9 March 2003 | chuffnobbler
Without doubt, Tenko is one of the BBC's most successful and popular drama series. Never repeated on BBC television, and only the first season available on video (and long since deleted), Tenko still holds strong and popular places in the memories of its audience. I managed to record the whole run on its recent digital television rerun, and became hooked, sometimes watching six episodes in one sitting.
Forcing a group of women to survive in a prison camp, Tenko explores the very human dramas, emotions and personality clashes that arise from this unbearable situation. We spend three-and-a-half years in the company of this group. They have little food, no clean water and no medication or sanitation. Forced into slave labour, sleeping on bare boards, the stresses and strains of their predicament are entirely believable, and make for edge of the seat viewing. Perfectly written (the series was created by a woman who survived a Japanese prison camp) and perfectly acted; blessed with truly amazing make-up (some of the women really do look starving, emaciated, covered in blisters and sunburn); some of the cast have only one dress to wear for the entire series. The human tragedy and awful, grinding horror of prison camp life is unforgettable.
The first series deals with the Japanese invasion of Singapore, disrupting lives of the ex-pats living in the British colony. Forced to evacuate, the survivors fall into Japanese hands, and we follow some of the women into prison. Mentioning "the survivors" is a very relevant point. Tenko is not afraid to show that life in this condition can result in awful, lingering death. Characters whom we grow to know and love, to understand and empathise with, are struck down with beriberi, cholera, malaria. The aching sadness and genuine humanity of Tenko is truly remarkable. Gradually revealing more about the characters, their past lives, and their hopes for the future, piles on the emotion, making it absolutely unmissable. There were some scenes I found I was watching while holding my breath, not wishing to disrupt the heart-and-soul being displayed onscreen.
Season two moves the women to a new camp, offloading several en route and picking up some new faces. The new camp, although better equipped, has a very different regime, and introduces us to Miss Hasan, the malicious and spiteful right-hand woman to the Commandant. The second half of season two deals with a prisoner receiving a gunshot wound: operating on her in a hut full of flies, with just a pair of sugar-tongs to remove the bullet, is absolutely gripping.
Season three deals with the war drawing to a close, and the survivors' return to Singapore. Their struggles to return to "normal" and realisation that they may have had more freedom in prison, away from the strictures of post-war austerity, are perfectly played.
No-one involved in Tenko has a happy ending. There's a definite feeling that, as the survivors climb about the ship to return to the UK, they have lost everything, and are fragile and broken. The horrors they've witnessed and cruelty they faced daily, will be with them forever more. Those who escaped Japanese capture will never understand.
Tenko is a real masterwork. One of the most intense and powerful pieces of television I have ever seen. Careful touches throughout the series never fail to amaze: Commandant Yamuchi occasionally allowing his humanity and honour to shine (witness the scene in season one where he stands beside a newly dug grave, lost in thought); old-fashioned bigot Sylvia Ashburton gradually letting her prejudices slip as she realises everyone is the same, underneath; season two's black marketeer Verna Johnson losing sight of her pole position in the camp as the war takes a turn for the worse; Dorothy Bennett's uncomfortably close relationship with some of the guards; Lillian's love for her young son gradually driving her mad; Sister Ulrica being forced to make decisions she would not make in the "real" world; Doctor Mason's horror at the death and disease she cannot solve ... Tenko is a special thing. Not to be missed, under any circumstances.