Tenko (TV series)

Tenko is a television drama, co-produced by the BBC and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), which was broadcast between 1981 and 1984.

Title caption that was seen throughout the series.
Created byLavinia Warner
Written byJill Hyem
Anne Valery
Paul Wheeler
Directed byPennant Roberts
David Askey
David Tucker
Jeremy Summers
Michael Owen Morris
StarringAnn 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
Elizabeth Mickery
Theme music composerJames Harpham
Country of originUnited Kingdom
No. of series3
No. of episodes31
Producer(s)Ken Riddington
Vere Lorrimer
Running time50 minutes
Original networkBBC1
Original release22 October 1981 
16 December 1984, 26 December 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 fictional 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. War hero and prisoner of war Dr Margaret Thomson was consulted about the series but she did not like to talk about her experiences and never watched the programmes.[2]

Owing to high production costs, only the first two episodes of the first series were filmed on location in Singapore, together with the post series reunion extended episode. 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.[3]

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. [4]

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. Only Ann Bell, Stephanie Cole and Claire Oberman appeared in all thirty episodes plus the reunion.

Series One (1981)

Ten fifty-minute episodes broadcast between 22 October-24 December 1981.

The first series depicts the fall of Singapore to the invading Japanese forces in 1942, and the abortive evacuation of civilians from the city. A group of British and Dutch women find themselves forced to cope with captivity in a Japanese internment camp. They also must find a way to live together as a community, breaking down the barriers of class and race between them, if they are to survive.

Series Two (1982)

Ten fifty-minute episodes broadcast between 21 October-23 December 1982.

The second series sees the women being marched through the jungle to a new camp, an old mission school. They arrive on New Year's Day 1943, and instantly find the new regime a major culture shock after their first year in captivity. As new friends – and enemies – are made, the women realise that they must make the adjustment to internment all over again.

Series Three (1984)

Ten fifty-minute episodes broadcast between 7 October-16 December 1984.

The third series is set during 1945. The Second World War is over – the Japanese have surrendered. The survivors of the camps are liberated by Allied troops and travel to Singapore. Billeted at Raffles, the women are free. However, peacetime only brings further dilemmas for the women as they struggle to forge new futures in an uncertain new world.

Tenko Reunion (1985)

A double-length special was broadcast on 26 December 1985.

Set in 1950, the women reunite in Singapore five years after their liberation from the camp.

Main cast list

Character Actor Series
Series 1 Series 2 Series 3 Reunion
Marion Jefferson Ann Bell
Dr. Beatrice Mason Stephanie Cole
Rose Millar Stephanie Beacham
Sister Ulrica Patricia Lawrence
Christina Campbell Emily Bolton
Dorothy Bennett Veronica Roberts
Kate Norris Claire Oberman
Mrs. Domenica Van Meyer Elizabeth Chambers
Blanche Simmons Louise Jameson
Nellie Keene Jeananne Crowley
Sylvia Ashburton Renee Asherson
Sally Markham Joanna Hole
Debbie Bowen Karin Foley
Judith Bowen Ann Queensberry
Major Yamauchi Burt Kwouk
Captain Sato Eiji Kusuhara
Shinya Takashi Kawahara
Kasaki Takahiro Oba
Colonel Clifford Jefferson Jonathan Newth
Lady Jocelyn 'Joss' Holbrook Jean Anderson
Verna Johnson Rosemary Martin
Daisy Robertson Anna Lindup
Lillian Cartland Philippa Urquhart
Dr. Natalie Trier Carrolle Rousseau
Miss. Hasan Josephine Welcome
Lt. Nakamura Sabu Kimura
Bobby Cartland Nicolas Corry
Suzy Parkin Kerry Tovey
Maggie Thorpe Elizabeth Mickery
Alice Courtenay Cindy Shelley
Phyllis Bristow Elspet Gray
Jake Haulter Damien Thomas
Stephen Wentworth Preston Lockwood
Colonel Smithers Stephen Gordon
Teddy Forster-Brown Robert Lang
Duncan Fraser Christian Rodska
Lau Peng Swee Hoe Lim

DVD release and books

All three series plus the Reunion Special were released in one DVD box-set in 2011 through Acorn Media UK.

Three paperback books were published in the 1980s. One covering the first series, titled Tenko, while a second called Last Tenko, covered the second and final series. The third book, written by Anne Valery, covered the Reunion.

A 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. Elizabeth L. Ewan; Sue Innes; Sian Reynolds; Rose Pipes (8 March 2006). The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women. Edinburgh University Press. pp. 353–. ISBN 978-0-7486-2660-1.
  3. Bomb alert hits 'Tenko' beauty spot
  4. https://www.express.co.uk/expressyourself/209448/Tainted-by-Tenko
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