The word ‘landmark’ is often used to describe television series. Sometimes it is misplaced, but in the case of the BBC’s ‘80s prison camp drama Tenko’ it’s probably appropriate. It’s one of those television pieces that ages well enough. It doesn’t feel too dated even now, and one can actually become absorbed in the drama without too many distractions, such as the trademark BBC clunky scenery of that era. I say probably because this is great, but it is flawed greatness. The flaws are minor however and do not impair the overall impact.
This impact is created by the performances and the plotting. Jean Anderson, Stephanie Beacham and Stephanie Cole in leading roles are legendary. They deliver, as characters in dire circumstances and facing daily hardship and tragedy. The internment camp setting is convincingly carried off and the varied female population amongst the cast depict the class-consciousness of British colonial types at the time of the Second World War, and their conflicting views of justice, responsibility, resistance and morality.
What’s interesting with this second series, is the embedding of the characters in the world of the prison camp. We are in 1942, and the women know that the war is now going to drag on. They have to face their situation and survive and choose differing strategies. When they arrive at the new camp, after another long march, they are confronted by a system that is familiar but also contains, for them, real betrayal. They find that a British prisoner, Verna Johnson (Rosemary Martin) and the commandant’s interpreter, Miss Hassan (Josephine Welcome) are effectively collaborating with the regime and profiteering from Red Cross donations and the payments for the prisoners’ work details.
The shades of grey amidst this difficult situation are authentic depictions of real life internment experiences. This is where the drama really affects the viewer.
The grief, loss and personal conflicts gradually reach a crescendo with consequences resulting from one damaged woman, Dorothy Bennett’s (Veronica Roberts) fraternisation with the prison guards. In addition, there’s the moving treatment of the relationships between women. Both Joss Holbrook (Jean Anderson) and Dr Bea Mason (Stephanie Cole) project a sense of profound and genuine loss at the absence of dear female friends. For Joss, her long time friend and probably life partner, Monica is a constant concern; and she is eager for any piece of news about her as one would for a beloved spouse. For Bea Mason, the taciturn and self-sacrificing doctor, the removal of her colleague Nelly to another camp is also a source of concern and Cole’s understated performance suggests unrequited love.
The trajectory of the characters’ experiences is moving and powerful and reflects upon the fracturing of established beliefs and social values. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the transfixing performance of Patricia Lawrence as Catholic nun Sister Ulrica. Her journey is portrayed exceptionally well, with self-criticism, doubt and growing awareness of what wartime and imprisonment do to moral absolutes. Throughout the drama her love for her fellow inmates never descends into mawkish, religious sentiment. Everything is called into question at times of crisis; but there’s also a sense of the lingering days, the atrophying boredom of mindless work, and the sniping and bitterness of long-term close-quarters incarceration.
The obvious endeavours taken by the actresses to alter and maintain their physical appearances through weight-loss are apparent. But what is perhaps one of the most disturbing elements, contrasting this drama with more contemporary female-centred television series, is that no matter how starved the actresses try to appear, none of them quite manage to match the degree of gauntness that the cast of suburban characters in Desperate Housewives achieved.
Tenko: The Complete Second Series