Tenko (BBC-1 1981-1985, Ann Bell, Stephanie Beacham)

Tenko was a BBC drama series set during World War II and hugely popular during its TV run in the early 1980’s. Tenko covered a subject that hadn’t really been covered before.

Opening in Singapore in 1941 it focuses on a group of women, from all walks of life, who find themselves rounded up by the invading Japanese when they invade. At first pushed from pillar to post they are forced to embark on a long trek accompanied by a trio of Japanese guards to a prison camp where they would sit out the war.

The women were mostly strong characters and were led by the somewhat stuffy Marion Jefferson (played by Ann Bell), also prominent were forthright Dutch nun Sister Ulrica, Dr Beatrice Mason, one of her nurses, the Australian Kate Norris and outspoken Rose Millar (Stephanie Beacham).

Initial location filming for the series took place in Singapore including scenes shot inside the famous Raffles hotel, the BBC then created a purpose built set amongst a gravel pit in Dorset. Studio shot interiors were also given that authentic sheen of the monsoon climate simply by turning the heating up and the air conditioning off.

Series 2 picked up on the story in 1942 with the women led by the stalwart Marion Jefferson (played by Ann Bell) having to face a wearying hazardous march to a new camp, when the arrive at the their new camp they are surprised by how good the conditions are but are not pleased when they learn that the vile Verna Johnson (who is in charge of the women at the new camp) is overly nice to the Japs in order to maintain conditions.

The women have to now try and adjust to their new surroundings, no longer intent on escape but more concerned with plain survival, with one of the women, Dorothy, turning to prostitution with the guards.

The third series saw a major change in style as the war ended and the women regained their freedom. Of course their world has changed so much that they cannot be the same people they were before and they all have trouble adapting to “real life” again.

By the end of episode two the camp has been liberated by the Australians and the girls are all but ready to lynch the Japanese (however the steadfast Marion Jefferson manages to restore some kind of English decency. Later the women are ensconced in luxury at the famous Raffles hotel getting used to being able to have baths with hot water and trying to discover the whereabouts of their families.

The elderly Joss gets heavily involved in setting up a health centre with the equally aged Stephen Wentworth (the legendary Preston Lockwood) Marion meanwhile is finding it hard to settle back into life as a wife (her husband Clifford is in charge of the hunt for war criminals) after having been the leader of the women at the camp. By series end the women are all going their separate ways but agree to meet five years later for a reunion at Raffles.

Series creator Lavinia Warner had hit upon the idea for Tenko whilst researching a This Is Your Life on real life internee Margo Turner and it’s easy to see why it became such a success, strong scripts featuring strong women, no wonder the cast loved working on it, there are so few outlets for female actresses at the best of times, Tenko of course provided a whole multitude of quality roles. In fact it would be fair to say that the series was the highlight of the careers of much of those involved in the series.

26 December 1985 saw a 90 minute special set in the fifties and called Tenko Reunion, this did catch up with the girls five years later.

Two days before the first series began the BBC broadcast a 13 minute introduction to the show.

production details
UK / BBC One / 30×55 minute episodes 1×90 minute episode / Broadcast 22 October 1981 – 16 December 1985

Creator: Lavinia Warner / Script Editors: Evgeny Gridneff (seasons 1-20, Devora Pope (season 3) / Music: James Harpham / Producers: Ken Riddington (seasons 1 and 3), Vere Lorrimer (season 2),

Ann Bell as Marion Jefferson
Stephanie Beacham as Rose Millar
Claire Oberman as Kate Norris
Stephanie Cole as Beatrice Mason
Jeananne Crowley as Nellie Keane
Patricia Lawrence as Sister Ulrica
Emily Bolton as Christina Campbell
Elizabeth Chambers as Mrs Van Meyer
Burt Kwouk as Captain Yamauchi
Eiji Kusuhara as Lieutenant Sato
Louise Jameson as Blanche Simmons
Renée Asherson as Sylvia Ashburton
Joanna Hole as Sally Markham
Veronica Roberts as Dorothy Bennett
Ann Queensberry as Judith Bowen
Karin Foley as Debbie Bowen
Takashi Kawahara as Shinya

Alastair James is the editor in chief for Memorable TV. He has been involved in media since his university days. Alastair is passionate about television, and some of his favourite shows include Line of Duty, Luther and Traitors. He is always on the lookout for hot new shows, and is always keen to share his knowledge with others.