Newly released government documents reveal that back in 1981, when war drama Tenko was first shown on BBC1, it caused a huge diplomatic row between Britain and Japan.

The groundbreaking series, starring former Coronation Street actresses Stephanie Cole and Stephanie Beacham, was inspired by real World War II stories and depicted the brutal treatment of British and Dutch women prisoners of war held in a Japanese internment camp on the island of Sumatra in 1942.

Some British women were killed by their Japanese guards, or died of malnutrition and dreadful diseases such as malaria, cholera and beriberi.

The government documents show that the screening of the drama caused dismay at the Japanese embassy, which lobbied the Foreign Office to ask the BBC to tone it down.

Conservative MP Sir Julian Ridsdale even met with George Howard, chairman of the BBC board of governors, to complain and explain how the show was harming Britain’s good relations with Japan. Sir Julian asked the BBC to ‘make certain cuts in the future to remove some of the more brutal scenes’.

Stephanie, who played the internment camp’s fearsome medic Dr Beatrice Mason,  told What’s On TV: “Tenko was 1981 and a very important piece of television because for the first time ever it was a hugely successful series all about women.

“All the cast were surprised at the positive impact it had on how women were reflected on TV, and not just as wives, daughters and mothers. It was over 30 years ago now but it pushed things in a very positive direction.”