Category Archives: Tenko

Final Massacre? (2): Tenko Gets It Right

Amazingly the third series of Tenko, one of the most popular shows on television in the early 1980s, was almost never made:

Between the second and third series, a year passed. The controller of BBC1 decided to axe Tenko at the height of its popularity at the end of the second series (it was the BBC’s then-highest rated drama programme). This was believed to be due to the fact that women were engines of the story with no aspect of men represented. Michael Grade then assumed the role of controller and immediately re-instated the programme which led to there being a third series.[1]

Some sources add that the fact that the women were developing facial sores and were always dirty and badly dressed compounded the ‘problem’!

Tenko was a programme that was just as popular with ex-internees as with the general public, and the first episode of that third series gave us one of the great sequences in British television: there’s a special ‘tenko’ (roll call) announced, and the women have reason to believe they are all going to be shot. They’ve expected such a situation, and preparations have been made: they rehearse their plan of action, arm themselves with stones (and in some cases crutches for fake leg injuries) and go out to meet what they refuse to accept as their ‘fate’. I’ve watched this scene a dozen times and more and I still feel the tension of  Commandant Yamauchi’s announcement – subtly ambiguous in its early stages, gradually building up to the revelation that the war is over.

Tenko was realistic in the sense that almost everything that happened in it was experienced by one group of internees or another – no single camp went through everything those women did, but it was of course necessary to hold the viewers’ attention by centralising, as it were, all the drama and pain of the experience of internment. Plans to resist, as far as was possible, a final massacre, are known to have been made in a number of POW Camps, and my guess is that they existed in some form or another in all of them, both POW and civilian internee.

In his classic memoir The Night of the New Moon, Laurens Van der Post describes the ordeal that he and his fellow POWs went through in their camp close to Bandoeng (Indonesia). As the end of the war drew near, the men realised that a final massacre was a definite possibility, so they hid sticks and stones wherever they could around the camp. They didn’t believe that a bunch of half-starved POWs with weapons like these could possibly defeat well-armed Japanese soldiers, but they did hope to create enough confusion for a few men to slip out of camp and evade capture. These men would be able to tell the story of their fellows – how they lived and how they died – to the rest of the world.

In Hong Kong’s main POW Camp, Shamshuipo, similar preparations were being made. In his diary Les Fisher noted that he had a chat with his RSM on July 5, 1944. Fisher did not record the contents of that conversation, but when he prepared it for publication in the mid-nineteen nineties, he revealed what had passed;

He (RSM Jones) did not beat about the bush. He said that he had reason to believe that should the colony be attacked the Japanese would take steps to have us all eliminated. I asked him how he knew this, but he would not say, but added that we should take this as a fact. He said he assumed we should be machine-gunned when at muster, and that our only chance would be to rush the guns. To do this he wanted 12 men to arm themselves with whatever weapons they could find, such as iron bed legs, knives, or whatever they could find. I said this was fine but what had it to do with me. He said ‘I want you to be the leader’.[2]

Fisher felt justly proud to have been chosen as leader out of a thousand Volunteers left in the camp. He had no illusions as to the likely success of the enterprise: when asked if he, a telephone engineer, could put the camp phones out of action when the time came, he replied that this would be a lot easier than taking out a machine gun with a bed leg!

But Fisher and his fellow soldiers were not going to go to their deaths without a fight. Because of who they were, they felt impelled to put up resistance however futile. And Van der Post’s hope that a few survivors would be able to tell the story of the men of Bandoeng Camp reminds us of the strange and unexpected duty of narration.


[2] Les Fisher, I Will Remember, 1996, 130.

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