Tenko (TV series)

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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
Jeananne Crowley
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

22 October 1981 – 12 November 1984,

26 December 1985

Tenko is a television drama, co-produced by the BBC and the ABC. A total of thirty episodes were produced over three series 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. 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.

Owing 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. Hankley Common was also used.[2]

The series takes its name from the Japanese word "tenko" (点呼/てんこ) which means "roll-call". POWs and internees in Japanese-run camps had regular roll-calls, where they had to line up and number off or were counted in Japanese.


Major characters[edit]

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.


The three series follow the lives of several women from various walks of life through the course and aftermath of the war. The opening episodes establish the pre-war lives of many of the characters before chronicling the fall of Singapore and the evacuation of British nationals from the city. After their evacuation ship is sunk by a torpedo and they take shelter in an abandoned house, the women are found by Japanese soldiers and taken to a prison camp for women POWs. The camp is run by Major Yamauchi (Burt Kwouk), who eventually reaches an understanding with Marion, and Lieutenant (later Captain) Sato (Eiji Kusuhara), a cruel man who feels dishonored and humiliated by having to stay in the camp with the women rather than joining the war effort (who ends up being dubbed "Satan" by the inmates). The first series mostly covers how the women adjust, clash and eventually come to rely on each other within the camp's harsh environment. Among the more troublesome inmates is Blanche Simmons (Louise Jameson), who tries to stage an escape with a friend and ends up caught after another inmate, Rose, betrays them.

In the second series, many of the inmates are moved to another, seemingly better camp; while the camp appears to be run by its commandant, it is firmly under the control of Miss Hasan (Josephine Welcome), a power-hungry interpreter, and Verna Johnson (Rosemary Martin), who controls food supplies and acts as Hassan's agent in exchange for not having to do manual labor. Marion also encounters her old school friend Lillian Cartland (Philippa Urquhart) and her son, and allies with a new inmate, Jocelyn "Joss" Holbrook (Jean Anderson). During their time at the camp, Beatrice begins losing her sight, one of the internees commits suicide and causes a tormented Ulrica to leave for a convent hospital, Dorothy is forced to have an abortion due to a pregnancy started in the last camp, and Christina and Blanche are moved to the new camp. Yamauchi also becomes the new camp's district commander, with Sato becoming the camp's captain. With Christina's arrival, Rose receives word that her boyfriend Bernard is in a neighbouring men's camp and the two arrange a meeting: Lillian, desperate to feed her son, tells on them and they are shot, with Bernard dying and Rose being paralysed, though she dies later. In the aftermath, Lillian and her son are transported to another camp to avoid reprisals. This and many other acts cause the women to incite to rebellion against Hassan. However, on the day Marion to planned expose Hassan's activities to Yamauchi, an Allied bombing run aimed at the Japanese headquarters strikes the camp by accident, killing Hassan and wounding several of the inmates. The bombing also brings to light Red Cross parcels that were withheld by the Japanese, and a riot ensues that Yamauchi and his men stop by force.

In the third series, despite rumours that they would be executed with the Allied advance, Yamauchi announces that the Japanese have surrendered in the aftermath of the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima and that the women will be freed. Many officers, including Sato, commit seppuku out of shame. When the women are liberated, they are taken to Singapore, where some of them find difficulty adjusting to liberation. These include Dorothy being persecuted for befriending some of the Japanese guards, Marion's relationship with her husband Clifford becoming strained by his vindictive behavior towards Yamauchi. On top of that, Joss is attacked in the street by a ruffian and dies of her injuries. The series ends with many of the women leaving for their respective homes, but promising to return in five years for a reunion. In Tenko Reunion, the women keep their promise and come together, and while they enjoy their visit, they also find themselves opening old wounds between them and are caught up in the changing politics of the time. In a final twist, Christina, who has had difficulty adjusting to new conditions, ends up betraying them to hostile Communist forces, although she prevents the troops from killing them. Many of the women return to England, while Christina is imprisoned in Singapore. The series ends with the women in England drinking a toast to absent friends.

DVD release & Book[edit]

The complete series of Tenko was re-released on DVD during 2011 through Acorn Media UK.

A comprehensive new book about the making of Tenko called 'Remembering Tenko' by Andy Priestner was published in October 2012.


  1. ^ Warner and Sandilands Women Beyond the Wire: A Story of Prisoners of the Japanese 1942-45 1982 dustjacket
  2. ^ Bomb alert hits 'Tenko' beauty spot

External links[edit]