After a career as an actress Jill Hyem became a script writer of some of television’s most gripping dramas. Such series as Tenko, Howard’s Way and House of Eliott won large audiences and were packed with dramatic and tense incidents. This was brilliantly evidenced in Tenko (1981–84) which was a cutting edge series that charted the trials and tribulations of a collection of women interned in Japanese camps during the Second World War. Hyem dealt with the horrors, the brutality, the frightful conditions directly without sentimentality or sensationalism.
Jill Hyem was the daughter of a solicitor and spent her early years in London before being evacuated to the West Country during the war. She attended a boarding school in Sussex where she showed talent as a writer and then attended the Webber-Douglas Academy to study acting.
On qualifying, she found work in repertory theatres – mostly the Connaught Theatre in Worthing – and in 1962 she was cast in a long-running play in London’s West End – Goodnight Mrs Puffin, starring Irene Handl. The role was not demanding and Hyem decided to write “some challenging parts for women”.
After minor roles in series such as Dixon of Dock Green, Hyem ceased to act and started concentrating on writing. Her first writing commission came from the BBC (beating Tom Stoppard) and for five years from 1964 Hyem was a regular writer for the hugely popular radio soap Mrs Dale’s Diary. She created several new characters and tried to avoid the much used phrase (“I am worried about Jim”) that Mrs Dale muttered about her under-pressurise doctor husband.
She wrote the final episode and immediately started work on its successor, Waggoner’s Walk, set in a vast urban development.
Hyem, her co-writer Anne Valery and Tenko’s creator Lavinia Warner researched the aftermath of the Japanese invasion of Singapore in detail. Hyem met survivors of the camps and visited the Imperial War Museum’s records. They captured the tedium and stresses of the prisoners’ lives and included nude scenes for the women in washrooms. Hyem wrote: “We were blessed with a cast of brilliant actresses, then virtually unknown, all prepared to lose weight and look their worst.”
Tenko was gritty and showed life in the camp in all its horrors: it told of bitchiness and envy, the daily drudgery, sexual pressures and the filthy conditions.
Hyem had to fight to retain a story about a relationship between two of the women – but was banned by the authorities at the BBC from using the word “lesbian”.
Much of the series was filmed in the Far East and Dorset. For the third and last series Hyem joined the cast in Singapore and, with the BBC’s approval, booked herself into the famous Raffles Hotel.
In 1985 she co-wrote Tenko Reunion as a Christmas special. It told of reunion of the women in 1950 and just to add to the drama they were captured by Communist bandits.
After Tenko, Hyem wrote many other series, notably the opening episodes of Howards’ Way (1986-90) (she delightfully dubbed it “Dallas-by-the-sea”).
The series enjoyed enormous success and mirrored the glamorous US soaps of the era. Typically, Hyem wanted to create strong parts for women. “What interested me particularly was developing the women characters because in the treatment I was first shown they were very black and white and one-dimensional.” Hyem duly wrote a flamboyant role for the exuberant Kate O’Mara.
There followed the 1920s costume drama The House of Eliott (1991-94), and the popular wartime drama Wish Me Luck with Jane Asher (1988-90) about female SOE agents operating behind enemy lines. Hyem also contributed scripts for Angels, Wendy Craig’s Nanny, Campion and Miss Marple with Joan Hickson.
In 1993 Hyem wrote the first episode of the acclaimed series Body & Soul in which a nun (Kristin Scott Thomas) gets a leave of absence from her convent to save the family business. There she meets a male member of the mill and her vows come under pressure. Hyem stylishly and subtly captured the nun’s inner turmoil and it earned her a Bafta nomination.
Despite her diagnosis of cancer Hyem continued to write – she wrote, in all, more than 40 radio plays and a stage play, We’ll Always Have Paris, was produced in 2010.
But it is Tenko for which Hyem will be remembered. It was a strident, ground-breaking series that allowed a dozen fine actresses to create really meaty and spirited roles. Hyem’s scripts were earthy and authentic and she doggedly persevered to get the story lines she wanted: Hyem once ruefully commented on “the BBC’s unconscious male censorship”. She was a strong and resolute woman and a superb wordsmith.
Hyem married Dudley Savill, a Liberal politician and social worker, but the marriage was dissolved. She is survived by her son Ben, a human rights lawyer.