5 Things You Need To Know About Tenko

What you can expect from the trailblazing TV drama which puts women right at the forefront.



World War Two may have been mythologised in countless films and TV shows, but Tenko looks at an often-forgotten side to the conflict. We're not among the soldiers of D-Day, or the airmen of the Battle of Britain, or the troops in the Pacific. Instead, this is the war through the eyes of civilian prisoners of war. Female civilians, whose stories have so often been sidelined.

These are the women who happened to be in the colonial stronghold of Singapore when the Japanese invaded in 1942. We see it happen at the beginning of the series, shocking the wealthy society ladies who had lived pampered lives amid the salons and cocktail bars. We follow them as they're taken prisoner alongside doctors, nurses and nuns, and forced to live together in the internment camps. British, Australian and Dutch women from all classes - from a bolshy Cockney to a prim colonel's wife - forced to somehow team up and survive together.


Watch Tenko Saturday afternoons from 1pm, and catch-up now on UKTV Play.


One of the reasons Tenko is more than just another war drama lies in the complexity of the characters. These aren't just two-dimensional personality "types". They are living, breathing people with inner depths that are slowly revealed as the saga goes on. Take the stern, spoilt Dutch lady who rubs all the other women up the wrong way. She could easily have been played as a stock "villain" character. Instead, as the episodes go on, we see her softer, kinder, more humorous side. We see her being self-effacing, and even caricaturing herself on purpose.

In other words, we believe in her as a person. The same is true of tough Dr Beatrice Mason. She could have easily been painted as a straightforward tough hero type. Instead, her vulnerabilities are made shockingly apparent, as we learn of the emotional price she has to pay for keeping up that strong façade. Even a snobbish, racist member of the POW group is allowed to show her full humanity. This is what Tenko is so good at, and why we laugh, weep and endure right alongside the women.


Here's another way Tenko broke new ground and paved the way for dramas to come: it features a sensitive portrayal of a gay romance between two of the female prisoners. Free of the sort of tacky sensationalism you might expect from a TV show of its era, Tenko gives us a painfully realistic study of how love might slowly flower amid pain and anguish, with one of the women - Sally - coming to terms with being pregnant in an internment camp.

The women of Tenko.

The women of Tenko.

What makes it all the more poignant is that the romance is lop-sided. For Sally, it's about clutching for companionship and human warmth, but for Nellie it's about real love. To complicate matters more, other women in the camp can sense something happening, and they're not happy about the "filthy perverts" among them. Speaking of which...


Tenko's sense of realism means that it doesn't glorify the women as endlessly brave and optimistic and noble. No: they can be selfish, suspicious, gossipy and vindictive, especially as their ordeal goes on and tensions keep on rising. Take Marion, the decent and determined leader of the British women. Instead of rallying behind her, some of the prisoners question her status and actively make her doubt herself to the point where she wants to give everything up.

Some of the women are despised for being too close to the Japanese guards, while some simply don't like each other, just as they wouldn't like each other at a society party. Seeing the making and breaking of friendships, and the ebb and flow of rivalries, makes for addictive watching.


Tenko may have your eyes prickling with tears, but - surprisingly - it will also warm your heart. Amid the sweaty despair of life in the camps, there are glints of light as the women keep their spirits up with humour, tomfoolery and long-cherished traditions. Like when Christmas comes around, and the prisoners mark it with a full Christmas concert, with even some of the more cantankerous inmates happy to sing carols and keep the festivities going. Even your inner Scrooge will be smiling.