Admittedly, I've come to Tenko in the twilight of my years and have only recently started watching the series properly. My acquaintance with it until this point had occurred tangentially either through the careers of Louise Jameson or Stephanie Beacham or by dint of the edition of Drama Connections devoted to the series in 2005. I certainly knew about it and its reputation.
Tenko inevitably settled into my orbit since I'd recently been reacquainting myself with the likes of Colditz (1972-74), finally released on DVD in 2010, Enemy at the Door (1978-80) and Secret Army (1977-79) and because I remain genuinely interested in the British experience of World War II and the upheavals of the post-war period.
As is clearly demonstrated in the book's 760-page exploration of how the series developed, Tenko set out to tell a war time story of privation and hardship based on the rarely discussed experiences of women prisoners of war. It was a subject that Tenko creator Lavinia Warner, who grew up 'absolutely fascinated by the war', gave further and much needed exposure when she became a television researcher on one of her favourite programmes, This is Your Life. In 1977 an edition of This is Your Life provided the springboard to the development of Tenko when Lavinia brought together POW camp survivors in a reunion with the extraordinary Dame Margot Turner, a nurse in Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps, who survived the Japanese attack on Singapore in 1942 and then spent three and a half years interned on Banka Island.
'Women supporting and relying on each other and constantly testing the notion of sisterhood.'
The experiences documented in Women in Captivity reflected the ambitions for Tenko, a drama that would depict women 'as themselves according to their true natures... forced to set up their own structures, devise and apply their own politics and social order and discipline... to adapt, to be resourceful and inventive. Women supporting and relying on each other and constantly testing the notion of sisterhood.' Warner's convictions blaze brightly in the opening chapters of Andy Priestner's book and these are replicated in the highly detailed format documents that she eventually put together for each series of Tenko.
What also strikes the reader is how pioneering Tenko was at the time. Not only was the sensitive subject matter a previously underexposed aspect of the history of conflict but the relatively unique premise of a drama tapping into the tenets of feminism, reflecting issues about legal, equal and reproductive rights, sexuality, family and the workplace and driven by an ensemble cast of female actors, was also greeted with some initial resistance by male BBC producers.
Andy follows the pitch development as Warner worked with experienced producer Richard Bates to pull together the proposed narrative and characters for Tenko. It was hoped that Bates would eventually produce the series with Warner as he was a keen advocate for the premise but circumstances prevented this from happening. Warner knew what she wanted for the series, knew the kind of stories she wanted to tell, and the original pitch, as detailed here, is absolutely on the money and pretty much sets out the stall for Tenko as seen in the first series that went out in 1981.
I also enjoyed in this section of the book how Warner's research and her experiences with former internees were crystalised into the familiar characters and informed the projected plots. Andy Priestner packs in plenty of detail about the first character breakdowns and the women internees who were their inspiration, many of whom Betty Jeffrey wrote about in White Coolies and Warner would write about with John Sandilands in Women Beyond the Wire. It's this ongoing historical and personal contextualisation shaping the characters and stories across all three series and the special that makes this story of Tenko's development so vivid and fascinating.
'that awful Tenko thing'Selling the series was another matter altogether and after getting the nod from Graeme MacDonald, Head of Series and Serials at the BBC, Warner overheard it being described as 'that awful Tenko thing' at a BBC Christmas party in 1979 and her anger at this made her only more determined to get the series off the ground. Bates brought in writer Paul Wheeler who set to work on the opening episodes and Warner set off to Singapore on a location recce. It was at this point that Bates moved on and Warner was told she could not be associate producer on the show without his commitment. Enter producer Ken Riddington and script editor Evgeny Gridneff both of whom had their doubts about Tenko and the problems generated by a series with no male leads.
These incidents might come across as naive but casual sexism on the part of Riddington, Gridneff and Askey but this does have to be put into context here because nothing like Tenko had ever been done on this scale before. As a concept it was untried, almost new territory, and is all the more remarkable because at the time female producers, writers and actors were rarely granted such visibility and responsibility and felt empowered enough to stand their ground. Tenko, as a television production, offered something of a watershed in the way television, dominated by male hierarchies, employed, depicted and inspired women.
In effect, the show was just as much a reflection of their own causes as it was of the strength of the characters and the figures they were based on. Priestner underlines this with his profiles of the two women writers who joined the team, Jill Hyem and Anne Valery, who recall Riddington's initial trepidation about the series. Another key figure was Molly Smith, who had been interned with Betty Jeffrey and many of the other women Warner had been in contact with.
She brought her own wartime experiences of the camps to the series and was there as a credited adviser with Warner to support the writers and the actors. Hyem and Valery often locked horns with producers on authenticity, character motivation and storylines and dealt with what Hyem describes as 'unconscious male censorship'. However, by the third series, Riddington had developed a good working relationship with Hyem and Valery and was praised for his ability to cast the show.
It's also striking how this drive towards authenticity affected Molly Smith. There are some very moving recollections of how Molly visited the studio recordings, with the cast in costume for the first time on the interior sets of the camp, now complete with resident cockroaches, and caught a glimpse of one of the guards. It clearly brought memories flooding back as did her visit to the Dorset exteriors when she saw the Chinese extras dressed as guards. This was compounded later when Dame Margot Turner offered her own seal of approval for the authentic exterior sets during a visit to the Moreton location.
Joining the team, after another Singapore recce, was Production Manager Michael Owen Morris. Morris would eventually become a director and helm episodes of Tenko's third series and the 1985 Tenko Reunion. He thought Wheeler's first two scripts were excellent despite Riddington's claim to the contrary that they were 'rubbish'. Looking at how Warner, Hyem and Valery developed the voice of the series, Priestner also shows the care and attention that the three women were lavishing on the development of the characters and the realities of living in a POW camp in Sumatra.
'it's all your fault, you bloody Welshman'Later chapters deal with the recruitment of director Pennant Roberts who would be instrumental in the casting of the series and creating its tone despite his own concerns with the opening scripts. The book details the creation of the 'Lucky Thirteen' ensemble of women who would film and record the first series, allowing each of them a generous biography of their talents and some engaging anecdotes about how Tenko entered their lives.
On the location shoot, this would raise further problems as one young Japanese extra found his country's wartime history something of a painful revelation. However, Tenko also made great efforts to reverse the stereotypes and invested humanity in the characters of Yamauchi and, later, Shinya, played by Takashi Kawahara.
Burt Kwouk's admonishment that 'it's all your fault, you bloody Welshman' sums up how essential Pennant was in getting the series into production and developing the early episodes. What comes across is Pennant's exceptional ability to cast good actors and his sensitivity in matching the right talent to each part that was up for grabs and taking a punt on untried actors like Joanna Hole who joined the Tenko ensemble despite having done nothing but 'one line as a French tart' in an episode of sit com Mixed Blessings directed by Pennant.
Priestner rounds up the first section of the book with a meticulously detailed examination of Tenko's production, taking us from Ealing and designer Colin Shaw's cloth boat, costumes covered in glycerine, the location shoot in Singapore, the uneasy bonding between the actors as the studio recordings began and to the construction of the camps and filming in deepest Dorset during a very hot August.
The actors recall their striving for authenticity, to honour the women they were portraying, which then extended to weight loss regimes, including the contentious use of a weighing machine in rehearsals, that almost reduced Stephanie Beacham to an anorexic state. The final studio recordings had to accommodate Louise Jameson's pregnancy, the cast's hectic social life, notes from director David Askey and a change of command in Series and Serials as David Reid replaced Graeme MacDonald. Priestner also finds room to discuss Ray Ogden's iconic title sequence and James Harpham's compelling music.
Reid wasn't keen on Tenko but was open to it continuing and discussions were already underway about a second series just as the first was about to start its run in October 1981. It's interesting to note the context in which Tenko launched, with all the favourable money on The Borgias being the huge hit of the Autumn season and competition with the debuts of Bergerac and Granada's lavish filmed series Brideshead Revisited. History has not been kind to The Borgias and it shows that perhaps the BBC wasn't really aware of what they had with Tenko.
It's debut with over 13 million viewers changed that view and a second series was in the bag. Priestner concludes his opening eleven chapters with a look at the critical and audience responses to the series (the Nancy Banks-Smith story will leave you grinning), touching on the success of the Anthony Masters novelisation and Stephanie Cole's inauguration into status as 'gay icon'. Over and above everything, there is a definite sense that Tenko's ambitions were first and foremost to honour those who had endured the hardships of the camps, ensuring it had done justice to their story.
Andy then reviews each of the thirty episodes made and transmitted between 1981 and 1984 and the Tenko Reunion feature-length special of 1985. He is as meticulous in his critiques as he is capturing the spirit and cameraderie and hard work that went into the creation and making of the series. The reviews tease out themes - religious, humanitarian and political - and character motivation to highlight the quality of the performances and the writing across Tenko's entire run.
Between the review sections, Andy brings the Tenko production story up to date. He covers the commissioning of series two and the strange decision to drop Renée Asherson and Jeananne Crowley, playing two of the most popular characters in the first ten episodes, from the series. Crowley's recollections of the phone call Ken Riddington made to her perfectly illustrate the precariousness of the acting profession but also the do or die approach it often requires to continue in your craft.
'the terrors of the mind'
Verna and Miss Hasan also had their roots as characters in the memoirs of Elizabeth Simons, While History Passed, and Agnes Keith's Three Came Home, underlining once again the reality that the series was based on. This verisimilitude was, most movingly of all, realised in the 'fact meeting fiction' reunion of the Tenko cast with the women who had survived the POW camps at the press launch of Warner's book Women Beyond the Wire.
Also at this juncture, the book covers the appointment of David Tucker and Jeremy Summers as directors for series two, raising questions about why women directors hadn't been invited to work on the series. There are plenty of details about the arduous filming in Malaysia, including how Stephanie Beacham pulled some strings with Malaysian royalty, the contrast between the luxury of the production's Tangjong Jara Hotel and the 'hell on earth' of filming in the heat near a pig farm.
This hell included various stomach bugs, biting red ants, and the overflowing toilet facilities of the production bus. For many of the cast this actually brought home something of the conditions that the internees suffered as they were marched through the jungle. The experience would later provide them with the necessary fortitude to brave a river crossing during filming with megaphone-mad David Tucker.
Ann Bell's recall of the conditions revealed fractious tempers over a very real concern that heat stroke would finish the cast and crew off. To Vere Lorrimer's cheery response of 'Oh, Dr. Greasepaint will make it alright' when one of the crew fainted, Stephanie Cole quite rightly retorted, 'Fuck Dr. Greasepaint! Get a medic!' There's also a terrific anecdote about Jean Anderson greeting the weary thespians at the hotel and a lovely resume of her career, the background to her character Joss Holbrook and much praise for the stalwart and down to earth Anderson from the rest of the cast.
Again, the book provides great profiles of the new cast members, such as Rosemary Martin, Josephine Welcome and Philippa Urquhart, details of the developments for the characters and storylines especially the departures and the harrowing, hard hitting demise for two of them, the studio recordings, slimming regimes, the construction of the new camp in Dorset designed by Paul Munting and the exits of several characters and the return of Louise Jameson after the birth of her son who also recounts the overwhelming experience of once again getting the opportunity to act with her peers.
By November 1982, the second series was already being transmitted as the final episode was being recorded. Gridneff's tenure on the show was also coming to a close and he made way for Devora Pope who would eventually script edit the third series. Andy Priestner looks back at the audience and press reaction to the second series and many of the actors describe the moving letters of thanks they received from former internees. A third series commission was quite a while coming because the decision had already been made that the second series would conclude Tenko.
'we were never anyone's baby'
However, by the following April, a third series proposal from Warner was approved after Controller Alan Hart's decision in the New Year of 1983 to proceed with Tenko. Warner's outline took up the story of the liberated women prisoners and their experiences in Singapore, with the Raffles hotel now a transit centre and nursing home, and their reactions and acclimatisation to a regime change, like 'passing through a decompression chamber', from Japanese to British occupation.
She again provided full character developments, bringing back characters that had had a reduced presence in the second series, such as Sister Ulrica and Blanche. This section is again crammed with detail about the various outlines that Warner produced. When the series was commissioned this setting was altered somewhat and the story relocated back to the camp to detail the women's liberation before returning to Singapore.
With all ten episodes outlined, Hyem and Valery divided the work between them, Ken Riddington returned as producer and Jeremy Summers and Michael Owen Morris were contracted to direct. Andy also provides a profile of in-coming script editor Devora Pope, fresh from working on Juliet Bravo (1980-85) and with Riddington on Diana plus her experience as secretary to Vere Lorrimer on Blake's 7 (1978-81) and dealing with the correspondence in aftermath of its shocking final episode.
She would work on scripts and storylines in collaboration with Warner, Hyem and Valery that introduced new characters Alice Courtenay, Phyllis Bristow, Jake Haulter, Stephen Wentworth and covered the crisis with marriages, relationships and faith and the eventual separation of the major characters. A interesting tid-bit refers to Stephanie Cole discovering, via an audience report, that she and Ann Bell were playing the most popular characters and how, armed with this information, they demanded a pay rise via their agents.
The third series eventually saw the proposed storylines and appearances of Louise Jameson's Blanche and Veronica Roberts' Dorothy drastically altered because both actresses were unavailable for the series. Blanche was eventually replaced by the character of Maggie Forbes, played by Lizzie Mickery because Jameson was pregnant and it was deemed impossible to schedule the series to include her. Andy covers all of these changes, the creation of the new characters - with accompanying actor profiles of Mickery, Cindy Shelley, Elspet Gray, Damien Thomas and Preston Lockwood - and the difficult Singapore recce, where the pace of development in the city was reducing the options for period settings for directors Summers and Morris, and how costume designer Andrew Rose went all out to unearth period costumes and authentic materials.
Extensive filming began in March 1984 and was complicated by swathes of red tape and the requirement to submit the scripts to the Department of Undesirable Publications in Singapore. The shoot also saw the return of Jonathan Newth, once again playing Marion's husband Clifford, filming on many of the same locations he and Bell had worked on in 1981. The rapid redevelopment of Singapore in the 1980s also affected shooting at the legendary Raffles hotel and fortunately the crew had a very cooperative hotel manager to assist them. The filming of the women's arrival at the hotel clearly left an indelible impression on many of the actors of what it might have been like for these survivors of internment to return to civilisation and Mickery relates a sense of that history in her comments about filming in the hotel's Tiffin Room.
Again, Andy does a phenomenal job of collating stories and memories, both funny and moving, from cast and crew that reflect on the themes of the drama, the camaraderie of cast and crew and the sheer hard work involved. Those that feature the stalwart Jean Anderson, the mascara wearing Damien Thomas and Elspet Gray's husband Brian Rix enduring, in a change for him, an unpleasant bout of trouser dropping are some of the most memorable. The most touching moments that emerge concern the cast meeting former prisoners of war who had returned to Singapore to retrace their steps.
Back in the UK, cast and crew reassembled for what would be the start of a complicated rehearsal, filming and studio recording schedule in May 1984. This also involved designer Ken Ledsham accurately recreating the Raffles' interiors as well as fake Singapore Slings and painted on sweat. Ann Bell sensitively reflects, after her character takes to the gin, the painful disintegration of Marion and Clifford's marriage. The recording also saw the cast back in camp prior to the liberation of the internees and Burt Kwouk's return to the series as Yamauchi.
The exteriors of the camp scenes were then shot on a very dusty location at Hankley Common in Surrey and took advantage of a June heatwave. Further filming took place at Shoreham airport and on the SS Canberra, which eventually docked late in Southampton and caused delays to filming to such an extent that cast and crew had to leave the ship via the tradesman's entrance and a waiting tug as it set off for Portugal.
Lizzie Mickery and Veronica Roberts express very well what was probably going through the minds of their characters as an extension of what the real internees must have felt - 'the precipice moment' - as filming completed on the sequence where Yamauchi declared the end of the war and the camp was liberated. Roberts is also very articulate about the development of the relationship between Dorothy and Sister Ulrica, sharing her memories of recording her last episode.
The third series of Tenko wrapped in October 1984 and went on to huge success but the cast were unaware that behind the scenes Lavinia Warner was already putting together a pitch for a potential fourth and fifth series that would eventually become the feature-length Tenko Reunion special transmitted Christmas 1985. The final chapters of the book cover the making of the special which would find the cast reunited in Singapore to tell Jill Hyem's tale of 'Malaysia's struggle towards political independence, caught between the British on the one hand and the Communist threat on the other' and 'the effect their captivity has had on our women's lives'.
Andy exhaustively covers the location filming in Singapore, including a return to Raffles and other familiar spots, and Michael Owen Morris's eternal struggle to find locations that didn't disappear over night during the rapid redevelopment of the city. Naturally, going on location had its usual ups and downs including collapsed lungs, a disturbed ants nest at the British High Commission, shenanigans with border control and extemporising toilet arrangements at a rubber plantation in Johore Bahru. It almost seems de rigeur for the exploits of the Tenko cast and crew. Further filming took place in London and Chatham before three recording days at TV Centre in October 1985.
The end of the Tenko story might well have been transmitted on Boxing Day 1985 but as Andy illustrates in his final chapter the series impact 'as a female ensemble drama' has been far reaching. Here, he explores the depiction of women on television, looking at the casts of Coronation Street (1960-) and The Rag Trade (1961-63, 1977-78) as early example of female ensembles on screen, takes us from the proto-feminism of the female roles in The Avengers (1961-69) to the lives and loves of The Liver Birds (1969-78, 1996) and the flat-sharing drama Take Three Girls (1969-71).
He examines the changing mores of the 1970s and the roles of women both behind and in front of the camera where Lavinia Warner's pioneering work is contextualised within a tribute to such names as Verity Lambert and Lynda la Plante. He also sees Warner and her collaborators paving the way for writers Debbie Horsfield, Kay Mellor and Sally Wainwright and the contemporary and period dramas driven by strong female starring roles and casts and where it becomes clear that 'the women of Tenko fought the war that made other drama series dominated by women possible'.
Remembering Tenko is a huge achievement; this lavishly illustrated book - including drawings from the series' graphic designer Ray Ogden and using over 300 photographs taken by the cast and sourced from Radio Times and the BBC - not only chronicles the creation and production of a television series in consummate detail but also captures the courage and hard work of its ensemble female cast and their enduring friendships. It also sensitively acknowledges the inspiration of the women interned in the camps in Shanghai, Borneo, Singapore, the Philippines and Java during the Second World War and is as much a fitting tribute to their indomitable spirit.
Remembering Tenko: A celebration of the classic TV drama series
With a foreword by Lavinia Warner
Published by Classic TV Press 22 October 2012
Paperback ISBN: 978095610007
760 pages and 20 pages of colour plates
Buy direct from Classic TV Press
Also available on Kindle