Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Bletchley Park and Mother as a Spy!




Bletchley Park

Mrs O’s mother died over 30 years ago - much younger than both of us are now. We looked after her in her final years, and also her mother, who died in her 90s.

A standard question talking to people of her generation was - what did you do in the war? Well, the mother-in-law worked at Bletchley Park. It has come back into the news as the world has learned more about the code breakers in World War 2, especially those who cracked the Enigma codes used by the Germans. So as part of a recent vacation we decided to visit Bletchley Park where the whole site has been turned into a working museum.

Having signed the official secrets act, Mrs O’s mother always remained reticent about her activities, but we are pretty sure that she was one of thousands who spent their days as Morse code experts, noting down the stream of apparent gibberish that came through the airwaves. Most were billeted in sub-stations outside Bletchley, and dispatch riders would take their paperwork to Bletchley itself where the code breakers would work on it. As well as claiming to shorten the war by about two years, the work done there provided the foundation for modern computers.

So the Bletchley Park site had exhibitions, films and artefacts, including original huts that have remarkably survived, although were only rescued just in time before they keeled over for good. Prize exhibits included scraps of coding work sheets that should have been destroyed. They only survived because the huts were so draughty that - disobeying orders - the girls used to screw them up and stuff them into holes in the walls and ceilings. When it came to the restoration, there they were.

Apparently around nine thousand people worked at Bletchley Park by the end of the war, and there were many more thousands who came and went over the war years.

There have been some good documentaries about the work that went on there, and two mainstream feature films. The most recent is The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the tortured soul of Alan Turing. Of course, as always, films simplify things. It would appear from The Imitation Game that four or five men did it all - a bit like Jerry Orbach and sidekick solve all the crimes in New York in Law and Order. But the real story would be hard to follow. And of course it is all put down to Bletchley in the UK - to the exclusion of other locations; also the pioneering work of the Poles in cracking codes is only presented in passing.

Perhaps the more entertaining film - although this time almost total fiction is Enigma. I really enjoyed that. It trundles along at a good pace, and keeps you guessing. And there are extra delights for those with quirky minds. Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones was the producer - see if you can spot him as an extra. He’s there with a decidedly un-40s face. And then the main female lead, Kate Winslet, was expecting at the time, so you can have fun watching the careful camera angles and clothes to disguise the fact until the very end, when being pregnant was part of the story, and no padding was required.

It reminds me of a generally forgotten singer named Nancy Whiskey. She sang briefly with the Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group, and they recorded the Elizabeth Cotton folk song Freight Train - and copyrighted it in their own name until events and law suits caught up with them. It was a huge skiffle hit in 1957, and they did the Ed Sullivan Show in America on the back of it and sold a million. To cash in back home, Nancy was booked to sing in a dreadful 1958 British B picture called The Golden Disc, which was smuggled into America as The In-Between Age - a cringe-making title if ever there was one. (The lead actor was one of my favorites, Lee Patterson, a Canadian doomed to play Americans in nearly every British B picture of the fifties - motto - never turn down a part, no matter how bad it is...)

But there were several problems for Nancy. One was that the song was rubbish, a sort of poor man’s Freight Train mark 2. But the bigger problem - literally - was that by the time they came to shoot her sequence, Nancy was enormously pregnant; I would guess about eight months gone. The even bigger problem at the time was that she wasn’t married. The prospective father WAS married, but to someone else... In those 1950s days this was not the thing. So they stuck Nancy behind a mike and put a HUGE music stand in front of her - a bit like those old pictures of heavily pregnant brides resplendent in white at shot-gun weddings with the largest bouquet imaginable suitably positioned. In my own family history when I researched my grandfather I discovered he’d married my grandmother when she was “heavy with child,” and the certificate showed that the two witnesses at the wedding were her parents. I could never tell my ultra-“respectable” father this, although I confess I was sorely tempted at times. Anyway, back to Nancy - her career, from appearing on the Ed Sullivan show, then took a nosedive and she disappeared into domestic obscurity.

But it is scenes like Nancy and her music stand that really make my day in bad movies. I can sit on the sofa with my can of lager and laugh and laugh. Mrs O shakes her head sadly. She doesn’t understand.

But anyhow, what was I writing about? Oh yes, I remember - Bletchley Park. Yes, an interesting subject for an article, Bletchley Park. Someone might write a really instructive piece on Bletchley Park. I must have a try at it one of these days.

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