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This is the main title caption that was seen throughout the series.
Format Drama
Created by Lavinia Warner
Starring Ann Bell
Stephanie Cole
Stephanie Beacham
Louise Jameson
Patricia Lawrence
Veronica Roberts
Emily Bolton
Elizabeth Chambers
Claire Oberman
Jean Anderson
Burt Kwouk
Rosemary Martin
Country of origin United Kingdom
No. of episodes 31
Running time 50 minutes
Original channel BBC
Original run 1981 – 1985

Tenko is a television drama, co-produced by the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) and the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation). A total of thirty episodes was produced between 1981 and 1984, followed by a one-off special (which was twice the length of the other episodes), Tenko Reunion, in 1985.

The series dealt with the experiences of British, Australian and Dutch women who were captured after the fall of Singapore in February 1942, after the Japanese invasion, and held in a Japanese internment camp on a Japanese-occupied island between Singapore and Australia. Tenko 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, the women have to learn to cope with appalling living conditions, malnutrition, disease, violence and death.

Tenko was created by Lavinia Warner after she had conducted research into the internment of nursing corps officer Margot Turner (1910–1993) for an edition of This Is Your Life and was convinced of the dramatic potential of the stories of women prisoners of the Japanese.[1] Aside from the first two episodes, set in Singapore, which were written by Paul Wheeler, the series was written by Jill Hyem and Anne Valery.

Due to high production costs, only the first two episodes of the first series were filmed on location in Singapore. For the majority of series 1 and 2, set in the camp, the programme was filmed in a specially constructed set in Dorset.


Major characters

The major characters who featured in all three series and the reunion telemovie were:

Only Ann Bell, Stephanie Cole and Claire Oberman appeared in all thirty regular episodes plus the reunion. Episodes were missed by Elizabeth Chambers in Series 1, Emily Bolton in Series 2, Veronica Roberts in Series 1 and 3 and Patricia Lawrence in Series 2 and 3.

First series

The first series establishes the pre-war lives of many of the characters before chronicling the fall of Singapore and the evacuation of British nationals from the city. The first two episodes set in Singapore focus on the characters Marion Jefferson, Vicky Armstrong, Rose Millar, Doctor Beatrice Mason, nurse Kate Norris, nurse Nellie Keane, Christina Campbell and Sister Ulrica. Due to the severity of attacks by the Japanese on Singapore, many women and men are evacuated aboard a ship to sail for Australia; however, the ship is torpedoed and sinks in the Java Sea.

Vicky Armstrong, Marion's best friend, drowns after the ship sinks; however, all the other major characters survive and gather on a beach where they are subsequently captured by Japanese soldiers. The women are separated from the men (including Kate's boyfriend Tom Redburn (Daniel Hill) and Rose's boyfriend Bernard Webster (Edmund Pegge), who are marched elsewhere. The women are marched through the jungle to a makeshift camp which has appalling living conditions where they meet other women who have also been captured by the Japanese. These include tarty Cockney Blanche Simmons (Louise Jameson), newlywed Sally Markham (Joanna Hole), mother and daughter Judith (Ann Queensberry) and Debbie Bowen (Karin Foley), and Sylvia Ashburton (Renée Asherson), a haughty general's wife and friend of Marion.

All the women are interned under Commandant Yamauchi (Burt Kwouk), a deeply traditional Japanese soldier, who regards the prisoners as "fourth-class women". His sadistic deputy, Lieutenant Sato (Eiji Kusuhara), is dubbed "Satan" by the inmates. Conditions in the camp are harsh: no clean water, rats, no mosquito nets and little more than rice and water for the inmates to eat and drink. A group of Dutch prisoners is also interned in the camp shortly, notably their leader, Sister Ulrica, and the rich, selfish Mrs. Van Meyer.

The first series chronicles the women's first year in captivity, focusing on their efforts to adjust to being interned and to their new Dutch companions, learning to work together as a community while the hope of 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 sick bay.

From the onset of being interned in the camp, the women agree they need a spokesperson to represent them all, and Marion Jefferson is nominated as the leader for the British. Initially, several of the women and Marion herself have doubts regarding her ability to lead them due to her only experience being as a wife and a mother. However, over time she proves herself more than capable.

The close bonds of friendship formed in the camp are amply demonstrated between Sally Markham and Nurse Nellie Keane. Upon arrival at the camp, Sally learns she is pregnant and finds herself increasingly reliant on the support of Nellie as her pregnancy reaches full term. Sally goes into premature labour and gives birth to a still-born 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". Nellie finds herself falling in love with Sally, but this is not reciprocated by Sally who sees Nellie as just a friend. Eventually, Sally learns of the gossip when she discovers graffiti on the latrine wall. Nellie moves back to her own hut and throws herself into the sick bay, eventually forging a close friendship with Beatrice Mason during the end of the series.

Dorothy Bennett is interned in the camp with her newborn baby Violet, after seeing her husband Dennis shot by the Japanese on the beach. As a result she has become despondent and distant from Violet but, when she does turn her attention to her baby, it is clear that she needs milk as her breast milk has dried up. As a result, she turns to smuggling milk from the trader's wife that come to the camp selling food. However, the trader's wife is caught, staked out in the camp and left to die. As Dorothy can no longer feed Violet, the baby dies and Dorothy turns away from her fellow internees to prostitution, selling herself to the guards for food and cigarettes.

Early on in the camp, all medicines are collected when Beatrice Mason realises they have very little in the way of medical supplies in relation to the increasing amount of sickness. Eventually the women erect a sick bay from a burned-down hut within the camp in order to separate the sick from the other prisoners.

When red cross parcels are delivered to the camp but not distributed, Blanche, Rose and Dorothy all sneak to the guards hut to check the contents of the parcels but are caught by the guards. Dorothy and Blanche tell Rose she must go along with the guards in order to secure the medicines, even if that means sleeping with them, but Rose refuses. The guards attempt to rape them but are stopped by other guards due to the screams from Rose. However, Dorothy lies to the commandant and say's it was the women's fault and not the guards. As such Blanche and Rose spend some time in the punishment hut and are tied to the stakes out in the sun with no food or water, Dorothy escapes the punishment as Yamauchi assumes she is the one telling the truth and Blanche and Rose are lying about the attempted rapes. After Dorothy admits she was lying to the commandant Blanche takes revenge by attacking her and the women learn not to trust Dorothy.

Judith Bowen contracts malaria and although she survives the first bout after Blanche Simmons has stolen quinine from the red cross parcels, she later dies when it returns for a second time. After this, Blanche forges an escape plan telling only Rose, with whom she has become good friends. However, Debbie learns of the escape and tells Blanche she must take her with her or she will inform the commandant. Rose and Marion learn that Debbie has escaped with Blanche and tell the commandant as Rose fears Blanche will never make it with Debbie and Marion had been asked by Judith to look after her. They are both recaptured and staked for a period of time. Blanche blames Rose for her betrayal whereas Rose was only trying to protect Blanche knowing she would not survive with Debbie.

Christina Campbell is initially very scared when brought to the camp, having just buried her mother in Singapore and faces racism from Sylvia Ashburton at the beginning of the series. She forges a close friendship with Rose Millar and eventually begins working for commandant Yamauchi as an interpreter and personal assistant.

At the end of the series the internees are informed they must move to another camp, Mrs.Van Meyer has contracted Beri Beri, Beatrice Mason is finding it hard to cope with no medical supplies and a list of all male prisoners alive on the island is given to the women. Sally's husband, Peter, is not on the list acknowledging that he is dead. The series ends with the women on yet another long march into the jungle.

Second series

As the second series opens, the prisoners have been split into two groups and are on the long trek to a new camp. The first episode deals with the long march through the jungle, the realisation that after being split into two groups, the other group (including Blanche, Nellie & Sylvia) have been sent to a different camp. Sally Markham is seriously depressed after learning that her husband, Peter, may be dead, Mrs. Van Meyer has recovered from Beri-Beri and Debbie Bowen dies from a spider bite along the journey. A new prisoner, tough-as-boots aristocrat Jocelyn "Joss" Holbrook (Jean Anderson), is introduced to the group whom they meet whilst on the way to the new camp. Beatrice Mason is distraught that Nellie Keane is no longer to be sent to the same camp as is Rose knowing that Blanche will no longer join them, though will not admit it.

Once at the new camp the prisoners find the way the camp is run very different to that of the first. It is effectively run by Miss Hasan (Josephine Welcome), a corrupt, mean-spirited interpreter who runs the camp for the non-English speaking commandant, who has installed her own leader, Verna Johnson (Rosemary Martin)Verna is a "collaborator" who ensures she is excused manual labour and is in control of the camp's food supplies. The young orphaned Daisy Robertson (Anna Lindup) serves as Verna's maid who Verna also uses to spread gossip around the camp.

Upon arrival, Marion is reunited with an old schoolfriend, Lillian Cartland (Philippa Urquhart), who is a prisoner at the new camp with her son, Bobby. Beatrice Mason, suffering from fatigue, is initially hospitalized for a brief time. However she then finds herself working for Dr. Natalie Trier (Carolle Rousseau) who was already interned at the camp and finds it difficult to fit into her routine. Additionally, throughout the series Beatrice Mason's eyesight worsens due to malnutrition which leads certain women to question her ability as a doctor.

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. Having being stripped of her previous duties of being leader, Verna attempts to bridge the gap by giving her a position on the discipline committee, to which Marion finds is literally run by Verna.

The overall tone of the second series is noticeably much darker with the first series depicting 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.

Christina Campbell is removed from the camp early on to work as an official interpreter elsewhere, which sends Sally Markham further into depression as Christina had been tending to Sally during her depression. During a visit by a Japanese General, the women are given new clothes and make-up and ordered to dress up for a propaganda visit for a whitewash inspection of the entire camp, Sally commits suicide by slashing her wrists with a mirror she has purchased from Verna Johnson and found in the wash-hut by the General covered in blood.

The women are blamed for Sally's suicide and are given less rations and more work as a result. Early on in arriving at the new camp, Dorothy Bennett finds herself pregnant by one of the guards and, organised by Verna Johnson, Beatrice Mason performs an abortion. Sister Ulrica confesses to the visiting priest of knowing about such an act and is sent to a nunnery.

Throughout the series Lillian Cartland becomes more and more concerned regarding Bobby's health and sells everything she owns to Verna in order to buy food for Bobby, to the end becoming obsessive regarding his health. Additionally Dorothy forges a close "friendship" with one of the guards, Shinya, whom she gives English lessons to in return for cigarettes.

Later in the series, viewers learn that Yamouchi is the new district commander and he removes the commandant of the camp and installs Captain Sato as the new commandant. Blanche Simmons is shifted to the new camp after Marion requests more information on their old friends from Yamouchi and announces that Sylvia Ashburton has died of cholera, however is non-committal to the fate of Nellie Keane to Beatrice Mason. Christina Campbell is also reunited with her friends bringing with her news of the men's camp and that both Rose's Bernard and Kate's Tom are both alive, news which she has gained from one of the natives.

By acting as a "go-between", Christina passes notes between Rose and Bernard via the native and eventually they arrange to meet. Aided with Blanche, who initially when learning of Debbie's death, took out the hurt on Rose, Rose meets Bernard outside of the camp. However, due to rations being cut even further, her application for repatriation refused and desperate for food for her young son, Bobby, Lillian Cartland has learned of the meeting and informs Miss.Hasan in exchange for food. The guards are alerted and find Rose and Bernard, shooting them both. Bernard is killed instantly but Rose survives, after a life saving operation by Beatrice Mason and Kate Norris (Dr. Trier having already left for her repatriation by this point), where they remove a bullet. This leaves Rose paralysed from the waist down, as her condition worsens later on in the series Blanche asks Beatrice to suffocate her in order to end her suffering which Beatrice refuses to do. However the next day Beatrice announces that Rose died peacefully in her sleep, viewers never knowing whether Beatrice did end Rose's life or not.

Initially everyone blames Christina, after Verna informs Daisy that Christina betrayed Rose stating she informed Miss Hasan of the meeting between Rose and Bernard, knowing Daisy will spread this information amongst the prisoners. However, Marion finds out that her old friend, Lillian, effectively sold Rose for food and is unable to keep this secret. News of the deception spreads around the camp and for what it has caused for Rose this creates friction with the internees, certainly Blanche and Dorothy. They attack Lillian and hack off her hair. Fearful of other repercussions, Yamouchi and Miss Hasan send Lillian and her son Bobby to another camp where they are not known.

Dorothy also learns that it was Shinya who shot both Rose and Bernard and although she initially refuses to speak with him anymore, he tells her he is leaving the camp to fight in the war and unbeknown to the other women Dorothy forgives him.

The second series ends on a cliffhanger of sorts, the women learn that Verna Johnson has been retaining red cross parcels and selling the contents to the rest of the prisoners so as to make money. They set about exposing her to Yamouchi but before they can the camp receives a direct hit during an Allied bombing raid on the local Japanese headquarters, seriously injuring many of the prisoners including Daisy, whose arm is in threads, Captain Sato and killing both Miss Hasan and Shinya, who was on his way from leaving the camp.

Third series

Between the second and third series, a year passed. The controller of BBC1 decided to axe Tenko at the height of its popularity at the end of the second series (it was the BBC's then highest rated drama programme). This was believed to be due to the fact that women were engines of the story with no aspect of men represented. Michael Grade then assumed the role of controller and immediately re-instated the programme which led to there being a third series.

The third series opens with the liberation of the prisoners-of-war, amidst the end of the war and the return of Singapore to British control. All of the returning POW's make a difficult adjustment to civilian life showing the mostly ill, emaciated women receiving comparatively little counselling, returning and essentially being expected to carry on with life as normal, whilst their deceased comrades largely remained buried in the camps deep in the Sumatran jungle.

The first episode starts with a shot of the graveyard in the new camp, displaying the grave markers for Verna Johnson, Daisy Robertson and Blanche Simmons, who has just died of beri-beri (in real life Louise Jameson was appearing in Bergerac and could not appear in the show and the character, Maggie Thorpe, was created as a carbon copy of Blanche Simmons). No details were provided as to the deaths of Verna Johnson or Daisy Robertson.

Christina Campbell still works for Major Yamouchi and Captain Sato is in charge of the camp. Beatrice Mason's eyesight is now much worse and Kate Norris is, in effect, performing nearly all of the hospital duties. Upon liberation the storecupboard is opened by Major Yamouchi to the women containing food, clothing and most importantly medicines that had been held back and had cost many women their lives.

By episode three the women have returned to Singapore and later are joined by the return of Sister Ulrica.

Dorothy and Maggie Thorpe (Elizabeth Mickery) befriend local businessman Jake Haulter (Damien Thomas), Joss is re-acquainted with an old friend, Stephen Wentworth (Preston Lockwood) and Marion's marriage to Clifford (Jonathan Newth) — now a brigadier — suffers because of his expectation that she would return to the life of a docile army wife.

The viewers also learn that Lillian Cartland and Bobby survived and were sent to England immediately to avoid any trouble with the other women.

The third series follows Clifford's work in bringing war crimes charges against the Japanese, including a personal vendetta to indict Yamauchi for his role in imprisoning Marion and the others. Because of her unique relationship with Yamauchi, Marion and the commandant came to a grudging respect for one another through the turbulent events of the first two series, Marion (as well as Christina and Ulrica) refuses to testify against Yamauchi, further estranging Clifford. The women also suffer one final loss as Joss Holbrook dies after being attacked. The series ends with the leave-taking of the friends who have been through so much together, with a promise to that 'no matter where they are in the world' they will meet up again in five years time.


The series was praised for its bold storytelling, and outstanding performances from its leads.

Creator, Lavinia Warner, initially found it difficult to get 'Tenko' commissioned, as this was the 1970s when mostly men ran the organization and no other programme existed which featured simply women. However, the then Director General of the BBC did commission 'Tenko' and some say that if not for Tenko, programmes such as 'Footballers Wives' and 'Bad Girls' would not exist.

Despite its comparatively modest production values, it has been favourably compared to big-budget versions of what is essentially the same story, such as the Bruce Beresford film Paradise Road.

Tenko can also be regarded as an interesting fusion of historical drama and soap opera, with its focus on the more personal aspects of living in the camp and its handling of issues such as rape, stillbirth, lesbianism, suicide, abortion and euthanasia within the context of 1940s morality.

Tenko Reunion

In 1985, a two-hour special, Tenko Reunion, was produced. It picked up a story thread from the final episode of the series, in which the surviving prisoners of war, on the eve of their repatriation from Singapore, had made a promise to reunite five years later, at Raffles Hotel—a fixture in their pre-war lives, which also served as a repatriation centre during the liberation of Singapore.

Tenko Reunion featured Marion Jefferson (Ann Bell) now divorced from Clifford; Dr Beatrice Mason (Stephanie Cole) and Christina Campbell (Emily Bolton) now working in a community centre in Singapore, Sister Ulrica (Patricia Lawrence) doing missionary work in Asia, Domenica Forster-Brown (Elizabeth Chambers), the now happily re-married Mrs Van Meyer, nurse and now doctor-in-training Kate Norris (Clare Oberman), young Alice Courtenay (Cindy Shelley) and working class girls Dorothy Bennett (Veronica Roberts) and Maggie Carter (Elizabeth Mickery), now a successful businesswoman and married mother of two, respectively.

The reunion examined how each of their lives had changed, and how life in Singapore was also changing. In a dramatic twist, the women are held at gunpoint at the plantation on the estate of Domenica Forster-Brown—after one among them passes information that there is a cache of guns on the estate to a band of local communist rebels.

It featured Domenica's new husband Teddy Forster-Brown (Robert Lang, Ann Bell's real life husband until his death), Christina Campbell's boyfriend, Lau Peng (Swee Hoe Lim) and a young doctor who catches Kate Norris's eye, Duncan Fraser (Christian Rodska).

The major twist of the Tenko Reunion was the revelation that it was one of the women who had betrayed them to the communist rebels. The spy was revealed to be Christina Campbell, whose difficulty adjusting after life in the camps had been developed in detail in the third series.

Christina's experience with racism—from Sylvia Ashburton's "Raj"-style disdain for her in the first series, to the difficulties of being caught between the British establishment in Singapore, and her Chinese appearance, had stoked the fires of rebellion in her. She secretly worked for the rebels, hoping to trigger independence for Singapore on their terms.

The series concluded at a subsequent reunion, this one at Christmas, at Marion's home in London, attended by Dominica, Alice, Jake, Stephen, Bea, Marion, Maggie, and Dorothy, with brief glimpses of Kate, Ulrica, and Duncan serving Christmas dinner to the poor at the community centre in Singapore, and Christina — alone and unrepentant — in her prison cell.

DVD release

The complete series of Tenko is available on DVD (Region 2, UK and Region 4, Australia) through Acorn Media UK.


  1. ^ Warner and Sandilands Women Beyond the Wire: A Story of Prisoners of the Japanese 1942-45 1982 dustjacket

External links

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