Tenko turned us anorexic! Thirty years on, the stars of the ground-breaking women's prison camp drama reveal the toll the series took on their lives off screen
22:48 GMT, 16 November 2012
The day after Stephanie Beacham’s character, Rose, died in Tenko, she was at the checkout of her local Sainsbury’s. ‘The girl looked at me, blurted out, “Oh my God!” and promptly burst into tears.’
Later that day, Stephanie, 65, was driving to Suffolk.
‘The car in front was really annoying me so I hooted and flashed my lights – it was dark – until it moved over and let me pass. And that’s when the blue lights went on and I had to stop. The policeman got out of his car, walked very slowly towards me and then shone a torch in my eyes – at which point, his attitude changed. “My wife,” he said, “thinks you made a very good death on television last night.” I told him that was very kind.
Members of the cast went through births, marriages, divorces and deaths during the filming of Tenko and we were all incredibly supportive. We were all part of a team making something we were proud of recalls Stephanie
Then he said, “You weren’t doing 100mph, were you And you didn’t overtake me or flash your lights at me, did you” I answered no and he waved me on my way.’
Tenko’s first episode was broadcast in October 1981 but the experience for the almost exclusively female cast of appearing in so iconic a programme – which ran for three series followed by a reunion special set five years later – clearly still goes deep.
The setting, with women incarcerated in prisoner-of-war camps across Southeast Asia during World War II (it was filmed both here and on location in Singapore), may have something to do with it.
‘In real life,’ recalls Stephanie Cole, 71, ‘members of the cast went through births, marriages, divorces and deaths during the filming of Tenko and we were all incredibly supportive. We were all part of a team making something we were proud of.’
Louise Jameson, 61, can count Bergerac, Doctor Who, EastEnders and Doc Martin among her many small screen appearances.
‘But whenever anyone asks me to choose my favourite job,’ she says, ‘I always say Tenko. I’ve never laughed so much on a job, ever. The subject matter was so deeply serious and intense that you needed the release of humour.’
Stephanie Beacham knew all about the pitfalls of being a wife a real-life one
Ann Bell, 72, agrees. ‘I’d worked a lot before Tenko but I’d never done a series and certainly nothing with the viewing figures that show attracted. I’d get stopped in the street once Tenko was broadcast. After a while, I had to avoid the local greengrocer who would always say, “You’re looking so much better since the war, love.” Wink, wink.’
The idea for the show, now celebrated in a book, Remembering Tenko, came from Lavinia Warner, who’d worked as a researcher on This Is Your Life.
One of the subjects featured, Margot Turner, was imprisoned in an all-female Japanese concentration camp in the war. In time, Lavinia wrote a 20-page treatment pinpointing 13 characters, and was given the green light to develop it. But the grim subject matter wasn’t universally smiled on by the suits at the BBC.
‘We didn’t know how viewers would take to Tenko,’ says Stephanie Cole, ‘but we knew it was a wonderful idea, beautifully written.’
The public obviously agreed because by the second series, viewing figures had climbed to 15 or 16 million a week.
Authenticity demanded that the female prisoners should be thin. ‘So I hatched a plan,’ says Stephanie Beacham.
‘Before filming began, I ate more cream cakes than you could shake a stick at and then went on a diet. It meant I lost the first five or six pounds without any trouble.’ But she overdid it.
‘There came a time when Steph Cole noticed I was sneering at anyone who was eating. I was down to a couple of carrots and a pot of cottage cheese a day. The fact was – as she pointed out – I’d become borderline anorexic. And she, bless her, made me eat in front of the rest of the cast just to ensure that I wouldn’t waste away. Without her, I’d have carried on losing weight. I started at around 9st and got down to under 8st.’
Louise Jameson dieted to the thinnest she’d ever been. ‘I got down to 8st 5lb. We were given salads to eat and we were weighed in every morning and our weights recorded on a chart.
'Mind you, we made producer Ken Riddington and director Pennant Roberts stand on the scales, too. It’s as though a kind of collective anorexia was going on. I started to put food in my mouth, just to get the taste of it, and then spat it out. I remember getting quite high on not eating.’
The idea for the show, now celebrated in a book, Remembering Tenko, came from Lavinia Warner, whod worked as a researcher on This Is Your Life
Pennant Roberts, who’d cast Louise as Leela in Doctor Who, had her in mind for the role of Rose, the part that eventually went to Stephanie Beacham.
‘But Ken took one look at me and said, “You’re far too much of a tart. I think you should play Blanche.” I quickly knew the part of Blanche had my name on it. She was everything I wished I could be: no censorship between brain and mouth, an absolute survivor, very funny and feisty. I fell in love with her.’
Ann Bell also grew fond of her character, Marion. ‘You don’t have to like the person you’re playing but you do have to understand them. As it happened, I also liked her. In the reunion special, we learned she’d broken up with her husband after returning home.
'She continued to eat off her plate with her fingers and he was horrified. She’d become a different person. Eventually, she took to drink. She missed the camaraderie of the camp. In many ways, it was one of the best times of her life because the experience was so intense.’
Stephanie Beacham knew all about the pitfalls of being a wife – a real-life one. ‘I didn’t like men at all at the time. My marriage was over and I was at a low ebb. I wanted to be in the company of women in the sunshine.
'I’d put my faith in love and marriage and suddenly I had two babies to raise single-handedly. I was unhappy. So Tenko didn’t exactly change my career but it didn’t half change my personal life. It came at a pivotal time and re-floated my heart. Simple as that. It reaffirmed my belief that things were going to be all right.
‘The whole experience was life-enhancing and particularly for me who was so susceptible to female friendship. These women have remained with me. Nobody,’ she says, ‘has stuck in my life like the lot from Tenko.’
Remembering Tenko by Andy Priestner, 19.99, www.amazon.co.uk or www.classictvpress.co.uk.