Looking Back At TENKO - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At TENKO

Tony makes it for roll call.
With pretty authentic World War II attitudes and language, it’s doubtful that a show like Tenko would be made in the 21st century. But in the same way that the 1970s gave us Colditz, the story of men held at the infamous German prison camp during the war, the 1980s revisited the period, but shifted the drama significantly.

Tenko was the story of a group of British, Australian, and Dutch women caught up in the war but kept in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, rather than a German one.

In some ways, it was a mark of the dawning of some level of equal representation in TV circles that Tenko ever got made in the first place. A decade earlier, a major, fluff-free, post-watershed drama serial with a cast of strong central characters, all of whom were women, created by a woman (Lavinia Warner), and largely written by women, would have been for the most part unthinkable at the BBC.

But in 1981, Lavinia Warner brought the story of women in a Japanese camp (or, across three series, three camps), to TV, It told a relatively historical but fictionalised story of women from different countries, classes and creeds thrown together and forced to survive, despite starvation, disease, poor sanitation, the destruction of any external dignity, and a febrile daily atmosphere of threat - both physical, sexual, and, for those who proved to be troublesome, potentially fatal.

If that doesn’t sound like exactly the most engaging drama you could watch for thirty episodes of 50 minutes apiece, you’re reckoning without two things.

Firstly, getting any collection of women together anywhere in a hardship environment will show you more life, more strength, and more interplay of emotional and intelligent instincts than you’ll ever have suspected exists in them if you’ve only observed them in their ‘good times.’ So by separating a group of women from their usual lives and forcing them to build their own community within the camps, Tenko immediately ensured it had something to show us, besides an obvious narrative of “Japan bad, allied countries good.”

In fairness to the writers, as a show it always tried to explain the pressures that camp commanders were under, specifically to apply brutality and not to “waste” resources on prisoners – without in any sense necessarily letting them off the hook for their actions.

But the second thing you need to reckon with if Tenko sounds like turn-off TV is the cast.
Oh gods, the cast. If you can imagine, in 1981, getting the opportunity to screen a major post-watershed wartime drama with a lead cast of women, the responsibility must have been immense. But on the other hand, most of the best women in Equity at the time would probably take your call, because the drama was real, and harsh, and something to really get their teeth into.

That’s how you end up with a cast led by Ann Bell as Marion Jefferson, bored wife of a colonel, who becomes a spokeswoman and leader of the English women, and eventually of all the women in the camp. Pitching Marion as balanced on a knife-edge of demand and pragmatism, Bell brings more subtlety to her performance than most of the inmates of TV’s Colditz, crucially showing an awareness of a very different power dynamic at work towards women in that age, in the patriarchies of both Japan and the West.

That’s how you get Stephanie Cole as Dr Beatrice Mason, brusque but canny, generally accustomed to taking no nonsense. Beatrice is focused first and foremost on the health and wellbeing of her charges, but if there’s a shoulder needed, or arms to fetch and carry, her attitude is of one determined to get on with it. She exemplifies that spirit of persistence, and frequently of the hammer-blow rejection of idiotic social norms, that make sense in a woman who’s become a doctor in an age when that’s frowned upon by a patriarchal society.

It’s how you get Stephanie Beacham as socialite Rose Millar, relatively untested in the ways of the real world, but having to find ways to temper her immediate reactions and survive against all the odds.

It’s how you get Louise Jameson as Blanche, the euphemistically described ‘hostess’ with a cockney twang and a rough-upbringing, say-what-you-see, relatively filter-free mouth. And it’s also how you get her on an arc of development, helping Rose to adapt and survive, and even helping a younger girl in the camp come to terms with their reality and hold on till a better day comes.
Blanche, interestingly enough, is one of a few avatars of unique barter that made sure Tenko was post-watershed viewing. While any prisoner of war camp drama is likely to have violence, malnutrition, and hardship, the fact that Tenko is set in a women’s camp brings in the dark potential of sexual abuse, rape, coercion and body-barter for better conditions or supplies.

Blanche has a history that allows her some leeway here, though it makes some of the other women view her as a traitor. The same is true of Dorothy Bennett (Veronica Roberts), though in Dorothy’s case, there’s a dead-eyed nihilism behind her sexual availability. Her husband was murdered by the Japanese, and her daughter subsequently died of dysentery, so Dorothy feels it makes no difference what happens to her anymore.

Did we MENTION that Tenko hit really hard every chance it got, without ever falling prey to the temptation to sensationalize?

The character ‘roll call’ (‘Tenko’ is Japanese for roll call’ and like many a modern prison, the women are expected to attend this assembly regularly) continues – we haven’t even mentioned the aristocratically eccentric but down-to-earth Joss Holbrook yet (the always-superb Jean Anderson), or Kate Norris (Claire Oberman), the Aussie nurse who tries to embody her country with positivity and helpfulness any chance she gets.

We haven’t mentioned Sally Markham (Joanna Hole) and her in-camp pregnancy and stillbirth – no, seriously, this was a show that pulled no punches but maybe one, the increasingly close friendship of Sally and nurse Nellie Keene (Jeananne Crowley), which was thought by some of the women to be “unnatural.” In a mark of discredit to the corporation, the BBC apparently tried to veto that as an issue too far, and only allowed it to air so long as the word “lesbian” was never used.

And we haven’t mentioned the glorious leading Dutch women, than whom, two more extreme characters could hardly exist. Domenica Van Meyer (Elizabeth Chambers) is the perfect representation of the notion that ‘there’s always one…’ – entitled, demanding, full of reminiscences of how ‘it was never like this’ in the good old days, and haughtily moralistic about some of the women’s behaviour. Meanwhile, Sister Ulrica (Patricia Lawrence), a nun in whom the captured Dutch women initially put their trust as leader, is both patient and spiky, mellowing only over time to work alongside Marion, leader of the British women.

You can go on and on with this – Cindy Shelley, the 80s’ posh girl of choice in everything from The Young Ones to The Tripods to Howards’ Way, is here too as Alice Courtenay, a numb 17 year-old who has already been incarcerated for two years before we meet her.

Lizzie Mickery brings new comedic energy to the women’s lives in their third camp as Maggie Thorpe, but like the others who choose this option, sharing her body with the guards for extra rations tempers the degree to which some of the other women can bring themselves to like Maggie, despite her ability to turn a comic phrase.

The cast and the characters in Tenko are frankly extraordinary all the way down the line, while at least in terms of the characters, also being as vivid and varied and ‘ordinary’ as can be. Ultimately, the storylines show that ‘ordinary’ is a very relative term, and that women together may well argue and have their quarrels of class, country or morality, but know enough about survival in a patriarchy to put all such secondary considerations aside where they have to in order to get through any amount of hell.

Tenko remains to this day an extraordinary TV drama. Created by a woman, mostly written by women, and with a lead cast of highly diverse actors depicting women’s struggles to survive in a situation that was both beyond belief and yet appallingly commonplace on several sides of the war.

If you can get past the racial terms of the day that give the drama its realism, Tenko will richly reward you with a strongly-stomached drama of the indomitability of women under intense and enduring pressure.

Watch Tenko today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony  lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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