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Where can I watch 'Tenko'? Our guide to the classic war drama

Tenko
Cast of Tenko. (Image credit: Alamy)

Fans of classic war drama Tenko are always asking where can I watch Tenko

Well, great news, all three series are on BritBox… Tenko was a hit TV drama in the 1980s, and focused on the experiences of British, Australian, and Dutch women who were captured after the fall of Singapore in 1942, after the invasion of Japanese troops, and held in a Japanese internment camp. 

Conditions were harsh and the women had to deal with unsanitary living quarters, malnutrition, diseases, brutality from their captors, and death. Thirty episodes were produced over three series between 1981 and 1984, followed by a one-off special in 1985, Tenko Reunion. The show was a joint British and Australian production, shown on the BBC in the UK, and ABC in Australian and was an instant hit…

Here’s our guide to everything you need to know about Tenko...

Where can I watch Tenko?

Tenko is currently available on streaming service BritBox. To watch all episodes of Tenko subscribe to BritBox.

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What does the word Tenko mean?

"Tenko" means "roll call" in Japanese. In the drama, when the women were called throughout the day to gather and be counted for a roll call, the Japanese guards would ring a bell or siren and cry "Tenko! Tenko!" To rouse them.

Was Tenko based on a true story?

Yes, British TV writer and producer Lavinia Warner had researched the life of nursing corps officer Margot Turner, who herself had been interned, for a British TV show This is Your Life, and saw the dramatic potential of the stories of the women prisoners. Other internees were also consulted when creating the programme, including Dr Margaret Thomson, a medic who was also imprisoned by the Japanese.

Where was Tenko filmed?

Some scenes were filmed in Singapore, but external shots of the camps were filmed on specially-built sets in Dorset in the UK, and internal scenes of the camp were shot in a west London studio. All the cast bonded while filming Tenko and some remained lifelong friends.

Who are the main characters in Tenko?

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Yamauchi gets tough with Marion and Sister Ulrica in Tenko. (Image credit: BBC)

Tenko cast — Ann Bell as MARION JEFFERSON

The wife of army officer Clifford Jefferson, Marion’s life before the war was one of lunching with friends at the upmarket Raffles Hotel in Singapore, shopping and dinner dances. Initially naive and timid, Marion was voted leader of the British women and soon found herself in a position of responsibility for the welfare of her fellow internees, as well as negotiating with firm but fair camp commandant Yamauchi (Burt Kwouk). 

At times the pressure became too much and Marion questioned her abilities, but she remained strong, even when the women rounded on her old school friend Lilian, whose collaboration with the Japanese in turn for food for her son, Bobby, ended in the death of one of the women. When the women were liberated and billeted at Raffles hotel before being repatriated, Marion was the glue that held the women together. But the pressure of her experiences was to cost her dearly in her personal life, once she reunited with husband Clifford.

Born in 1938 in Wallasey in Cheshire, England, Ann had appeared in several UK TV shows, including Jane Eyre and The Company of Five before starring in Tenko. After the success of Tenko, Ann landed roles in several well-known British TV series, including Inspector Morse, Poirot, Midsomer Murders, The Forsyte Saga, and Wallander.

Tenko cast — Stephanie Cole as DR BEATRICE MASON

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Dr Beatrice Mason in Tenko was played by Stephanie Cole. (Image credit: BBC)

No-nonsense doctor Beatrice Mason, played by Stephanie Cole, had been based in a hospital in Singapore, before being interned by the Japanese. As one of the few medics in the camps, Dr Mason faced many challenges and she tirelessly fought bouts of malaria, beri beri, dysentery, sores, and boils from lack of food with little medicine or medical equipment to be of any use. 

Her abrupt and brusque manner evolved over the years, and she made close, lifelong friendships with her fellow internees. On a personal level, the poor conditions in the camp accelerated an eye condition, and by the time the women were freed by the Allies, Beatrice was almost blind. After her ordeal in the camps, Beatrice set out on a mission to see camp commandant Yamauchi hang for war crimes, after it was discovered he’d deliberately held back medical supplies from the women, resulting in many deaths.

Stephanie Cole was born in Solihull in Warwickshire, England, in 1941, and trained at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School from 1958-1960 before following a stage career at various theatres around the UK. She had a few TV roles before being cast as Beatrice Mason in Tenko. Later, she starred in British comedy shows Open All Hours, A Bit of a Do and Waiting for God. She played Joan Norton in UK drama Doc Martin and played Roy’s mum Sylvia in British soap Coronation Street.

Tenko cast — Veronica Roberts as DOROTHY BENNETT 

Dorothy Bennett was a married mum-of-one whose husband Dennis was shot dead in front of her by the Japanese before she was sent to the camp with her young baby, Violet. Violet then died of dysentry, leaving Dorothy traumatised and emotionally detached from everything. The tragedies in her life made her hard and self reliant, and she would get friendly with the Japanese guards to provide herself with food and cigarettes. She later formed an unlikely friendship with Dutch nun Sister Ulrica, and almost died after becoming pregnant by one of the Japanese guards. After liberation, Dorothy became a successful, rich antiques dealer and businesswoman.

Veronica Roberts had a regular role playing Deborah Wilson in the UK TV series Sam in 1975 before going on to play Dorothy in Tenko. Later, she had a leading role in UK drama Peak Practice playing Laura Fraser from 1995-1998. She also made guest appearances in Casualty, Doctors, EastEnders and Holby City, and also popped up in British comedy Little Britain. As well as acting Veronica has also run workshops in presentation skills, interviewing techniques and coaching, working with corporate clients.

Tenko cast — Elizabeth Chambers as MRS VAN MEYER 

Spoiled and opinionated, Dutch planter’s wife Dominica Van Meyer rubbed everyone up the wrong way with her constant complaining, criticism of others, and self-obsessed rantings. She was lazy and unpopular, a complete snob, and was given the name "Metro Goldwyn" by the other women. Despite being loathed, after liberation, she completely transformed when she married a new man, Teddy, who showed her love and kindness after her brutal first husband, Jan, died.

Born in 1933 in Berkshire, England, Elizabeth’s first TV role was in 1956 when she played a character called Almoner in Lucky Silver. She then had various parts in an array of dramas, including Dixon of Dock Green and Day of the Triffids, before landing the role of Mrs Van Meyer in Tenko, which became the role she was most famous for in her career. She continued to act, up until 2014, with a part in BBC1 daytime drama Doctors. Elizabeth died on 26 May 2018.

Tenko cast — Patricia Lawrence as SISTER ULRICA  

Dutch nun Sister Ulrica initially had a brusque, no-nonsense approach to life, but her strict live-by-the-rules attitude mellowed as time passed in the camp. At first domineering and scary, we saw the more human side of Sister Ulrica, and she became very close friends with Dorothy, Beatrice, and Marion. She gave comfort, solace to those struggling and was a constant source of practical help and wisdom. But after an encounter with some terrorists, she was shot and her life hung in the balance…

Patricia was born in Andover, Hampshire in England in 1925. She had a variety of TV roles before joining the cast of Tenko, including Princess Shcherbatsky in Anna Karenina and Ellie Herries in To Serve Them All My Days. After Tenko Patricia continued her acting career, with parts in Vanity Fair, A Very Peculiar Practice, and The House of Eliott, until her death in 1993.

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Rose, Blanche, Christina and Marion in Tenko, played (l-r) by Stephanie Beacham, Louise Jameson, Emily Bolton and Ann Bell. (Image credit: BBC)

Who are the other characters in Tenko?

There were many other characters throughout the series, but here are some of the more memorable Tenko characters…

Tenko

The internees line up for another Tenko roll call in Tenko. (Image credit: BBC)

ROSE MILLAR (Stephanie Beacham) — a beautiful socialite prone to tantrums who lived with her Australian lover, Bernard, in Singapore before they were both captured. Sadly, neither was to survive to the end of the war…

BLANCHE SIMMONS (Louise Jameson) — Good-time girl Blanche had a tough upbringing in London and headed to Singapore for a new life working in hostess bars. Although brash and crude, she was very likeable and popular with most of the women.

KATE NORRIS (Claire Oberman) — A happy-go-lucky Australian nurse who worked with Dr Mason in Singapore. Kate was one of life’s optimists before the war robbed her of fiancé Tom.

CHRISTINA CAMPBELL (Emily Bolton) — Shy and timid Christina had a Scottish father and Chinese mother, who had both died, and she found herself struggling with her identity and confidence. She finally blossomed, but fate took a dark twist…

JOSS HOLBROOK (Jean Anderson) — Joss Holbrook was an English aristocrat, also known as the Lady Jocelyn, had been a suffragette, so had a fighting spirit and was always ready to sabotage the Japanese war effort.

CAPTAIN YAMAUCHI (Burt Kwouk) — the Japanese officer was in charge of the first camp, before being promoted to a regional position, and he and British leader Marion found a mutual respect for each other.

SHINYA (Takashi Kawahara) — A Japanese guard, who stood out from his fellow soldiers for being kind and compassionate with the women and children. He became friends with Dorothy who taught him English, but events took a tragic turn…

Where else can I see the other Tenko cast?

Stephanie Beacham went on to star in The Colbys and Dynasty, making her a well-known face in the US. She also appeared in TV Mini Series Lucky Chances, Beverly Hills 90210 before returning to British TV in prison drama Bad Girls and hit UK soap Coronation Street. Louise Jameson played Doctor Who companion Leela alongside Tom Baker’s Doctor from 1977-1978, and after Tenko appeared in Jersey cop show Bergerac, British soap EastEnders and British drama Doc Martin. Claire Oberman made appearances in Paradise Postponed, Fortunes of War, Trainer, and the Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies. Emily Bolton was a "Bond Girl", playing Manuela in the film Moonraker alongside Roger Moore. She also played Lia Hua in Crossroads and appeared as "Operative June" in an uncredited role in Space:1999! She gave up acting to become an agent. 

Jean Anderson played Aunt March in a 1970 TV production of Little Women, and had various roles in Moonacre, Doctor Finlay and Hetty Wainthropp Investigates. Jean died in 2001, aged 93. Burt Kwouk was best known for his role as Cato in the Pink Panther films with Peter Sellers. He also appeared as Lin Futu in Doctor Who, and had many roles before appearing as Entwistle in gentle British comedy Last of the Summer Wine. Burt died in 2016, aged 85. Takashi Kawahara went on to play Chen Sung Yau in A Very Peculiar Practice and TV movie Tailspin: Behind the Korean Airliner Tragedy and French film Baie des Ange Connection

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The women had it tough in the camps in Tenko. (Image credit: Alamy)

What were the main storylines in Tenko?

After the ship attempting to carry many of the women back to England was torpedoed and sunk, many drowned, but the survivors were taken to the first camp. Filthy conditions, lack of food, illness and clashes between British and Dutch internees made for difficult living conditions. Friendships began to form, however, which were vital as the women were about to face years of horrendous conditions and brutality from the Japanese guards.

SPOILER ALERT on the below big stories if you haven't yet seen Tenko...

Sally’s suicide...

Sally Markham, a young newly wed who lost her husband Peter’s baby while in the camp, began to unravel as she was convinced Peter was dead. No longer wanting to live, she decided to commit suicide, but picked a moment to do it when the camp was being inspected by those high up in Japanese authority. As the women were forced to dress up and wear make-up for a propaganda photograph, Sally smashed a small mirror and cut her wrists, ending her torment, and enraging the Japanese.

Blanche and Debbie escape...

Blanche formed an unlikely but close, sisterly friendship with Debbie, a young girl whose mother Judith died of malaria. When Debbie discovered Blanche was planning an escape she emotionally blackmailed Blanche into taking her with her. As the pair made a midnight dash,  doomed to fail, word went round that Blanche had taken young Debbie with her, so Rose told the Japanese, in order they’d be spared. But after the escapees were caught, they were "staked out" — tied to poles and made to stand in the searing sunshine for days almost to the point of death. Afterwards, Blanche refused to speak to Rose.

The long walk...

As Christmas drew near the women were told they were moving to a new camp, which would involve a trek across the island which could take several weeks. As they pulled forward a special Christmas concert, they then packed up and set off on foot for the gruelling march, carrying stretchers that were transporting the sick, and dealing with dysentery, horrendous blisters and sores, and attacks from leeches! After some of the women were split into a second group and Debbie died from a spider bite, the remaining women arrived at the new camp on New Year’s Day.

Rose is shot!

After finding out her lover Bernard was still alive and managing to pass messages to the men’s camp, Rose arranged to meet him in the jungle on the night of the Japanese Emperor’s birthday as the guards would be distracted as they celebrated the event. But as Rose and Bernard met up, armed guards arrived, having been betrayed by one of the women in the camp, Bernard was killed and Rose shot in the back. As Rose became gravely ill, it was discovered Marion’s friend Lillian had told the Japanese about Rose in return for food for her son Bobby. The women turned on Lillian, physically beating her, cutting her hair, and shunning her. She was then moved to another camp.

Dorothy’s baby...

After her baby Violet died, Dorothy became emotionally cold and hard, and would get friendly with the Japanese guards, offering sexual favors in return for food and cigarettes. She paid the price, however, when she discovered she was pregnant by one of the guards in the first camp. Only a handful of the women knew about the problem, and an abortion was swiftly arranged, with the permission of harsh new camp administrator and translator Miss Hasan (Josephine Welcome) and the devious new leader of the women Verna Johnson (Rosemary Martin). Conditions were horrendous, and it was touch and go as to whether Dorothy would survive.

Bombing of the camp...

After exposing Verna as a collaborator who had been manipulating the women for her own gain, the camp turned on her. But before they could action a plan of subterfuge, the camp was bombed by Allied Forces, killing many, including kindly guard Shinya, Miss Hasan, and Verna’s beloved cat, Pudding. The event caused chaos, with the women raiding the stores amid billowing smoke and screams, just as Major Yamauchi arrived for an inspection! The dramatic scene was the closing shot of the second series.

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Yamauchi surrenders at the end of the war in Tenko. (Image credit: Alamy)

Liberation...

The third series of Tenko began in the summer of 1945, with the women in yet another camp, and joined by Maggie (Lizzie Mickery), a straight-talking working class northerner. News of the war was patchy for the women, there were rumours the Japanese were losing and the Allies had landed in Singapore. As the women panicked that they’d be slaughtered rather than the Japanese surrender and hand them over, they armed themselves with stones and sticks to fight. But, luckily, the Japanese did surrender to the Allies, and when the British Army arrived the women celebrated. Yet there was a bittersweet twist when they were given access to the storeroom and discovered plentiful food and medicines that the Japanese had deliberately withheld. Within weeks they were taken from the camp back to Singapore.

Going home...

The women were billeted in The Raffles Hotel in Singapore, where many had wined and dined before the war, while they waited for news of loved ones and for a date and ticket to be repatriated. While some planned to return home, others decided to stay. As the women, who had spent every hour together of the previous three and a half years, tearfully went their separate ways, they made a pact to meet up, back in Singapore in five years time.

Was that the end of Tenko?

No, there was a one- off Tenko Christmas special, aired in the UK on 26 December 1985, which saw the women reunite back at Raffles in Singapore. They’d all followed different paths, some had struggled, some had thrived, yet they revelled in meeting up. But when they organised a trip up country to Metro Goldwyn’s huge estate, disaster struck with deadly consequences…