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Tenko (1981-84)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Tenko (1981-84)
BBC/Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 22/101981-16/12/1984
30 x 60 min episodes in three series, colour
Directors includePennant Roberts
 David Tucker
Created byLavinia Warner
Producers includeKen Riddington
ScriptsJill Hyem
 Anne Valery
 Paul Wheeler

Cast: Ann Bell (Marion Jefferson); Stephanie Cole (Beatrice Mason); Stephanie Beacham (Rose Millar); Louise Jameson (Blanche Simmons); Veronica Roberts (Dorothy Bennett); Emily Bolton (Christina Campbell); Patricia Lawrence (Sister Ulrica); Renee Asherson (Sylvia Ashburton); Burt Kwouk (Captain/Major Yamauchi); Eiji Kusuhara (Lieutenant/Captain Sato)

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After the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in 1941, the women and children of the ex-patriot British and Dutch communities are incarcerated in a remote prison camp, where they must endure harsh conditions and brutal captors.

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The years since World War Two have seen numerous attempts to dramatise the situations faced by British Prisoners-of-War, most of which have focused on German-run camps. A few have portrayed life as captives of the Japanese, notably The Bridge over the River Kwai (d. David Lean, 1966) and King Rat (d. Bryan Forbes, 1965). But the experiences of non-combatants, particularly women, have been largely overlooked. One noble exception is Tenko.

Tenko (Japanese for 'roll-call') creator Lavinia Warner began researching Japanese PoW camps for an edition of This is Your Life (BBC, 1955-64; ITV, 1969-94; ITV, 1994- ) and, later, an Omnibus documentary (BBC, 1967- ). The series traced the lives of a group of disparate British, Dutch and Australian women from their largely comfortable, complacent existence in Singapore, through the shock of Japanese invasion, to their internment in a remote, inhospitable prison camp. Later series saw the women marched through hostile jungle to a second camp.

Whereas the all-male PoW narrative is preoccupied with notions of individual and collective heroism, military discipline and the duty to escape, Tenko's female-dominated narrative stressed interpersonal issues - co-operation, friendship and mutual support; divisions of class, nationality and race - and subjects traditionally excluded from male narratives, including motherhood, female identity, sexual vulnerability (and, more contentiously, sexual manipulation) and the pain of separation from loved ones.

But despite the symbolic potential of a situation in which women are subjugated to an absolute male authority, Tenko was not overtly feminist. The camp inmates are diverse in background and by no means united in their responses to each other and their circumstances. The British leader, Colonel's wife Marion (Ann Bell), urges consensus, collectivism and co-operation to win concessions from the stern but 'honourable' Commandant Yamauchi (Burt Kwouk). But her approach is challenged by the more authoritarian instincts of Dutch leader Sister Ulrica (Patricia Lawrence) and camp doctor Beatrice (Stephanie Cole); by the selfish individualism of the disaffected Dorothy (Veronica Roberts), who turns to prostitution with the guards after losing her husband and baby; by the stubborn class and race prejudice of General's wife Sylvia (Renée Ascherson); and by the impetuousness of Cockney Blanche (Louise Jameson).

Hugely popular, Tenko pulled few punches in showing the women's brutal degradation at the hands of Japanese guards and the combined assaults of disease, malnutrition and a hostile climate. A postwar follow-up, Tenko Reunion (tx. 26/12/1985) collected some of the survivors for a murder mystery.

Mark Duguid

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Video Clips
1. Bad news (2:10)
2. Doubts (2:49)
3. The assault (3:33)
4. Punishment (4:07)
Complete episode: Part Six (51:24)
Bridge on the River Kwai, The (1957)
Captive Heart, The (1946)
Colditz (1972-74)
Jameson, Louise (1951- )
Kwouk, Burt (1930- )
WWII Dramas