31 October 2011

BBC2's 'Bletchley Park's Lost Heroes'

On 29 October BBC2 showed Code-Breakers: Bletchley Park's Lost Heroes, in the Timewatch documentary strand. It described how the mathematicians Max Newman and Bill Tutte and GPO research engineers led by Tommy Flowers set about decrypting the German Lorenz code by creating an electronic digital processor called Colossus.

The Bletchley Park huts where the Colossus machine has now been reconstructed were used as the location for some of the interviews and as the background to an explanation of the mechanics of the Lorenz machine (known to the British as Tunny), and the principles of the decoding process. The theme of the programme was that both Tutte and Flowers received less recognition than they were due, and even that was belated, largely because of the inevitable secrecy which surrounds cryptanalysis.

For me, the interesting thing about documentaries concerning the Second World War (another recent example was Operation Jericho – the Mosquito raid on Amiens prison) are the recollections of the remaining, and now quite elderly, participants. Otherwise, the breathless narration, the brandishing of established material as revelation and the music just have to be put up with. But on this occasion the historic re-enactments seemed more crass than usual. I do not believe that the WRNS who worked at Bletchley went to work with high-maintenance hairstyles like 1940s Hollywood starlets, nor were they likely to be on duty wearing lashings of lipstick. Even worse, one of the desks was illuminated by an Anglepoise light of a design launched in the 1970s - which is when I worked briefly with Tommy Flower’s son, one of the interviewees– clever father, clever son.

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