Actor and writer who scripted the hit TV series Tenko, a drama about the lives of women imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp.
Having played ‘an assortment of nurses, air hostesses, dreary daughters, gangsters’ molls and French maids,’ Jill Hyem decided to become a writer and create challenging parts for women
The actor-turned-writer Jill Hyem, who has died of cancer aged 78, scripted 14 of the 30 episodes of Tenko (1981-84), the groundbreaking television series about British, Dutch and Australian women captured and interned in makeshift camps by the Japanese following the fall of Singapore in 1942. Hyem conveyed the overcrowding, malnutrition, violence, disease and death realistically, with no stereotypes or sensationalism.
The women were from diverse backgrounds. Ann Bell played the colonel’s wife Marion Jefferson, reluctant leader of the British, with Stephanie Cole as the stern Dr Beatrice Mason, Stephanie Beacham as the spoiled socialite Rose Millar, Louise Jameson as the mouthy cockney Blanche Simmons, Jean Anderson as the suffragette Joss Holbrook and Patricia Lawrence as Sister Ulrica, the authoritarian leader of the Dutch women. None of the actors wore make-up for the cameras and, over the three series, the female prisoners were shown becoming more filthy and emaciated as a result of their daily degradation and a march through hostile jungle to a new camp at the start of the second run.
Unlike many male-dominated war dramas focusing on military discipline and heroism, Tenko concentrated on friendship, motherhood, female identity, separation from family and sexual vulnerability. Nevertheless, Hyem had to fight to keep a story about a brief relationship between two of the women – and was not allowed to use the word lesbian.
Several of the actors returned to their roles in 1985 for the television film Tenko Reunion, written by Hyem and Anne Valery, who had alternated with her as writer for most of the series.
Hyem was born in Putney, south-west London, the daughter of Rex, a solicitor, and his wife, Hilda (nee Gladwell). From the age of eight, her ambition was to be an actor and, after leaving Farlington school, Horsham, West Sussex, she trained at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art in London. She appeared in repertory theatre in High Wycombe, Watford and Worthing, and in the West End as Pamela Fordyce in the comedy Goodnight Mrs Puffin (Strand and Duke of York’s theatres, 1961-63).
An episode of Tenko. The overcrowding, malnutrition, violence, disease and death in the camp was realistically portrayed without sensationalism
On television, Hyem played Peggy Briggs, daughter of Jimmy Edwards’s tuba player, in the sitcom Bold as Brass (1964). She also had bit parts in popular series such as Dixon of Dock Green, The Valiant Varneys and Sergeant Cork, and several B-movies. However, playing “an assortment of nurses, air hostesses, dreary daughters, gangsters’ molls and French maids” convinced Hyem that she should become a writer and create challenging parts for women.
She began in radio, which remained her favourite medium, first contributing sketches to the BBC Home Service’s Monday Night at Home (1961-62). Between 1964 and 1969, she regularly scripted The Dales, the soap opera that had begun life as Mrs Dale’s Diary and followed a doctor’s wife in a middle-class community. After writing the final episode, she co-created, with Alan Downer, its replacement, Waggoners’ Walk (1969-80), set in a large town house divided up into flats.
The cancellation of Waggoners’ Walk came shortly after she separated from her husband, Dudley Savill, whom she had married in 1966 (they later divorced). Hyem’s worries about bringing up their son, Ben, and paying bills soon disappeared when she was asked by Lavinia Warner, creator of the series, to write Tenko.
She and Warner went on to create Wish Me Luck (1987-90), about female agents behind enemy lines in the second world war. Hyem also wrote scripts for Howards’ Way (1985), Act of Will (1989), Campion (1989-90), The House of Eliott (1991) and Body & Soul (1993).
She served on the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain’s executive council during the 1980s and 90s, and was made an honorary member of the guild in 2007.
Her son survives her.
- Jill Hyem, writer and actor, born 8 January 1937; died 5 June 2015