Finding escape…in prison

As my July bucket list explained, a key element of this month’s ‘vicar school is over – for now’ rejoicing was the reading of books that are not theological.

I do love my current life, vicar school and everything, but I really, really miss my old life’s space and time for non-educational reading. (I also miss singing. That’s a whole other issue.) Whether that’s commuting time spent engrossed in a good read, or the guilt-free pleasure of reading whatever I wanted, it’s certainly not something I have much space for these days. I commute rarely; my bag usually contains some worthy tome; reading anything not on a module guide induces guilt that my time could be better spent working towards the next essay. For a voracious reader who finds their escape in other worlds, this is a sad state of affairs.

So, in preparation for my summer freedom, I ordered a very large book. It arrived the day before my last essay was due (a Friday), so the parcel was hidden under a cushion until the essay was handed in. Saturday morning was spent on the sofa engrossed. Sunday afternoon saw a couple of hours in the sun with it. By Monday night it was finished – all 750 pages of it. Oh. Happy. Days.

Sunshine ReadingSunday afternoon perfection.

The book in question was a blow-by-blow companion to the making of Tenko – the classic TV drama set in a women’s Japanese internment camp during WW2, shown in the very early 1980’s. I’ve written about it before – most recently on how getting lost in a blackhole of its episodes inevitably results in a ‘Tenko Mentality”. It might not sound like a literary masterpiece (it’s not really) but for a die-hard Tenko fan and historian, it was a joy. All of a sudden, I had escaped a world of ecclesiology and taken refuge in mid-twentieth century history and early 1980’s television making.

In the fortnight leading up to the end of term, I’d re-watched all three seasons of Tenko (and the reunion episode) for possibly the fourth time. I’ve definitely written about the show before, it’s something of an obsession amongst the female Clutterbucks – and an reference point for many every day facts of life. (For example, “it’s so humid, my hair makes me look like an extra in Tenko”.) Watch too many episodes in one go and it’s very difficult to re-adjust to the world around you – we are not in a Japanese internment camp (thank goodness!) It’s utterly addictive too. I’m still both impressed and slightly shocked by my ability, the penultimate Monday of term, that I ran 5km and watched an episode of Tenko before I left for college at 8.30am!

It’s total escapism and it’s only struck me in the last couple of days that it seems to have become comfort viewing in times of stress – the last time I watched it all was the week I started vicar school. Like Chalet School books, the world of Tenko is an alternative universe to escape into when the real world is not all that it should be. [As a result, if you ever see me mentioning that I’m watching it, perhaps check that things are ok…]

Back to the book. It was a joy. If you’re slightly OCD about needing know why things happened the way they did; why plots evolved; how things might have happened; and how it all fits together with reality, then this is perfect. For goodness sake, it’s 750 pages long, and there are photos! It includes possible story-lines that never made it to filming, the experiences of the cast and crew, why cast changes happened the way they did and the real-life experiences of life in the camps that inspired the series. It even includes a bibliography for further reading…

…thus, three days after finishing the book, I returned home to another piece of holiday reading – Women Behind the Wire, a collection of experiences of women who lived through Tenko in reality. It really comes to something that my idea of ‘holiday’ reading now that I’m a theology student is historical stuff! Again, it’s not a literary masterpiece and hasn’t aged particularly well – what counted as ‘popular’ history in the early 80’s doesn’t compare well with that written 30 years later. It’s rather sentimental and its references to the Japanese soldiers verge on the patronising, but it does tell the stories of some incredible men and women.

Tenko was the result of the producer’s earlier job researching those honoured by This Is Your Life, specifically Brigadier Dame Margot Turner, who had been interned by the Japanese. After making the first series of Tenko, Lavinia Warner researched the stories of many of the women interned alongside her, producing a book that chronicles the experiences of one community of women throughout their internment. It’s fascinating, heart-breaking and an example of just how horrific humanity can be. At the same time, it provides an idea of where some of the Tenko storylines came from – though it’s abundantly clear than the women of Tenko had things a lot easier than was really the case!

Now, I feel I have something like closure on this episode of history. True, I still need to get hold of a copy of Paradise Road so I can watch it again (this film depicting a vocal chorus in a camp was also inspired by Women Behind the Wire) and there are one or two other books I’d like to read, but I think it’s enough for now. Next on my summer list is a few more titles from that ever-reliable stalwart of my library: Elinor M. Brent-Dyer…

Developing a Tenko mentality

Regular readers will know that I have (possibly unhealthy) tendency to fall into black holes in which I’m lost for days and days at a time – perhaps it’s an indication of an obsessive personality…

It often occurs with TV series, in which hour upon hour is invested in something gripping – the dawn of the DVD boxset is particularly responsible for this. It’s the knowledge that there’s always one more episode, one more series. I suspect the main reason I haven’t yet begun The West Wing is that with seven seasons to consume, I could easily lose several weeks of my life. [Though, if anyone has season 1 to hand, I would love to borrow it – just don’t let me near it if an essay deadline’s looming.]

This past weekend was lost in a blur of prison huts, rice rations, medical crises and Japanese soldiers. Somehow (honestly, I can’t remember what I’d typed into YouTube) on Friday evening I discovered that entire episodes of classic 1980s series Tenko were now online. The ridiculous thing is that this isn’t the first time I’ve locked myself in my room with a load of internees – around 6 years ago I borrowed my Mum’s DVDs and watched the whole thing over a few weeks, trying to ration episodes in between the arrival of boxsets from across the Irish Sea in the same way that the prisoners rationed their vegetables.

Like Jewel in the Crown, Tenko is brilliant period drama. It lacks the stunning vistas of JiTC, as (apart from the first couple of episodes set in Singapore) it was filmed in Dorset. [This raises two questions: 1. How did they get so many days of sunshine in which to film? 2. How was it warm enough for the actors to look so hot in so little clothing?] You really wouldn’t know it was Dorset though, honest. It’s brilliantly acted, with a virtual who’s who of 1980s actresses (personally, I love that one of the best characters couldn’t appear in the third series because she was already committed to Bergerac) – thank goodness for Wikipedia helping me make connections!

When you think about it, it’s incredible that such a riveting drama could be created in a context where the characters never leave the confines of a small camp. The story begins before the Japanese invasion of Singapore in 1941, with three episodes setting the scene and introducing the characters – it’s a little like the start of an episode of Casualty where you begin to get a feeling of foreboding as you see a dangerous situation emerge. Series one ends with the women moving to a new camp; series two is set entirely in a camp run by a despotic female interpreter; and series three chronicles their transition back into society after the war. I think one of the reasons why it’s so addictive is that you truly buy into the characters and want to know if they survive and what happens to them in the end. God bless its producers by filming a reunion special set five years after the war so that we’re able to achieve a level of closure!

Tenko holds a special place in the hearts of the women of our family and I’ve no idea why. My sister and I were too young to watch it originally, but I think Mum talked about it a lot – certainly it was something we looked out for on DVD for her for quite a while. For a while it was shown at lunchtimes on the History channel and my sister would occasionally taunt me with texts during school holidays because she was watching it. My Dad is so aware of the addictive nature of the programme than when I mentioned I’d found it online last night, he groaned and asked how many episodes I’d watched.

As I write this, episode nine of series two is on – so that’s the 19th episode since Friday night. That’s rather excessive. The worst thing about the addiction is that you start developing what I like to call a ‘Tenko mentality’ – watch too many episodes in one go, alone in your bedroom and you start believing that you too are interned on a Sumatran island. Suddenly you have an overwhelming urge to eat rice and make hats out of grass. You know you need to stop watching for a while when you’ve eaten rice for more than two meals in a row.

So, if you’d like to know what the fuss is about and lose 1500 minutes of your life, here’s episode one:

Gone, but not forgotten

Having just taken a Sex and the City quiz (scoring a respectable 8/10) I’ve been reflecting on the dark month that was May 2004, when not only did SATC finish, but so did Friends. Around about the same time Dawson’s Creek bit the dust. (Oh how I cried during that episode! Has got to be one of the most depressing pieces of TV ever!)

No sooner had I finished mentioning this dark month to my colleague (who scoffed & didn’t seem to understand the trauma), than I found an article from the Guardian on the results of a recent poll to find the 10 most-missed shows.

It’s a bit of a dull list really, containing quite a few shows I’ve never bothered with – The Office, West Wing, Sopranos & Only Fools and Horses (my sister claims I’m a snob & don’t like ‘working class’ comedy, that’s a lie!!).

My own top 10 would look something like this:

1. Friends (Thankfully there’s 2 episodes on a day, but I miss new ones!)
3. Dawson’s Creek (though I do own all 6 series…did I just type that?? Oops.)
5. ER (It’s not officially over, but next season is it’s last. Besides, for me it pretty much finished when Dr Green left for the big ER in the sky.)
6. The Biz (little known CBBC drama about kids at stage school)
7. This Life (I especially liked watching it illicitly, aged 14/15 on the spare TV upstairs without my parents finding out!)
9. Gilmore Girls (Was hardly ever shown on UK TV so I’ve only really seen 2 of the 7 seasons, still, it looked good!)
10. Jewel in the Crown (As it was based on a set of books it couldn’t have gone on longer, but was amazing.)
11. Press Gang (I know, it’s a top 10 but I just remembered & it is great. Watching them again on dvd has been an enlightening experience, plus a teenage Dexter Fletcher….)

Incidentally, still on the theme of classic TV, apparantly the same survey also reveals that around 30% of people have “romantically fallen in love” with a TV character. Interesting turn of phrase!

Has to be said, only person I can think of that falls into that category is Clark Kent/Superman from the New Adventures of Superman – Dean Cain. Incredibly pathetic in reflection, but I was only 12. Although, now I’m re-watching ER from the start I may possibly be falling in love with a young(er) George Clooney!

Also, well done to all those Wikipedia TV dorks who spend their spare time writing episode guides & plot summaries to even the most obscure of shows! Ever need to kill a few minutes? Just look up your favourite show & read away.