Tenko, complete first seriesExtreme soap: a ground-breaking 1980s BBC TV series endures life in a Japanese POW camp.

Distributor:     Acorn Media
Length:         516 minutes

In the early 1980s, the BBC ran a drama about a disparate group of women from Singapore, who were captured by the Japanese during World War II and kept in prisoner of war camps for three years.

Its strength is the way that it takes a cross-section of society and levels the classes. A Colonel’s wife has to learn to live with the working class; an officious doctor has to work alongside two of her nurses that end up in the same camp; and racial prejudices are rendered pointless. All have to sleep on bare boards, fight off the ravages of both sorts of bug and endure the unsanitary horrors of the camp. Adding to the stresses are a pregnant woman and others with children.

The preview copy only included three episodes, but they certainly left a hunger for more. (The actual set comprises ten hours of viewing over four discs). These episodes are strong on the back story of a British colony that is run by a casual and unprepared army. The privileged officers’ wives have little to do all day but gossip and go to tea dances. Other women who end up at the camp and who balance their background include a stubborn nun and a working class housewife.

As they begin life at the camp, the series becomes an extreme soap, with the daily dramas taking place in a very restricted area, but encompassing much larger human issues. At the end of the third episode a group of Dutch women arrive, with their possessions, setting the scene for some international rivalry and jealousy.

Although the series sees rape and death, most of the drama comes from issues like jealousy, gossip, theft and suspicion – as well as the obligatory escape bid and reprisals.

When originally screened, the series was hugely popular, with the viewing figures representing almost a third of the nation. Visually the series has dated a little, but its bold scriptwriting was possibly ahead of its time. It was the first drama series to feature women together in such harsh conditions.

The special features are The Tenko Story, cast filmographies and subtitles.

Yesterday TV channel voted it the ‘most-requested TV series to be re-screened’ and it is easy to see its appeal.

Derek Walker