Warriors Behind the Wire: The Soap Opera Goes to War

David Agnew on Tenko

First published January 2001

The need to redress the balance in terms of political and social representation has informed some of the most powerful and influential television dramas screened on British television over the past 20 years. From Alan Bleasdale’s visceral portrayal of the Liverpool of Thatcher’s Britain in Boys from the Blackstuff, to the “feminised” crime capers of Widows to the anti-nuclear parable of Edge of Darkness, there has been a preoccupation with bringing the agendas of those marginalised and underrepresented in contemporary culture to the mainstream. (Grudgingly, Queer As Folk will be given the benefit of the doubt: it sets out to represent gay men in a new, authentic and engaging manner and despite a number of appalling lapses, particularly in its second series, succeeds). There is, I believe, another drama that falls firmly within this interventionist trajectory but which has not yet received the recognition it deserves.

Tenko was not explicitly characterised by an intervention into generic conventions and a desire to challenge our expectations, but into a largely unknown area of our recent history. Created by Lavinia Warner after carrying out research into prisoners of war for a This is Your Life episode featuring Nursing Corps Officer Margot Turner, and largely written by Jill Hyem and Anne Valery, the series dramatises the experiences of European women interned by the Japanese militia following the invasion of Singapore in 1942. Having been separated from their husbands, herded into makeshift holding camps and largely forgotten by the British War Office, these women had to learn to cope with appalling living conditions, malnutrition, disease, violence and death. When they were finally liberated following the Japanese surrender in 1945, these mostly ill, emaciated women received comparatively little counselling, were returned to Britain and essentially expected to carry on with life as normal, whilst their deceased comrades largely remained buried in the camps deep in the Sumatran jungle. However, Tenko was unique amongst previous war dramas such as Colditz and Secret Army in that its narrative thrust did not solely focus on concerns of war and internment, but its setting also permitted examinations, within the context of 1940′s morality, of social issues such as rape, stillbirth, abortion and euthanasia. In the entire series, there is one attempt to escape from the camp and any acts of resistance against the Japanese rarely have any real consequences. Tenko, in its focus on the more personal, everyday aspects of life in the camp, appropriates a fusion of historical drama and soap opera, and the subject matter was not a conventional generic marker but more a pretext, an authentication for the programme’s central concerns to examine a wide cross-section of female characters and demonstrate that perceptions of World War II were not exclusively dominated by a male perspective.

In spite of this intriguing premise, the first two episodes of Tenko, written by Paul Wheeler, chronicling the fall of Singapore and actually filmed in Malaya, remain uninspiring, insipid and overwrought melodrama, with clichéd scripting and threadbare characterisation rather justifying the series’ extraordinarily grudging early reviews (“more Tesco than Tenko” opined the Daily Telegraph). Little more than crude curtain raisers, the referencing of the actual historical events precipitating the women’s internment in these episodes at least authenticates the meat of the series. As the third and final series was transmitted, Anne Valery acknowledged the series’ humble beginnings, commenting in The Guardian: “We were handed a set of characters without warmth, motivation and charm and asked to continue the story.” With Hyem and Valery taking over the scriptwriting reins and the series swapping the exotic climes for Malaya for a credibly detailed set constructed in a Dorset quarry, it is with episode three of the first series, featuring the women’s arrival at the camp, that Tenko begins in earnest. Although the series is primarily an ensemble piece, a number of characters become instantly pre-eminent. In the British section, we have Marion Jefferson, the kindly, dignified colonel’s wife who finds herself elected spokeswoman for the internees – a sympathetic upper-class heroine very much in the A Town Like Alice/Virginia McKenna mould; Beatrice Mason, a stern-faced intern who takes charge of medical duties in the camp and does not suffer fools gladly; Rose Millar, a selfish but spirited socialite; Christina Campbell, a young Eurasian woman forced to work as the commandant’s secretary; Blanche Simmons, a Cockney prostitute; Australian nurse Kate Norris and young housewife Dorothy Bennett who loses both her husband and baby daughter in rapid succession and becomes fatalistic, prostituting herself to the guards in exchange for cigarettes. Their more privileged Dutch compatriots are chiefly represented by formidable nun Sister Ulrica and the rich, selfish and defiantly vain Mrs Van Meyer.

The first series is mostly concerned with the women’s adjustment to captivity, learning to work together as a community while the hope of an Allied rescue lingers long in their minds. The degradation and privation of internment is counterpointed by the camaraderie that grows through the enforced intimacy of their situation and the self-esteem achieved through small victories such as the rebuilding of a burnt-out hut to use as a sickbay. As the actresses come to wear no costumes other than ripped blouses and ill-fitting frocks and no make-up other than cosmetic dirt, cuts, sunburn and bruises, the characters increasingly bare their souls to each other, emerging as rounded human beings.

The close bonds of friendship formed in the camp are amply demonstrated in an episode where one of the younger women, Sally Markham, finds herself increasingly reliant on the support of nurse Nellie Keene as her pregnancy reaches full term. One evening, Sally goes into premature labour and gives birth to a stillborn baby – Nellie subsequently moves into Sally’s hut to help her get over her loss. As the two spend more and more time together, rumours begin spreading and feelings run high in the camp over whether their friendship is “unnatural”. Eventually, Sally learns of the gossip when she discovers graffiti on the latrine wall declaring that “Nellie and Sally are filthy perverts,” and the two agree they must distance their relationship. Nellie moves back to her own hut. Nellie and Sally are both very likeable characters, gaining considerable sympathy from the audience as their relationship had developed over the last few weeks – allegedly writer Jill Hyem was permitted to develop two of the more sympathetic internees as “special friends” but was forbidden to make any explicit references to lesbianism in her script. In contrast to the overheated, clunkingly telegraphed and atrociously self-important “bums on seats” sensationalism that proliferates through much contemporary soap opera, this episode explores notions of emotional closeness and the subtle intricacies of sexuality with a genuine sense of reflection, sensitivity and seriousness within its own proscribed, provincial limits. The direction of this episode is also notable since scenes of Sally wandering around the camp (her waters having broken) searching for Nellie are intercut with a scene of the others attempting to retain some vestige of normality to their existence in the camp, gathering for an evening’s entertainment with a general knowledge contest organised by Rose. The spectacle of these genteel, middle-class women dressed in rags, an incongruity in itself, settling down to play parlour games amidst the squalor and despair around them is hilarious yet deeply moving, and Stephanie Beacham’s mannered delivery of lines such as “First question is for you, Sylvia. If you fail to answer it, I shall pass it over to Beatrice for a bonus point,” is just right.

Moving from the seventh and easily the best episode of the first series, the theme of rarefied artifice forms an implicit tenet of the second series. After celebrating Christmas together, the internees are separated and marched through the jungle to a new camp, where they soon realise they will have to learn to adapt all over again. At this point, we are introduced to a number of new characters – Miss Hasan, the corrupt, mean-spirited interpreter who runs the camp for the non-English speaking commandant, elderly ex-suffragette and reluctant aristocrat Joss Holbrook and Verna Johnson, the genteel camp representative who is in charge of “distribution”. The new camp turns out to have much better facilities than the women’s previous huts with mattresses, running water and gardens – and yet these comparatively more desirable quarters hide an unpalatable, repressive interior. Upon arrival, the women’s clothes are taken away for boiling and disintegrate whilst being disinfected and they are charged for replacement garments. The rich and privileged internees rule the roost by paying the others to do their work for them forming a discipline committee to enforce their will; there is a swearbox for women caught swearing. All of this seems utterly at odds with the women’s achievements in the first camp breaking down the boundaries between them. The harsh, clipped regime of the speciously refined Verna is almost diametrically opposed to the warmth and moral integrity of Marion’s leadership in the first series. The overall tone of the second series is noticeably much darker than previously; if the original run depicted the women coping with an appalling ordeal with humour, teamwork and optimism, series two sees that hope and companionship largely eradicated. Personal values and priorities have changed dramatically, displaced by an all-encompassing pragmatism and the need to survive at all costs. A key storyline during the second series involved the women being given new clothes and make-up and ordered to dress up for a propaganda visit as a Japanese general arrives at the camp for a whitewash inspection; the sham being revealed when a prisoner commits suicide. Later, the issue of collaboration with the enemy is addressed as Rose, planning a secret rendezvous with her fiancée interned at a nearby men’s camp, is betrayed by another internee desperate to acquire food for her young son.

The second series climaxed with the camp being an accidental direct hit in an Allied bombing raid (by which time Tenko had established itself as the BBC’s top-rated drama, gaining an average of 14 million viewers throughout its run) and it could all have ended there. The programme was however recommissioned for a third run by Michael Grade in 1984 after over a year’s absence from the schedules, and indeed a change in format gives the third series a substantially different feel from what has gone on before. A genuinely creative choice in response to the programme’s internal logic rather than an abrupt overhaul of characters and conceits, the third series takes the surviving women out of the confines of the camp back to Singapore – and freedom. Inevitably, the more pronounced reliance on period detail and the narrative “jump” to July 1945 betrays the elements of jarring contrivance inherent in the return to any television serial. The opening shot of the camp graveyard in the first episode arbitrarily excises Blanche and Verna (two of the prime movers during series two) from the proceedings – Louise Jameson, off to spend five years in Jersey, and Rosemary Martin having been unavailable for filming.

There is however much to be savoured as the women attempt to adapt to their new situation, and in some cases, rebuild shattered lives with loved ones who cannot understand. The scrounging Dorothy begins stealing items from the hotel because they aren’t handouts while Joss delights in the taste of gin-slings and Attlee’s election victory. Beatrice feels old and used up after her efforts in the camps with only the promise of testifying against the Japanese administration that deliberately withheld medical supplies from the women to sustain her in this new, uncertain world – when she finally gives her evidence, she lapses into incoherent hysterics. The Malayans’ dissatisfaction with being back under the British yoke and petitioning for independence forms the impetus for Christina’s increasing politicisation while Marion finds herself reunited with her army husband Clifford, who expects married life to go on as normal. Their strained post-war relationship comes to a head when Marion declares that in the camp, “I was a leader, a person in my own right. I can’t go back to being a decoration.” Marion wants a job, Clifford offers her another baby – following an unfortunate tendency of many female-centred television dramas, the men in Tenko are shown to have a limited understanding of the real situation. However, Marion and Clifford decide that, despite their differences, they still love each other too much to end their marriage. Here Tenko is no idle, two-dimensional feminist tract – the series advocates mutual respect, not only between women but also between women and their men as the only meaningful option. Even Mrs Van Meyer, formerly an overly stereotyped object of ridicule, is finally given some depth; revealed to be trapped in a loveless marriage with a philandering husband who turns out, with all due irony, to be alive and well (having collaborated during the war) and waiting for her to join him. The series concludes as the women are repatriated back to Britain to begin their new lives, but returned a year later for a Christmas special, Tenko Reunion, by popular demand – the final episode of the third series having been watched by 16.8 million viewers. As Marion, Beatrice, Christina and the others gather at Raffles Hotel in 1950 to reminisce about life in the camps and plan for the future, Tenko ends on a somewhat contrived but nevertheless upbeat and engrossing note.

Tenko debuted on BBC1 in the same year as Brideshead Revisited was shown on ITV and it is difficult to imagine two more vastly differing manifestations of “period” drama. The brief resurgence of a newly confident British cinema and television in the early 1980s had facilitated the development of the “heritage” drama, an evocation of iconic Englishness primarily for overseas consumption. As Brideshead Revisited begat The Jewel in the Crown and The Far Pavilions, so the film Chariots of Fire (also released in 1981) was followed by Heat and Dust and A Room with a View. These productions attain a veneer of respectable “quality” drama in terms of their visual style foregrounding picturesque locations (Oxbridge, country mansions) and invariably uncritical narrative concern with the upper classes. All of these texts have something valid to say about the construction of British national identity in narrative fictions, and yet it is Tenko, gaining maximum mileage out of its credentials as BBC costume drama, that takes the most quietly questioning, analytical approach.

In contrast to the above programmes, Tenko‘s setting precludes the employment of facile nostalgia in the form of dress and décor, the drama works as an interpretation of historical events rather than as period reconstruction. Painting grand brush strokes on the broad canvas provided by its historical context, Tenko is not merely the story of a fictional camp and the women imprisoned within it – as the women are forced into manual labour and reduced to the status of coolies, the series offers insight into Britain’s decline as an autonomous world power. At the beginning of the series, Singapore is a colonial paradise that epitomises pre-war upper-class opulence. The third series and Tenko Reunion however take place mainly in a diminished Raffles Hotel, now a centre for incoming refugees. The gradual change of consciousness during the dissolution of Empire is conveyed as a major theme of the episodes taking place in the camp as the women prisoners overcome the differences in race, class and age between them. It is perhaps significant that a key character in the first series, Sylvia Ashburton, an elderly, spirited, outrageously racist and excessively patriotic general’s wife and true exemplar of the old Raj (she refuses to sleep next to Christina in the hut and mutters “God Save The King” when being forced to bow before the Japanese), remains just this side of caricature, whilst as the camp leader Marion is soon obliged to become rather more moderate and co-operative in her clashes with commandant Yamauchi.

It would be true to argue that the Japanese officers are, in comparison with their captives, a somewhat two-dimensional bunch yet the writers avoid xenophobia, presenting aspects of Japanese culture with integrity and giving Yamauchi’s character dialogue about European imperialist exploitation of Asia. Marion, adhering to Tenko‘s largely revisionist, politically correct perspective, does not argue the point. Yamauchi in fact receives some character development in the third series albeit in somewhat obtrusive, opportunistic dollops – it is revealed that his daughter and baby grandson were living in Nagasaki at the time of the Allied bombing. In a touching scene later in the series, Marion openly defies her husband by visiting Yamauchi in the Singapore prison where he awaits trial. She informs him that the diary she had been writing in the camp will be used as evidence against him in the forthcoming war crimes trials whereupon Yamauchi reveals his knowledge of the diary, confessing that he had turned a blind eye when Christina stole paper from the office for the other women. Marion apologises that she no longer has control over her writing, being all too aware that the truth is not as clear-cut as the diary (like all other historical journals) appears to say.

In short, Tenko was pioneering television, creating a space for a previously overlooked history of women in wartime. The serial element of the shifting, developing relationships between the characters gave its three seasons a soap opera flavour that is intriguing and unusual for historical drama, which mainly bases its plots around format characters and established events. Its innovations in aligning broad thematic concerns with the structures of serial drama were sincere and original, developing and playing out a number of ongoing storylines simultaneously within one episode. With its ensemble cast there were occasional dips into cosiness but for the most part Tenko is humane, intelligent drama; thoughtfully written, sensitively acted, admirably attuned to ambiguity and in many cases, so underrated that it hurts. It is a series fondly remembered by both the public and its participants – Stephanie Cole, Stephanie Beacham and Louise Jameson have all cited their roles in the programme as highlights in their respective careers. One of the most-requested BBC repeats and video releases of all time, the fact that the series has been repeated three times on both UK Gold and UK Drama rather speaks for itself. Only a single episode (the first episode of the third series) has been repeated on terrestrial television to commemorate the 50th anniversary of V-J Day in 1995 and the entire first series of Tenko (comprising 10 episodes) was made available on video early in 1997. BBC Worldwide’s tardiness in releasing any further episodes (amidst a torrent of tapes featuring Rhodes, Nostromo and boxed sets of Tinsel Town) amply demonstrates their cavalier attitude towards both their archive and audience. A pity, because viewed again today, as contemporary television is loaded to saturation point with opulently mounted yet utterly hollow and soulless adaptations of historical “classics”, Tenko gamely cuts through the crap of this overcrowded genre and actually offers something substantial to put in its place.

And Burt Kwouk was pretty good in it too.