They’re just using you! Only you’re too stupid to see it. Too bloody stupid!’ When Daisy reacts, as well she might, by smashing a china cup, Verna turns the situation, as always, to her advantage, stating that it is now she who owes her money.

One of Verna’s other scenes with Daisy offers a further insight into her callous approach to the women in her care. When, after a sudden search, the women’s precious few possessions are removed and burnt, including Marion’s diary, she brightly declares: ‘One thing about the burning of their bits and bobs, I should be able to sell some of my stuff.’ We later learn that this isn’t the half of it and that she actually instigated this and all the previous searches, on this occasion organising the search precisely to ensure that her forthcoming sale of goods would be more profitable…

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.

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The Will to Live (Review of Series 2, Episode 9)

2.9Quite rightly, given the prominence and popularity of her character, this memorable episode is almost entirely devoted to the suffering of the now paralysed Rose as she gradually loses the will to live. The combination of Jill Hyem’s script and a remarkable performance from Stephanie Beacham makes for a grittily realistic and heart-rending exploration of euthanasia.

The mental torment and physical suffering that Rose is forced to endure here is far greater than that which besets any other regular character on-screen in the entire series. Her tragic predicament and degeneration into what Verna graphically describes as ‘a mass of sores and infections’ is uncompromising stuff which makes for very uncomfortable viewing, all the more so as we have come to know Rose so well. This said, the storyline never feels voyeuristic or distasteful, only true.

As the episode is set over a period of nearly two months, we first see Rose pretty much as her old self, complaining bitterly, biting people’s heads off and generally being unpleasant to those around her, however, the crucial difference here is that, unlike before, she has a very good excuse for her behaviour. That anyone should have to endure her fate is a horrendous prospect, but for a woman as elegant and attractive as Rose, who clearly put a lot of store by her looks, her paralysis seems doubly cruel and it is little wonder that she questions whether she was lucky to survive: ‘What makes you think I wouldn’t rather be stiff, stiff as a corpse?’ she states as she pouts grotesquely.

A component part of Rose’s paralysis, given that it makes her unable to turn, wash, or control her bowel, is an inevitable feeling that she is back in the nursery. This prompts Rose to refer to what is effectively a ‘nappy change’ and to respond to Kate’s scolding as if she were the child her paralysis has made her become: ‘Let’s have none of that talk or Nanny’ll put you in the corner!’ The cramped conditions of the hospital don’t help either, as she is forced to suffer the endless gawping and stares of the likes of Daisy and other gormless individuals (there is one rather too obvious supporting artiste of the latter variety, in the scene in which Marion visits).

It is the news that country dancing is the latest evening ‘diversion’ for the prisoners that gives us our first terrible glimpse of the effect that Rose’s paralysis is having on her mind. After reminiscing about her very first dance with a man (‘Some apologetic youth with sweaty hands. Treated him like dirt and all the time casting around for better fish’) and being left alone in her pity, she suddenly pretends to dance with her arms outstretched while shouting out a grim parody of the melody. While Beatrice reprimands her for only ever thinking of herself, it is impossible not to empathise with her situation and comprehend her all-consuming frustration. Rose’s playing of a memory game involving Shakespeare plays is equally manic and almost as disturbing to watch.

Although it doesn’t immediately seem like it at the time, the news delivered by Marion, that Bernard is dead, is a deeply significant turning point for Rose. Her long, tortured scream of pain after Marion’s departure expresses this more starkly and completely than any amount of dialogue. Just as Beatrice’s silent act of picking up and holding Rose’s devastated frame to herself is expressive enough in its own right of the doctor’s love for her friend.

All of Rose’s friends are troubled by the question of whether they should make hospital visits. Some regard it as their duty, while others are concerned that Rose might prefer to be left alone. Inevitably, Van Meyer, who is in the former group, is precisely the sort of person she’d rather not see, indeed Rose later describes being visited by the likes of her as: ‘the worst thing of all.’ However, it is clear that the long-overdue visit by Blanche is conversely very much appreciated…

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.

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Suspicions (Review of Series 2, Episode 8)

2.8Following 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.

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Reunion Beyond the Wire (Review of Series 2, Episode 7)

2.7After over a year in captivity, this is the episode which finally sees Rose and Bernard reunited beyond the wire. Their meeting is dangerous, romantic and, ultimately, tragic. In the history of television drama it seems unlikely that any other set of gunshots have ever been as heart-stopping and gut-wrenching as those that ring out at the episode’s startling conclusion.

Since the start of this second series, Rose’s scenes have almost exclusively concentrated on her desperation to learn about the men’s camp and Bernard’s wellbeing, a focus that may have partly been dictated by her lack of a true friend – due to Blanche’s absence – as much as by the length of her imprisonment. As such, it is hardly surprising to find that once she knows that Bernard is alive and well she is unable to think about anything else. Upon receipt of her first message from Bernard, it is a nice touch that Rose visibly finds it a wrench to destroy his tiny handwritten note, given it represents their first contact since they were interned.

Rose’s rendezvous with Bernard provides a neatly plotted opportunity for her long-overdue reconciliation with Blanche. Some time has passed since the events of the last episode, so Blanche has even less excuse than it might appear to be still bearing her grudge. The situation between them is initially not made any better by the fact that Rose and Christina now appear to be as ‘thick as bloody thieves,’ but it soon transpires that Rose is not truly interested in Christina’s friendship, merely her courier skills. It feels appropriate that it takes straight-talking Joss to get Blanche to acknowledge that there are two sides to the story that destroyed their friendship and that she is now behaving unfairly by refusing to make up with Rose (although the argument forwarded by Joss that the latter lost her ring, as well as the equivalent food she could have bought with it, doesn’t seem to be the most convincing reason for Blanche to bury the hatchet). However, Blanche’s pride still prevents her from making the first move, and it is only when Rose provides a reason why she should postpone the planned acts of sabotage that the pair start to find their way back to the friendship they once had.

Blanche’s initial response to Rose’s request to cancel her plans, which mistakes her reasons (‘I understood the minute I come here. You’ve all caved in, that’s what!’), demonstrates how strongly Blanche feels about the women’s apparent current deference to their captors. This, together with Rose’s unexpected response (‘I agree’), Marion’s confession at the discipline committee that she shares Blanche’s and Joss’s frustration, and the latter’s continual acts of sabotage (which include an underpants-swiping escapade!), suggest that many of the women now share a common mood, indisputably born out of the way their current camp is run and the fact that they have now been interned for over a year. This dissatisfaction and the resulting desire to take action is a theme which will recur in the following episode as we even see Marion, of all people, turn to sabotage out of frustration.

Just as Rose asked of Beatrice in the previous episode: ‘Why should I care about a common little tart?’ here, in parallel, Blanche tells Joss the reverse: ‘I don’t know why we got on so well. Stuck up cow she is!’ The pair are opposites and yet, as Blanche recalls: ‘We sort of clicked, laughed at the same things.’ There is another parallel here, which stretches back much further than a single episode, between the scene in the wash-house in which Rose prepares to leave the camp, and the wash-house scene in the first series in which Blanche was preparing to do the same. Even theft from Mrs Van Meyer is replicated. This similarity of setting and feel serves to emphasise just how long it has been since the pair last considered each other to be friends. Of course what also connects the two scenes are the brilliant and understated performances of Beacham and Jameson, who project genuine sentiment and say as much with their eyes as they do with Jill Hyem’s script.

The depth of Blanche’s friendship with Rose is repeatedly emphasised throughout the remainder of the narrative. This is first demonstrated when, to Rose’s immense relief, she offers to accompany her into the jungle (perhaps partly as an apology for her recent behaviour): ‘Won’t be much fun out there on your own,’ a selfless act which she chooses to play down in typical Blanche style: ‘Lesser of two evils – I didn’t fancy that Nip version of ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’!’…

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.

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Old Friends (Review of Series 2, Episode 6)

2.6Chiefly remembered as the episode in which Marion secures an audience with Yamauchi leading to an unexpected, and largely joyful, reunion of the women with Blanche and Christina, this instalment also sees the laying down of foundations for the remaining action of the second series. In its closing moments, Rose’s discovery that Bernard is alive marks the starting point of a chain of events that is set to dominate the action of the following three episodes and will form one of the most memorable Tenko storylines of them all.

So far in this second series, Marion has been feeling the loss of her erstwhile leadership duties very keenly. She may not always have enjoyed the responsibility it involved, but at least being leader gave her a definite purpose. Besides, it was obvious that she possessed natural abilities in this direction, most memorably demonstrated by the speech she delivered prior to the democratic leadership vote in the first camp. Marion’s frustration at her current powerlessness is no doubt made more acute by the fact that this new camp’s leader is little short of a collaborator and is using the position for her own personal gain.

When Marion wins five minutes with Yamauchi, thereby thwarting Verna and Miss Hasan, she immediately slots right back into the leadership role and, although it doesn’t seem obvious at the time, her approach pays off in a way she wouldn’t have dared to imagine. Although Verna is furious that she has crossed her (‘Oh, incidentally Marion, don’t ever do that to me again!’), Marion is too pleased with the prospect of being reunited with Christina and Blanche to pay much attention to her threat. Observing Marion’s small victory is very pleasing indeed.

Comparisons between Marion and Verna are also explored through their respective reactions to Lillian’s near breakdown over Bobby giving away half his egg. While Marion seeks to calm Lillian down and show genuine care for her increasingly manic friend, Verna is only concerned about Lillian being able to perform at the concert later that evening as it is for the benefit of Miss Hasan: ‘For heaven’s sake, get her to pull herself together before this evening.’ She even has the audacity to make the ridiculously inappropriate and seriously off-beam comment: ‘Crisis over. Nerves, I expect,’ as Lillian is taken away. Verna is either deliberately making a false assessment or she is genuinely unable to see beyond her own troubles.

The most shocking scene in the entire episode features Verna feeding her cat Pudding no less than a bowl of milk and a whole egg. This unforgivable act, which is directly contrasted with Bobby being given a meagre spoonful of rice in the next shot, proves once and for all that she is not at all concerned with the welfare of the women and children in her care, who, unlike her cat, are half starving. Furthermore it proves that she is perfectly willing to tell bare-faced lies, as on this occasion she has only just told Marion that: ‘The traders simply don’t have eggs and milk.’ When the women later tell Blanche about Verna, Mrs Van Meyer defensively asserts: ‘But for Verna we would get even less food,’ but the scene with Pudding actually suggests that the opposite may be true. During this same conversation, the women also generously, if reluctantly, cite several other supposed virtues of their leader, including the fact that she ‘rescued’ Marion’s diary and helped Dorothy with her pregnancy. Of course, as viewers, we have been party to the fact that Verna deceitfully read Marion’s diary cover to cover while it was in her possession and used Dorothy’s predicament to make some money on the side. On the evidence of this and preceding episodes it is becoming increasingly hard to find any redeeming qualities in this unscrupulous leader. Although, unlike Joss, Marion doesn’t describe Verna as a collaborator directly, her comment to her face: ‘Whoever knows a Jap?’ comes pretty close.

Joss, a character who has received only snippets of character development since her introduction, and little involvement in principal storylines, is finally given more of a role here as she spends much of the episode criticising her fellow internees for their acceptance of the status quo…

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.

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Hour of Need (Review of Series 2, Episode 5)

2.5Very few episodes of Tenko focus almost solely upon one single storyline, but when they do they invariably stand out as among the strongest and most memorable of the series. This episode, which concentrates on Dorothy’s pregnancy and her subsequent abortion, is no exception.

The first half of the episode principally deals with the unimaginably horrendous predicament of Dorothy desperately wanting an abortion (due to: the baby’s parentage; the uncertainty as to how the Japanese will react; and the fates that befell both Violet and Eleanor) but having no conceivable way of making this happen. Despite the fact that, initially at least, the abortion seems impossible, she also has to endure being repeatedly remonstrated with for being set on this course of action. It is little wonder therefore that Dorothy begins to consider suicide herself, resolutely stating to Ulrica: ‘It’s just a choice between one death or two.’

The reactions of her friends to the dilemma are illuminating. Ulrica’s belief in the sanctity of life is no surprise given her faith, but on this occasion Kate’s take on the matter is far more hardline than the nun’s. However, it is clear that the nurse’s viewpoint derives as much from her devotion to the Hippocratic Oath as from her faith. This fact is borne out by her questioning of: Beatrice’s medical ethics when the doctor admits that she would perform the deed under suitable medical conditions (‘But you’re a doctor!’); and Dr Trier as to how seriously she took the Oath. To Kate, abortion is pure and simple murder, and this equally simple conviction clearly blinds her to the possibility that the Japanese might not let the baby and/or Dorothy live if they were to find out. She states that: ‘The Japs love babies,’ neglecting the rather important detail that, unlike Sally’s, this baby is the result of a forbidden union between a guard and a prisoner. Kate’s response to Trier’s typically anodyne comment (that no-one would take an oath unless they meant it) is: ‘I like to know where I am.’ It is a phrase that speaks volumes about Kate’s naïve desire for a black-and-white world in which there are hard and fast rules for her to live her life by. Any sympathy we may have had for Kate right at the start of the episode when she revealed to Beatrice that she had ‘always been the outsider, jogging along, a happy-go-lucky colonial who’s none too sensitive,’ evaporates precisely because of the lack of sensitivity she displays here both for Dorothy’s predicament or for the views of her friends. It is interesting to note that not so long ago it seemed that Beatrice inhabited this world of apparent certainties too, but, as we have seen over the course of the series, the doctor’s outlook has since shifted in light of her internment and its many challenges and she is now a more well-rounded and flexible individual who is much less certain of the value of absolute beliefs. This fact is summed up here by her response to Kate: ‘We live and learn.’ In essence, on this occasion, Beatrice feels that it is far more important to put Dorothy’s wellbeing before medical ethics or her own feelings on the matter.

Although Ulrica no doubt considers abortion to be a mortal sin, as evidenced by her significant decision in the previous episode to break her vow of silence in order to speak out against its possibility, her interactions with Dorothy here are more supportive than they are critical. Having said that, it is easy to understand why Dorothy finds her initially silent physical presence rather more claustrophobic than comforting. When the pair do come together to discuss the situation for a second time in the washhouse – in a scene that is just as heated and emotional as their first meeting there – rather than reprimanding her for a potential sin, Ulrica stresses that: Dorothy is more important to her than her penance; that life is longer than she imagines; and that God will give her strength. Despite her well-chosen words it is obvious that Ulrica is fighting a losing battle, especially as Dorothy is beside herself emotionally. Nevertheless, when the nun later admits defeat, by which time an abortion has become an option, rather than condemning Dorothy, she asks that the women: ‘support this poor child in her hour of need, whatever our personal feelings.’ This compassionate and very human stance promises to have serious repercussions for Ulrica when the priest returns, and offers a further opportunity for the series to examine the themes of religious morality and absolute belief.

It is a measure of Tenko’s sophistication that Dorothy’s unlikely saviour in this impossible situation is none other than Verna. Scheming and manipulative she may be, but she is nevertheless precisely the right person to facilitate the abortion…

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.

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Vow of Silence (Review of Series 2, Episode 4)

2.4This instalment not only deals with the repercussions arising from Sally’s tragic suicide, but also the fallout from the actions of two other characters: Sister Ulrica’s decision to preside over Sally’s funeral, despite the fact that the girl took her own life; and Dorothy’s sexual relations with the guards. The episode’s other main focus is on Beatrice, as we have the opportunity to observe her off-duty persona for the first time through some affectionate and intelligently scripted scenes. As usual, the episode is a strong ensemble piece, however both Patricia Lawrence and Stephanie Cole give particularly notable performances as they continue to breathe truly authentic life into their respective characters.

Religion, or rather religious belief is the main theme of the episode, with the concept of Christian morality carefully explored into the bargain. Despite the penance endured by Sister Ulrica and a conspiracy that has Sally labelled as mad (so that, as Beatrice puts it, she can be ‘tidied away into consecrated ground’), Anne Valery’s sophisticated script resists forwarding an atheistic agenda. Instead the narrative eloquently speaks of a middle ground, of a more humanistic faith that Sister Ulrica has been feeling her way towards since the series began. Ulrica began Tenko as a staunch and resolute nun who seemed formidably and immovably certain of both her faith and her moral duty. However, over the course of the series, her captivity has forced her to re-examine her beliefs and, through friendships with her fellow internees, reconnect with the secular world that she has been separated from for most of her life. In the first half of this episode, despite the fact that she has dysentery and is very tired due to her decision to share in the punishment meted out to her friends, she relates that in her heart she feels good. She even admits to Beatrice that she thinks she and her are very alike, despite the fact that she does not share her faith. Later, when she discovers that her dress has been cleaned ahead of the priest’s visit, she tells Dorothy that she has known much kindness since her capture: ‘So much goodness out of evil, it has been a revelation.’ Such experiences are clearly prompting Ulrica to question the nature of her religious beliefs. When Daisy simplistically declares that her own faith helps her to distinguish between ‘what’s good and what’s bad and how to behave,’ Ulrica tells her: ‘I admire your certainty,’ and observes that: ‘Sometimes, my dear Daisy, there is a choice between good and good’ – in other words, a take on religion that is much less black and white, an interpretation that she is finding far more appropriate in her current circumstances. It is no accident that the narrative is crafted in such a way that Ulrica reaches this new threshold of (what at least she regards to be) enlightenment just prior to her first confession in captivity, an experience which she expects to make her feel lighter but which will in actual fact give her a heavier burden to carry.

During her confession to the visiting priest, Ulrica reveals, as has been suggested in previous scenes, that she now doubts that she has taken the right path in life as it has kept her separated from those ‘less fortunate’ than herself. While the priest does not castigate her for this, merely stating that: ‘All God’s work is to the glory of God,’ when he hears that she presided at Sally’s Christian funeral despite the fact that the girl was not mad when she committed suicide, he rejects out of hand her entirely reasonable and compassionate defence. The priest’s view of religious morality is clearly no more sophisticated than Daisy’s as he seeks to ensure the nun’s rededication by devising a cruel penance that not only ignores the value of her connection with her fellow captives, but actively forbids it. That the priest clearly believes that the women have not helped her towards what is evidently a new and entirely appropriate understanding of the world and her faith and instead have taken her away from her calling is a sad indictment of his narrow approach and lack of humanity. That he also feels the need to fatalistically charge her to be obedient to the Japanese (‘those whom God has chosen to direct you’) is similarly abhorrent. Ulrica’s penance of silence and her attempts to redeem herself through further self-imposed hardships (no shoes, no mattress) do not present Catholic faith – or at least the priest’s and Sister Ulrica’s conventional understanding of it – in a good light. Her suffering helps no-one, in fact the narrative structure cleverly ensures that it makes Ulrica unavailable at a time when one of her friends, the pregnant – and therefore understandably desperate – Dorothy, needs her the most. Although it is clear that there will be further repercussions when Ulrica ultimately breaks her vow of silence in order to connect with Dorothy, it is nevertheless a triumphant and significant victory of the nun’s compassion over her conception of sin, the same emotion that motivated her to preside at Sally’s funeral…

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.

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The General’s Visit (Review of Series 2, Episode 3)

2.3This 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.

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A Change of Clothes (Review of Series 2, Episode 2)

tenko22In many respects this second episode is the beginning of the second series proper, as it introduces a new camp, new characters and a new regime. All of the above elements are as unsettling as they are unexpected, investing the narrative with a palpable sense of intrigue and tension and serving to reinvigorate Tenko at a crucial point in its run.

By placing the series’ regular characters in a strange, and at times dreamlike, new context, our affinity and identification with the new arrivals is cleverly reinforced, as we react in a similarly uncomprehending way to their new circumstances. All is clearly not what it seems and only one thing is initially certain: as Dorothy states, there is ‘something creepy’ about their new camp. Sensibly, the reality of day-to-day life in what superficially appears to be a better camp than the one they’ve left behind is only gradually revealed in order to maximise viewer engagement and interest, indeed some questions will not be fully answered for many more episodes to come.

The number of mysteries in the new camp are as extensive as they are unusual. Early on, as well as the absence of a welcome from its residents, there is: the question of the emptiness of the camp (exaggerated by direction that suggests that its internees are in hiding rather than, as we later discover, simply out at the factory); a lack of explanation as to why the new arrivals are locked up; and the incongruous sound of a cat. All have simple explanations but are cleverly played so as to increase tension. As the narrative progresses so the mysteries multiply: Why is their swearing frowned upon?; Why do this camp’s inmates insist on using curiously quaint expressions?; Why is the camp being run by a Malayan woman? By the time the women meet the improbably well-turned-out Verna Johnson, who greets them as if she were the host at an English country garden tea party, some of the women have even begun to question the reality of their new surroundings. While the already distressed Sally feels compelled to run away, exclaiming to herself that ‘it’s not real, none of it’s real,’ and Joss describes the set-up as ‘like something out of Alice in Wonderland,’ Dorothy asserts that: ‘It’s like being on another planet.’

The character and motivations of the ice-cool Verna Johnson are arguably the most intriguing aspect of the new regime. This intrigue partly arises from the fact that she remains out of sight for a good proportion of the episode and yet is important enough for other new characters to mention her. When she finally does appear on her verandah, after a tenko that apparently doesn’t apply to her, the exaggerated courtesy with which she greets the new arrivals (‘Won’t you all sit down so that I can?’), her elegant appearance, and the fact that she proceeds to ‘hold court’, all come together to suggest a thoroughly self-serving woman who revels in the position she has found herself in or, more likely, has created for herself. When she explains that it is her ‘miserable fate to be in charge of distribution,’ which she claims she’d happily exchange for shifts at the factory because ‘it’s a thankless task,’ it is very difficult to believe her, partly because of her manner, but mainly because she is far too perfectly coiffured for this to be true. In effect, her vanity betrays her. Further conclusions can be drawn from the fact that she is the owner of the cat which the women heard earlier. The existence of a healthy cat in the camp strikes as nothing less than disgusting when we know of at least one woman in the hospital, the charmingly garrulous Betty, who is suffering from malnutrition. Despite Verna’s assertion that she tries ‘to leave a little food in hand for those most at risk,’ she clearly doesn’t try too hard. That in dopey Daisy, even within the constraints of a prison camp, Verna has effectively managed to secure herself a ladies’ maid is further evidence of the sort of woman she is. She even considers it appropriate to complain about her as if she were having a ‘you can’t get the staff’ conversation in a drawing room.

Verna’s evasion of Joss’s question about what Miss Hasan is like with a quick ‘not too bad’ is also illuminating, as it only serves to emphasise her assessment as an obvious lie…

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.

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