Sunday, 26 October 2014

That is All You Need to Know

That is All You Need to Know trailer
We were in Salisbury again last week, to see That is All You Need to Know, a production by Idle Motion at Salisbury Arts Centre telling the story of the Bletchley Park codebreakers.

This is nowadays quite a well-trodden topic, but Idle Motion's visual theatre production is innovative in format and, while not ignoring the major players in the story, aimed to bring out a collective impression of the thousands of others involved in the code-breaking. The framing narrative was by Gordon Welchman (played by Henry Wyrley-Birch)- one of the major project leaders at Bletchley Park - beginning to compose his memoirs "to set the record straight", and this led to interwoven narratives of the recruitment and activities of the codebreakers in the 1940s, and the modern campaign to give belated recognition to these people, and to preserve Bletchley Park as a museum.

The 80-minute production is visually stunning. It makes full use of multimedia - music, dance, choreography, recordings of personal testimonies, projections, and creative use of minimalist props (a pair of filing cabinets that become doors, passageways and prjection screens; briefcases that become Enigma machines and railway luggage; desks that become a U-Boat hatch; and so on). The narrative, for me, worked in part: the historical segments conveyed well the excitement and energy of the project, with faultless performances by Grace Chapman, Sophie Cullen, Joel Gatehouse and Ellie Simpson doubling as codebreakers in the past, and campaigners in the present. Elliott Fitzpatrick's sympathetic and poignant portrayal of Alan Turing was a highlight. However, the present-day sequences very much let down the production with a deal of rather slight am-dram farce concerning mistaken village hall bookings.

It must be extremely hard to pitch a drama about cryptography. Either it'll go over the head of the audience, or be too simple for those (like me) who are reasonably familiar with the Enigma story. Idle Motion did very well with this, stressing as intended the contribution of the large body of unsung Bletchley Park staff. The importance of 'cribs' - giveaway phrases that were clues to decoding - was well-explained, as was the skill needed to fill in missed characters in transmissions. But it seemed impossible to express the importance of Welchman's 'diagonal board' innovation to improve the operation of the Bombe decoding machine; it was groundbreaking, but at an inherently untheatrical technical level.

The production in part highlighted Welchman's book The Hut Six Story, which looks worth reading. In contrast to the general anonymity forced on the majority of Bletchley Park workers, Welchman was among of the senior members at Bletchley Park who went on to prestigious work after the war (others included Hugh Alexander, who went on to GCHQ; and Stuart Milner-Barry, who became a high-ranking civil servant). Welchman went to the USA and became involved in military communications research; his 1982 book, though not banned, lost him his security clearance, and he was forbidden to discuss it with the media. Perhaps his story revealed personnel still of strategic importance; perhaps it indicated methods still relevant to decryption at the time (it focuses not merely on the technical, but the management aspects of making a secret organisation work). But most likely his choice to publish was anathema to the security mindset, which doesn't take kindly to people making personal decisions as to when to renege on oaths of secrecy.

The Enigma machine is, anyhow, now a much-studied and mostly open topic; the Wikipedia article Enigma machine is a good start, along with Banburismus, which gives an idea of the abstruse intellectual processes behind analysis of encrypted messages. Probably my favourite single summary of the technical and political background is the paper Facts and myths of Enigma: breaking stereotypes.

Welchman's final assessment of the project, his paper From Polish Bomba to British Bombe: the birth of Ultra was published shortly after his death, and appears in full in the 1997 revised edition of The Hut Six Story, which is among the many books available from the Bletchley Park shop.

Of related interest, The Imitation Game, the biopic of Turing starring Benedict Cumberbatch, is due out on cinema release on November 14. From the trailer, it looks a little overblown in its dramatisation, and appears to introduce fictional elements and bring to centre stage Turing's little-known friendship with Joan Clarke. Reviews from film festival showings have been mixed, but we'll certainly go to see it.

- Ray

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