Christmas (Review of Series 1, Episode 10)

tenko1.10The first series finale is set ten months into the women’s imprisonment and some three months after the events of the previous instalment (hence Blanche is back on loudmouth form from the outset), at a point at which the privations they now face have become even more extreme. The most memorable and successful elements of the episode are the mental degeneration of the previously indomitable Dr Mason and the efforts of the women to extract some seasonal good cheer through a Christmas concert; a deliberate juxtaposition of despair and joy, which is played out once again when the women learn the respective fates of the male prisoners.

Stephanie Cole ensures that Beatrice’s downward spiral is as believable as it is affecting. Given that the doctor has effectively taken on the responsibility of the health of all the prisoners in the camp, it is little wonder that an outbreak of the dreaded beri-beri triggers such behaviour. Mason knows that bad diet is the cause and that the only remedy is a supply of Vitamin B1, for which she can only look to ten tiny bean-producing plants provided by Yamauchi which, as she pointedly tells Nellie: ‘might or might not make it, like us!’ Her increasingly unhinged desperation to ensure their survival is best demonstrated by the way she overstays her welcome at the meeting about Christmas plans, as an embarrassed Rose seeks to silence the doctor’s unnecessarily detailed description as to why none of the women should feel tempted to acquire the plants. As Beatrice shuffles off, Ulrica correctly observes that: ‘Our doctor is not the woman she once was.’ Dr Mason’s single-minded determination to save her patients also leads her to ask Nellie to secure ‘livestock’ (bugs and maggots) from a work party trip, ostensibly in order to fertilise the bean plants, but in reality to supplement the diet of her ailing patients. Such measures can only lead us to sympathise with the terrible responsibility she faces, so much so that when Sylvia turns up requesting to use the camp’s only pair of scissors to cut the hair of a rag doll, we can fully understand Beatrice’s plea not to bother her with such trivialities. Both Kate and Nellie recognise that the doctor is close to the edge; the former even attempts to comfort her with a hug but is immediately shrugged off. Further evidence of Beatrice’s state of mind comes after the tenko at which the women are informed of their impending move, news which – much to Nellie’s dismay – she elects to tell her patients immediately rather than protect them from for a time.

It is only thanks to Sister Ulrica’s intervention that Beatrice is ultimately pulled back from the brink, as Mrs Harris’s Bible is sacrificed to the guards for their cigarettes in exchange for yeast tablets. That Beatrice is initially unable to take in what Ulrica has done, effectively delivering her patients from certain death, is also very telling. Once it does sink in, her reaction is simply to cry, presumably out of relief as she is finally able to let go of the emotion she has been holding in check. The fact that Ulrica, unlike Kate, chooses not to hug Beatrice even though her shaking frame is clearly crying out for comfort, is significant. Either it is not in her character to consider such intimacy acceptable or she decides that Beatrice would be better served by a practical exhortation to pull herself together: ‘No need for that, there is work to do, an example to be set. I shall expect you in your right mind tomorrow.’ As it turns out, Ulrica’s assumption, and perhaps her methods, are quite correct, as Beatrice appears to have almost fully recovered by the time the women begin their journey to their next camp. Stephanie Cole is spellbinding throughout the episode as she delivers perhaps her finest performance yet.

Thankfully, a character who has been rather overlooked since her introduction, the indomitable Mrs Van Meyer brilliantly played by Elizabeth Chambers, is given some more attention here. The fact that she has now earned herself a moniker, Metro-Goldwyn (after the Metro Goldwyn Mayer film studios), suggests a familiarity – if not affection – amongst the women for the troublesome Dutch woman. Van Meyer is more aware of her entertainment value than one might expect (‘I know I am the camp’s joke. Ha ha!’) and has even begun to play up to the role. When Kate responds to her question as to whether she can make a suggestion with: ‘We’ve never stopped you yet!’ her quick-witted and playful reply is: ‘And you can be sure you never will.’However, she is not always so aware of how humorous her contributions can be, with her questions to Debbie and Sally: ‘What is this Lambeth walking?’ and ‘What is this ‘Oi’?’ being good examples. Her most amusing moment, however, comes in the sick bay after she has been diagnosed with beri-beri and is nevertheless still practising for the concert, when she tells Ulrica: ‘I shall perform at the concert come what may. You can do your worst,’ to which the latter sensibly replies: ‘I would not dare!…

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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Against the Odds (Review of Series 1, Episode 9)

tenko1.9This penultimate episode of the first series principally focuses on the fates of Blanche and Debbie, following the failure of their reckless escape attempt, and on Rose and Marion as they come to terms with the potentially tragic consequences of having reported them.

Although both Rose and Marion are initially ostracised for ‘shopping’ the pair, the narrative principally focuses on the guilt of the former, as Stephanie Beacham turns in a performance of considerable conviction. Rose clearly regrets her actions due to her relationship with Blanche and is horrified by the prospect of her friend’s possible death. Her fears are most explicitly expressed through an intimate scene which she shares with Beatrice. The doctor firmly believes that it is ‘part of the human condition’ to live through such guilt, ‘even someone’s death,’ words that are honest, if of no comfort to Rose. Their conversation also sees Beatrice insightfully allude to Rose’s immaturity: ‘Do you know when I finally discovered I’d grown up? When I realised I couldn’t be right all the time,’ stating that Rose, by contrast, always seems sure of herself. Rose’s character is examined further when, despite the fact that she insists to Marion that she can only focus on Blanche’s and Debbie’s survival, she takes time to relate how personally aggravated she is by Sylvia’s well-intentioned kindly intercession on their part. This scene, which goes on to see Rose reminisce about her ‘fairly strapped background’ (vividly brought to life by her description of the ‘same old dress for mother, revamped year after year, new collar, flower at the throat’) and her memory of a kindly school prefect, demonstrates that she naïvely believes that only she has suffered in such a way. A frustrated Marion subsequently relates that this has happened to almost all of the women there one way or another. Despite this rather unforgiving exploration of Rose’s personality, as the narrative progresses and Yamauchi delivers the means of Blanche’s survival through the unlikely route of the production of 500 hats, no-one can fault her all-consuming commitment to the task of delivering her friend from certain death. She is the most impatient to begin production; will not be drawn into a discussion begun by Nellie about the possibility of a men’s camp, despite her love for Bernard; and fervently implements Christina’s idea of using the children to prepare the materials. One could argue that Rose has a vested interest in seeing Blanche survive due to her burden of guilt, but there is a stronger suggestion that her overriding motivation is one of loyalty and love for someone who has become a very dear, if highly unlikely, friend.

Unlike Rose, Marion has the excuse that Judith’s dying request for her to become Debbie’s guardian effectively demanded that she alert Yamauchi to the escape. However, the women initially treat her no differently to Rose, with even Sylvia shunning her at first, saying: ‘Words fail me.’ Marion’s failure to hide her growing obsession with her diary – a document set to have much post-war significance – also antagonises the women, especially given the straits which Blanche and Debbie are now in. However, they perhaps underestimate its importance to both her survival and her sanity. Dorothy’s comment about how good she is at ‘chatting to the Nips’ also speaks of a wariness of her privileged relationship with Yamauchi, or at least of the danger of her belief in its worth. The negative reaction to her decision to report the escape leads Marion to make a suggestion that for the first time is not worthy of her: ‘Perhaps it would be better if someone else represented us?’ Not only is this proposal self-pitying but it is also distinctly disingenuous as it is clearly something she neither wants, nor would be allowed (by Yamauchi), to relinquish.

Yamauchi’s sadistic treatment of Blanche and Debbie, staked out in the sun all day with no protection and little food or water (although we don’t see them receive either, we must presume they do, otherwise Blanche in particular could not possibly have survived for the duration of her punishment and, like Lia, would have died much sooner), prompts serious re-evaluation of his morality. Despite Marion’s previous claims regarding his humanity, the Captain is coldly impassive throughout. He even seems unmoved when presented with the ravaged face of 14-year-old Debbie, whose distress quickly degenerates into a terrifying blank-eyed stupor. Not only does he fail to show any emotion, but, initially at least, he also refuses to meet with Marion, presumably in order for him to re-establish his might and remind her of the power of life and death he commands over her and her fellow fourth-class women. That he makes sure that she sees him ‘moving the pieces on his Go board so delicately,’ rather than busy with paperwork, deliberately emphasises the low priority he affords her motivation for an audience and also therefore the wellbeing of Blanche and Debbie. (‘Go’ is an ancient game of strategy played with counters on a grid.)

When Yamauchi does finally deign to see Marion, it is clear that he feels that recent events require him to behave quite differently with her than he has in previous interviews. Initially at least, this is very much formidable Commandant condescending to see a lowly prisoner. However, Marion does well to break down these barriers, especially as it is her emotion rather than her logic that guides her. After her opening – highly sarcastic – gambit (‘Thank you for seeing me’), she quickly defends Debbie’s actions and fails to hide her frustration at his lack of understanding, particularly of the girl’s recent bereavement. However, it is as her voice cracks with emotion, when she offers herself in Debbie’s place and reminds him: ‘I’ve never begged before,’ and asks that the young girl be allowed to live rather than be honoured after death…

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 Daring Plan (Review of Series 1, Episode 8)

tenko1.8Once again Louise Jameson’s ballsy Blanche Simmons commands centre stage in an episode which primarily focuses on her daring plan to escape. However, an equally significant parallel development is Marion’s growing respect for Yamauchi and her belief in his humanity, a development which is set to have direct consequences for Blanche.

Before either of these storylines receive attention, the episode opens with an incredibly affecting sequence as one of the prisoners is forced to say goodbye to her son who is being sent on to the men’s camp. At first it seems that the woman in question has reconciled herself to the loss, indeed Sally comments: ‘You’d think she was seeing him off to boarding school’; however, the woman is unable to hold her feelings in for long and is soon pulling at the camp gates like a lunatic, screaming for her son. While this sight is arresting enough, the scene that follows, in which all of the women bravely round on Sato as he threatens to punish her, is one of the most powerful of the first series. Unafraid and determined to show their defiance, the women’s intimidating solidarity as they make for Sato is heightened by inspired and claustrophobic direction which sees the Lieutenant back towards the gates (and the camera), completely unable to stop the tide. Only Marion can stop the women taking matters further and, significantly, turns her back on her captor as she calmly seeks to dissipate the gathering. Marion’s innate serenity and strength of character lead her to reply to Sato’s furious threats of punishment with the simple line: ‘As you wish.’ The implication is clear: these women may be prisoners of war but their spirits remain undefeated.

The motivation for Blanche’s escape is in part due to events that occur earlier in the narrative: Yamauchi’s propaganda postcards; Judith’s somewhat inevitable death; and Beatrice’s desperate plea for morphia. Blanche’s reaction to the latter shows that she has now run out of patience and is sick of being used in this way; as she says to the doctor: ‘The tart with the heart of gold only belongs in Hollywood movies!’ It’s hard not to have sympathy for her position, especially as Beatrice is asking so much. Their exchange on this subject includes one of the funniest lines of the episode, as Blanche suggests that the Dutch, and specifically Mrs Van Meyer, should ‘play up to the bloody Nips’: ‘She’s going to moan anyway, she might as well do it in mock ecstasy!’

The character of Dutch woman Gerda, a solid enough performance from Maya Woolfe, is reintroduced here solely for the purpose of providing Blanche with more foundation for believing that her escape is viable, due to Gerda’s knowledge of the terrain and the fact that her former servants must still live nearby. What is not referred to is the fact that it would be highly unlikely that these servants would help a Western woman after the Japanese invasion, not only because of the fear of reprisal, but because some locals would have now regarded the former Dutch rule as oppressive and have enjoyed greater opportunities under the Japanese and their new Co-Prosperity Sphere.

Following on from her previously voiced concerns that she’d rather try her luck outside of the camp rather than rot inside of it, Blanche seems to almost morbidly fixate on their chances of survival. She sees Judith’s impending death as the thin end of the wedge: ‘Like ten little nigger boys, innit? Only there’s a hundred of us to go,’ although her fears become more understandable once she reveals to Rose that she has overheard Beatrice talking about the threat of beri-beri, or worse: ‘And maybe even cholera, how do you fancy a dose of that?’ However, her fears also relate to her appearance, something which she previously took great pride in, hence her reluctance a few episodes earlier to lose her ‘crowning glory’. She tells Rose: ‘Not only death I’m scared of. Who wants to get out of here white-haired and toothless?’…

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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Dependents (Review of Series 1, Episode 7)

tenko1.7Due to its groundbreaking depiction of a potentially homosexual relationship, this is one of the most memorable, and certainly most frequently cited, episodes of Tenko. Despite the absence of a kiss – in fact, we see little more than hand-holding – the content was still considered risqué by the television audiences of 1981. Looking back now, from our far more permissive and accepting society of 2012, it is difficult to imagine just how pioneering this plotline was; however, the fact that this was still some 13 years off the media storm which surrounded the portrayal of lesbianism in Brookside (in 1994) puts it in some perspective. Tenko was not portraying here the first lesbian relationship on television, in fact the first lesbian kiss was broadcast back in 1974 (between Alison Steadman and Myra Frances in the drama Girl). However, because this was a depiction of homosexuality back in World War II, perhaps this Tenko episode seemed more provocative than it otherwise might (even though such relationships were known to have existed in the camps).

The relationship between Nellie and Sally is virtually the sole focus of the episode and is handled sympathetically and, importantly, without any sort of sensationalism. Both Jeananne Crowley and Joanna Hole offer sensitive performances throughout, with Nellie’s fiercely held love and Sally’s hopeless naivety coming across as equally believable. Crowley manages an electric screen presence for the first time in the series, befitting her National Theatre pedigree, most notably in her delivery of the line in which she refutes Beatrice’s assertion that she must remember that first and foremost she is a nurse: ‘No I’m not; first and foremost I’m a person.’ Hole meanwhile makes Sally engaging and loveable as we witness how her superficially jolly exterior is offset by her deep-seated fears. The dynamics between Nellie and Sally are particularly interesting because of their complexity. While on the one hand Nellie has recognised her own sexuality and is seeking a full-on relationship, Sally is merely looking for affection and comfort due to Peter’s absence and the horrendous experience of having a stillborn child. Sally fails to register the depth of Nellie’s love, despite the clear signs: her jealousy as Sally dances with Blanche at the night of her birthday party; her precious gifts of chocolate and sugar; and her protective ‘Peter-like’ concern for Sally’s safety when around the guards. For Sally, the friendship is exactly as Marion describes: natural and not unlike the hand-holding that goes on between girls in school. So much so, that when she eventually sees the graffiti which reads: ‘Nellie and Sally are filthy perverts,’ she is in a complete state of shock, breathlessly asking: ‘Is that what people really think?’ This moment of revelation inevitably uncovers Nellie’s alternative take on their relationship, as she answers: ‘Does it matter?’ Sally’s incredulous reply: ‘Of course it matters! Do you want people thinking we’re like that?’ serves to underline the complete disparity between Nellie’s and Sally’s outlook and intentions and, moreover, the fact that, as a result, their relationship can never be as close again. The fact that Sally’s complicity was unwitting, due to her innocence and immaturity, makes it clear that their relationship could never have gone anywhere anyway. Whether Nellie knew this to be the case or not is unclear; either way is it apparent that she must have hoped against hope that her feelings might be reciprocated.

Despite the graffiti and Dorothy’s decidedly negative take on the relationship, it is appropriate and interesting that many of the characters are able to see its positive side given the straits they are currently in. Rose comments: ‘At least they care about each other’; Blanche, inevitably more earthily, states: ‘What if they were, what are we supposed to do for sex in this bloody place?’; while Marion simply asks: ‘Since when was feeling a crime?’ Thankfully these interjections never feel as though the episode’s writer, Jill Hyem, is forwarding an agenda, instead they are absolutely in keeping with both the narrative and the characters given these lines, although it is somewhat inevitable that a more forward-thinking ‘right on’ Eighties stance on these issues is represented in the narrative rather than a narrow-minded Forties one.

However, it seems likely that with one particular line in the episode, delivered by Madge Pritchard at the discipline committee – ‘One wouldn’t wish to put a name to it’ – Jill Hyem is poking fun at her producer’s insistence that the storyline could only go ahead as long as the word ‘lesbian’ was not mentioned…

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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Punishment (Review of Series 1, Episode 6)

tenko1.6By this halfway point of the first series, it is fair to say that Tenko has comfortably hit its stride. Its central characters and approach are fully established and the only real problem the drama now faces is that the instalments thus far have set the bar, and therefore expectations, very high indeed. However, this episode, in which the near rape of Rose, Blanche and Dorothy and its aftermath are the dramatic focus, is never in any danger of disappointing the viewer, and instead occasionally even exceeds the standards set so far.

The character who unquestionably dominates the episode like an uncontrollable force of nature is Blanche Simmons, played with heart and conviction by Louise Jameson. The actress brings an utterly believable vigour to the loveable cockney and we cannot help but agree with young Debbie when she declares that ‘we couldn’t do without you,’ as Tenko itself would be much the poorer for her absence. The way Blanche is immediately moved to tears by this comment, suggesting that this is one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to her, is both tragic and heartwarming. Blanche’s reaction is all the more moving as it follows her revelation to Debbie at Violet’s graveside that, like Dorothy, she too had a baby once. Despite Debbie’s high opinion of her, for much of the episode several of Blanche’s fellow prisoners – principally Sylvia – call into question her morality, as suspicions are aroused that she may actually be fraternising with the enemy. The narrative is not definitively clear on whether this is actually the case or not; however, the suggestion is that, despite Blanche’s background – there have been strong hints that she was a ‘good-time girl’ before her imprisonment – she has not yet gone with any of the guards. This is implied by: her surprise at seeing Dorothy negotiating just such an assignation; the very real fear she displays as she first realises that the guards plan to rape her, Dorothy and Rose; and the fact that we see her negotiating for more duties with Mrs Van Meyer. Perhaps, as Nellie suggests, it is just that Blanche, like the cockney stereotype, is a hard grafter and is working honestly for the extras she has? On the other hand, her reasoning to Dorothy that she can’t get the interest of the particular guard who may have the quinine they need suggests otherwise. This question aside, what is not up for debate is that, unlike Dorothy, what Blanche gets up to in her free time is not merely for selfish gain. Instead, in this strange topsy-turvy world, such efforts can allow Blanche to play ‘Lady Bountiful’, presumably for the first time in her life, as she hands out the tea and bananas she has earned to her fellow hut-mates. Through such plotting, the levelling effect of imprisonment is further underlined. However, this situation is later cleverly counterpointed by Blanche’s dismayed reaction to Marion’s order that there must be no reprisals against Dorothy, which prompts her to observe that the world’s ‘nobs’ (as she terms the upper classes) have always ‘had it their own way,’ and her consternation that this situation continues to be true even in camp. What is particularly interesting about Blanche is that she is a character of extremes. Although she is capable of great kindness – being altruistically motivated by her affection for Debbie to attempt to secure the quinine to save Judith, putting herself in very real danger in the process – she is also prepared to mete out an uncompromisingly severe punishment to Dorothy for her lies. Might she actually have drowned Dorothy if Marion had not intervened? The episode’s closing scenes further emphasise the less palatable side of her nature, as we witness her disturbingly serious threat to Dorothy (‘If you so much as put one foot wrong, I’ll make the Nips look like a bunch of Florence Nightingales’), followed by her obvious delight that the guards who sought to rape them are being sent away from the camp, perhaps to be fatally punished (‘With any luck they’ll all be shot’). Such scenes ensure that Blanche is not merely portrayed as a rather clichéd ‘tart with a heart’, but also as a much more interesting, damaged and potentially violent individual.

One of the most fascinating and underplayed elements of the episode is the question of the cost of survival. During a beautifully constructed scene by the entrance to Hut 1 – which is backed by the melancholic, almost mournful, sound of the women singing – Marion describes to Sylvia how lately she has felt as though her ‘whole life is being unpicked, stitch by painful stitch.’…

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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Pulling Together (Review of Series 1, Episode 5)

tenko1.5This fifth episode which, apart from the opening scene, is set two months after the women were imprisoned, chooses to depict the day-to-day grind of life in camp. Alongside the problem of low morale is the far more serious situation of the spread of disease as the first few cases of malaria are diagnosed. Unfortunately there proves to be no easy solution to either problem and it is very apparent that impromptu and rather pathetic renditions of ‘Ten Green Bottles’ will have little impact on morale.

Although this instalment is very much an ensemble piece with almost all the principal characters receiving their fair share of screen time, Marion is once again the main focus as her leadership comes under further scrutiny. Her leadership burden is depicted as thankless and lonely, as her fellow prisoners selfishly block her attempts to establish order and raise spirits. None of the other women are prepared to put in the same amount of effort as Marion and yet they are more than willing to criticise her for not being a ‘proper leader.’ Such criticism, taken together with her failure to secure either quinine or an additional hut for the sick from Yamauchi, understandably prompts Marion to doubt her suitability and consider standing down. The reality of course, as Beatrice points out, is that she is far more viable than any alternative candidate, and Kate’s description of her to Nellie: ‘a nice, upper-class pommie lady who’s never roughed it before in her life… very good at handing out cups of tea to refugees, but here… right out of her depth,’ woefully underestimates her qualities. In fact, via her audiences with Yamauchi in which she bravely makes demands on behalf of the women, her refusal to accommodate the endless complaints about the hut moves, and her attempts to seek engagement from the disaffected Rose and Dorothy, Marion displays considerable practicality and mettle. However, it is at the moment at which she is prepared to leave the role behind, if the vote at the meeting she has called goes against her, that Marion proves once and for all that she is unquestionably the leader they need. The way she turns the tables on the women who have refused to offer assistance (‘What will you contribute, Rose?’) and simultaneously lifts morale by suggesting an ambitious building project, that she has already seen fit to clear with Yamauchi, is admirably deft. After this performance it is clear that the leadership vote is a foregone conclusion and so it proves. The subsequent building of the new sick bay engenders real camaraderie, even happiness, amongst the women and this is entirely down to Marion. Of course, Tenko being the sort of series it is, Marion is given no opportunity to enjoy this accomplishment and instead is rewarded by being almost immediately whisked off for interrogation by the Japanese equivalent of the Gestapo.

Ann Bell gives a bravura performance as Marion here, especially in those moments when the strain becomes too much. Her imploring outburst to Yamauchi (‘Surely if people are sick!’) and her breakdown while confiding in Beatrice (‘I can’t bear this place’), a conversation which leads to Marion’s manic laughter at the prospect of Sylvia’s leadership resulting in them all being put against a wall and shot, are just two examples of Bell’s impressive range.

Stephanie Beacham’s Rose is once again depicted as thoroughly self-obsessed. Marion goes so far as to say to her that she’s never ‘met anyone quite as selfish as you,’ but thankfully this is tempered here by some explanations for this behaviour. In one of the strongest scenes of the episode, she relates to Blanche the details of her dismal marriage to a middle-aged planter (‘You think this is dull’) and her earlier mistreatment at the hands of a handsome subaltern who proposed to her, bedded her, ‘then buggered off.’ Through her comment ‘Was I ever that naïve?’ Rose is shown to be scarcely able to remember the simple innocence she possessed at the tender age of 18. Life has since taught her to be hard and cynical, prompting her to declare to Blanche: ‘If anyone does the using now, it’s me.’ However, there are obvious chinks in her protective armour and it is these that Marion later exploits in order to get her on side as the ‘Head of Entertainment’. Rose’s agreement to this idea marks an important turning point for the character…

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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Many Ways of Dying (Review of Series 1, Episode 4)

tenko1.4This episode, which principally dramatises Dorothy Bennett’s single-minded determination to keep her baby healthy, with desperately tragic consequences, is arguably the most accomplished instalment thus far. This is Anne Valery’s first contribution to the series and, like Jill Hyem, with whom she shares scripting duties from here on in, Valery demonstrates that she is equally capable of writing strong, character-led drama.

Veronica Roberts gives a breathtakingly realistic performance as Dorothy, as she holds on to the one thing that still gives her life meaning, but inadvertently, and in a cruel twist of fate, contributes instead to the very situation she is frantically seeking to avoid. The idea of bringing up a baby in such squalor with such a poor diet doesn’t bear thinking about and, in particular, mothers in the audience must find it almost impossible not to identify with Dorothy’s plight. What mother would be comfortable with the idea of their baby having to get used to the conditions in the camp, as Beatrice suggests Violet will in time? Dorothy’s determined pursuit of Violet’s good health sees her swallow her pride and work as a skivvy for the dreadful Mrs Van Meyer, and risk her life by regularly escaping the compound for precious bottles of milk from trader’s wife Lia. So consumed does Dorothy become that she is shown to be the only woman present at the discussion of the tree felling who is not listening, as she is tending to Violet instead. Ultimately, Dorothy’s problem, as she recounts towards the episode’s end, is that she doesn’t ‘do as she’s told,’ although only the most heartless viewer would judge her for it. That Dorothy seeks forgiveness for Lia’s torture by going out to her with water despite the punishments threatened by Yamauchi, says a great deal not only about her sense of guilt but also about her courage and strength of character. As we will continue to learn as the series progresses, there is much more to complex Dorothy than first meets the eye.

Some of Roberts’s most affecting dialogue sees Dorothy think back to her bungalow with a real nursery back in Singapore (which, although it is hard to believe here, we will eventually see for ourselves some twenty episodes later) and her Auntie Violet – after whom her baby is named – in Wolverhampton who sent on a photo of herself in the garden, in which she was holding a Japanese parasol of all things. Similarly moving is the scene in which Dorothy recounts to Nellie how cross she’d get with Dennis for biting his nails and leaving hair in the comb, and her emotional breakdown when she recognises that she’ll ‘never be able to say sorry’ to him.

One of the episode’s other chief concerns is the further rehabilitation of Sylvia Ashburton, as she transforms from the loud-mouthed, racist snob of the previous episode to a thoughtful, caring matriarch. She not only provides support to Sally, accompanying her to the latrines and dispelling fears about her pregnancy, and Dorothy, by giving her money, but also, despite her prejudices, even fetches water for Christina. Furthermore, by the close of the episode she appears to be willing to risk her own life by volunteering to take water to a native she barely knows. It is to the credit of both Renée Asherson and writer Anne Valery that these changes are achieved believably…

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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First Tenko (Review of Series 1, Episode 3)

tenko1.3This third episode marks the beginning of Tenko proper, as the series starts to document the women’s endurance of day-to-day life in a dilapidated and insanitary internment camp. As well as introducing their Japanese captors and the camp itself, we also meet a raft of new characters who we will come to know just as well as the women whose experiences we have followed so far.

Most prominent among the new characters is Renée Asherson’s Sylvia Ashburton, a general’s wife whose values and stubbornness are seen here to test the patience of her fellow prisoners as much as they do the Japanese. When we first meet her she is unnecessarily pushing past some of her fellow prisoners and it is not long before she is unwisely shouting at a Japanese soldier, warning him that she will report him to his commanding officer! She continues to throw her weight about under the guise of upholding ‘certain standards’, standards which are seen to include her refusal to sleep beside Christina because of her race. Rose’s retort: ‘Oh, come on, Ducky. This isn’t the golf club you know!’ perfectly sums up Sylvia’s complete failure to grasp that she won’t be able to hold on to her old-world values in the camp. Despite this characterisation, writer Jill Hyem is careful to ensure that Sylvia is not simply portrayed as a stereotypical class-obsessed snob: her heartfelt evening prayer is shown to be a comfort to all those present; while her reluctance to undress in front of the other women engenders Marion’s sympathy if not ours. Sylvia’s subsequent plucky refusal to bow during tenko and her imprudent use of the crystal set make her personify the sort of British woman whom Yamauchi believes must have their arrogance ‘destroyed,’ which is presumably why he does not immediately acquiesce to Marion’s plea that she be released.

Louise Jameson’s shameless Blanche, who is set to become one of Tenko’s most vibrant and engaging characters, brings some welcome colour to proceedings. Blanche stands out not only because of her peroxide hair and defiant make-up, but because she doesn’t appear to care what anyone else thinks of her. She is the only woman to selfishly complain about the noise that Dorothy’s baby is making, while her approach to ablutions – which sees her remove all of her clothes without hesitation – is in stark contrast to the rather prudish behaviour of her fellow prisoners. However, her brash exterior belies a softer, more sensitive side. It is Blanche who suggests Violet be put to Dorothy’s breast (and is clearly touched to see this solution work) and, soon after, prevents Debbie from touching a sack due to its likely infestation. Later still, she is seen to show more consideration than anyone else for Sylvia, stating that while they are busy pointlessly apportioning blame, it is likely that she is being kicked to death.

Quite understandably, given the amount of screen time available, several of the new characters are given rather less to do than Sylvia and Blanche. The tragedy of Dorothy Bennett’s situation – the recent loss of her husband and as a result having to shoulder the responsibility for her baby daughter alone – is emphasised by the brilliant performance of Veronica Roberts, who proves that she needs very few lines to make an impact. While Sally, played with wide-eyed innocence by Joanna Hole, looks sure to have her ‘jolly hockey sticks’ innocence shattered by life in camp. Her sheltered upbringing, which makes her totally unequipped for this terrible experience, is best underlined by her ridiculously polite turn of phrase that is completely out of keeping with her new surroundings: ‘Do you think we could ask again about spending a penny?’ Sally’s reflection that she and her husband had so wanted a baby is beautifully played by Hole and confirms her as yet another worthy addition to the cast…

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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Freedom’s End (Review of Series 1, Episode 2)

tenko1.2Tenko’s second episode, which details the characters’ last few weeks of freedom before the majority become prisoners of the Japanese, is as exciting as it is engaging, building nicely on the foundations of the scene-setting opening instalment.

Once again the narrative principally focuses on the experiences of Marion Jefferson as she unwittingly moves inexorably closer to taking on the mantle of leader of the British women prisoners of war. The meeting she leads at her home with her privileged counterparts from Singapore’s British ‘high society’, in which she seeks assistance with refugees and setting up relief centres, is in many ways a template for the many meetings she will find herself leading in camp. They will be just as trying and frustrating and will also require her to stand up for what she thinks is right. On first glance, Marion might seem to be an unlikely leadership candidate, but as the episode nears its conclusion it becomes clear that she possesses many of the requisite skills. It is Marion who suggests that the survivors of the shipwreck take shelter out of the morning sun, and when one of her party, Rose, unwisely lashes out at her captors it is Marion again who quickly intervenes in order to ensure that she is not shot. It is clear that her practicality and surprising mettle will be important attributes in the grim years of imprisonment that are to follow.

Nearly all of the characters receive further enriching screen-time here, as their personality traits are explored in more detail than was possible in the debut episode. In some of the most powerful lines in the episode, Rose is shown to be insightful and forthright as she attacks Clifford for the part he has played in keeping the citizens of Singapore ignorant of the terrible threat they face. While Beatrice, in a rare moment of downtime at the hospital, is shown to drop her formidable matron routine in order to thank Marion for her help. Later she displays her compassionate side as she bids her nurses to leave Singapore regardless of her own fate. It is clear that there is more to Dr Mason than first meets the eye, and as the series continues it will choose to gradually reveal, layer by layer, why she is the person she has become; a perfect example of Tenko’s dedication to careful and subtle characterisation.

The only character who has thus far failed to come across as coherent is Jeananne Crowley’s Nellie Keene, but this may have more to do with Wheeler’s scripts than Crowley herself, as the nurse certainly comes into her own later in the series. The problem is that, unlike the other characters, as yet she has few discernible or likeable characteristics, and the reason for her inclusion in the series is unclear. The only clue is in her discussion with Kate about all the men she has been out with, which, if you’ve seen the series before, is an obvious precursor to her relationship with Sally Markham, the suggestion being here that Nellie has been ‘through’ so many men as she is in denial about her sexuality…

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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Last Days of Singapore (Review of Series 1, Episode 1)

1-1-1Given that this is the opening instalment of a new drama series, it has a surprisingly strong and confident feel. The series’ dramatic and historical context, the introduction of no less than ten key characters and the foreshadowing of events that are to follow, are all given sufficient screen time and, despite being packed with incident, the episode’s fifty minutes pass in no time at all.

The narrative primarily depicts the very last days of British colonial rule in Singapore and the frightening ignorance of its inhabitants as the Imperial Japanese Army begin their invasion of Malaya. Despite this epic backdrop, Tenko nevertheless sets out its stall as an intimate character-driven drama in thebest BBC traditions. As such, its success will depend on both the quality of the scripting and the performances of the regulars, and on the evidence of this first episode the prospects for the series are very good indeed.

Here, Marion Jefferson, the closest Tenko has to a lead character, begins her long and compelling journey from listless army wife to purposeful outspoken leader. Marion is one of the series’ most sympathetic and likeable characters and this is due in no small part to her sensitive portrayal by Ann Bell. Bell manages to balance Marion’s strong sense of what is right and her drive for purpose with her outward fragility perfectly, wisely choosing to underplay the material rather than hammer the script’s messages home. In narrative terms, Marion provides the viewer with an easy way into the series, as we empathise with her concerns for the evacuated Ben, her disgust with the empty banality of her Singapore lifestyle, and her desperation to make herself useful. When she states that she has ‘no role’ there other than to make the numbers even at dinner, she has no idea of the new role she is set to take on in the coming months, one that will change her life forever.

Playing opposite Bell, Jonathan Newth gives an equally strong performance as Colonel Jefferson. Despite his commanding presence, his frustrated reaction towards the people all around him who fail to recognise that war with Japan is now inevitable ensures that he is another character with whom the audience can identify. We cannot help but support his dressing down of the disorganised Major Sims, or share his pleasure that Bernard’s broadcast has revealed the truth about the island’s paltry defences. We warm to him further when it is made apparent that, despite his typically British exterior, he realises that his wife must go home to their son and is willing to openly tell her that he loves her. The story of the Jeffersons’ marriage will necessarily be put on hold for some considerable time, but when it is examined again in the third series it proves to be just as interesting and authentic as it is here

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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