Written by Alison Carr


Why I ❤️ Tenko

When Tenko first aired on the BBC in the early 80s, Alison Carr wasn’t even born yet. Hasn’t stopped her watching it shitloads since, though.

“Female to its core”: the cast of Tenko. Photo: BBC.

Earlier this month actor Louise Jameson tweeted a photo of herself with some of her former Tenko cast mates and my heart soared.

One, Tenko is amazing and any mention of it makes me happy.

Two, as Jameson points out in her tweet, they met in 1981 and their friendships are still going strong. Thirty-six years, how fantastic. And a testament, I think, to what an incredible piece of ensemble television Tenko was.

Based on the real-life experiences of women held in a Japanese POW camp during World War II, Tenko aired for three series in the early 80s, plus a reunion special.

I am FAR TOO YOUNG to have seen it the first time around, but it gets repeated a lot on the Drama channel. And I watch it every time. I’m currently on my third viewing and it never gets old.

It is little surprise that Tenko was created by a woman (Lavinia Warner) and written by women (Jill Hyem and Anne Valery), because it’s female to its core. And I don’t mean sweet and ribbons and ponies, I mean the exact opposite.

Take the way the characters look, for example. Tenko’s prisoners are sweaty and dirty and hot, wounded and malnourished. Their clothes are ragged, their hair is a mess. They’re real and they’re suffering. Not pretty prisoners, artfully dishevelled, served up for the male gaze. They’ve got body hair. GASP!

Apparently the legend goes that producer Ken Riddington raised this at the read through as a matter of authenticity. The cast agreed, but then he ruined it by adding, “Perhaps you should ask your husbands and boyfriends if that would be all right.” Oh Ken.

“Maybe Tenko was filmed in a sandpit in Dorset but it’s gritty, hard hitting stuff. Friendship, class, racism, motherhood, identity, sexual frustration and desire: it’s all in there.”

Tenko is brutal. The conditions the women are thrown into are harsh and dehumanising. But they cope because they have to. It could get very twee, all rousing sing-alongs, British resolve and stiff upper lip, but it never does. They struggle, they argue, they laugh, they support each other, they betray each other. They also die. Yeah, don’t get too attached. Disease, violence, being relocated – you’re never sure who might leave next. It keeps you on your toes.

Marion (Ann Bell), a colonel’s wife who becomes leader of the British women, couldn’t be further away in terms of class and life experience from fast-talking Blanche (Jameson). Neither of them would have much to say to stuck-up Rose (Stephanie Beacham) or stern doctor Beatrice (Stephanie Cole) beyond the wire of the camp, but imprisoned they are all the same and must look beyond background and wealth and temperament to work together.

All of the characters are individuals. No one is good personified, no one is bad through and through.

One of the most complex, and one of the best, is Dorothy (Veronica Roberts). Losing her husband and her baby hardens her, you think to stone; she’s selfish and stubborn and cruel. But she’s still a person, and when she howls over her baby’s grave prior to the prisoners being moved to a new camp, my heart breaks every time.

The guards too are allowed to be human, particularly Commandant Yamauchi (Burt Kwouk). He’s powerful and loyal to the Empire, but he’s not painted as an out-and-out villain. He’s a man with a family that he loves, often acting on orders he doesn’t take pleasure in. Just as Marion struggles with being leader, so does Yamauchi and the pair’s relationship is beautifully crafted. His demise, finally seen incarcerated in Changi, is difficult to watch.

So yes, maybe it was filmed in a sandpit in Dorset (is that a Victoria Wood line?) but it’s gritty, hard hitting stuff. Friendship, class, racism, motherhood, identity, sexual frustration and desire: it’s all in there.

These aren’t unrealistic heroes, they’re women fighting for survival, failing and succeeding. All with hairy underarms.


Alison Carr’s play Remains is part of the Octagon Theatre’s Reveal Festival, from 13 to 18 March.

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Written by Alison Carr

Alison is a playwright and would-be tap dancer. She lives in Newcastle upon Tyne.