A hit period television drama on ITV highlights the critical contribution that women made to breaking German communication codes at Britain’s Bletchley Park during the second World War. Might it also spark an interest in maths and technology in young women?
Guy Burt, the creator and writer of the fictional postwar crime drama The Bletchley Circle, the current season of which concludes on Monday, says he hopes the series will prove an inspiration to a new generation of women, who might not know the history of Bletchley's codebreakers, and might not have thought about mathematics and technology as challenging and enjoyable pursuits.
Often recruited through newspaper ads seeking women who were fast solvers of the Times cryptic crosswords – seen as an indication of pattern-finding ability – the women sent to Bletchley helped crack the German's fiendish Enigma code. The code-breaking is credited with ending the war two to three years earlier and saving countless lives.
The women were sworn to secrecy about their jobs, with husbands, family and friends unaware of their role for decades.
Jonathan Byrne, administrator of Bletchley's Roll of Honour veterans' records (which include three from Ireland), says that although women made up 60 per cent or more of the staff at Bletchley, documentaries tend to concentrate on the men, because they were the senior mathematicians and the managers. "The contribution of the women was absolutely essential. I hope that the programme will make it clear to a wider audience that the role of women was key to this place."
Victoria Worpole, Bletchley Park's director of learning and collections, is thrilled with the production. "We like the series because many of the women who worked here are very humble about the roles they played. The Bletchley Circle makes the story of codebreaking more human."
Worpole says, “It is very important for young girls to see what an important role was played by women in the war. These were intellectual roles.” Through the series, more will see that “if you have an inquiring mind, you can turn it science or engineering or maths”.
"I'm a terrible geek at heart," says Burt, who had a Sinclair ZX Spectrum computer, which he had to program to run. "Right now, I'm in a room surrounded by old synthesizers and old computers," he says over the phone. "All of this is all in my heritage. I've always been a nerdy technophile kind of guy, interested in Alan Turing [Bletchley mathematician and codebreaker] , and the history of computing in Britain – and Bletchley of course fits right into that."
Bletchley not only provided an exciting premise for a crime-solving show, but also the context for societal and personal conflict arising out of the rule of secrecy and the need for these intelligent women to return to the stifling ordinariness of the 1950s.
Burt also tries to keep a Bletchley connection by having episodes centre around “an intellectual puzzle” and the use of deduction and analysis. His favourite scenes are those that centre on his characters gathered in the library, trying to apply their Bletchley deduction skills to a murder or crime.
“I’ve also always been interested in writing about the marginalised,” he says.
“[At Bletchley] you have the fact that you had women who were brilliant and able mathematicians and technologists and they had to keep that hidden, and the incredible contribution they made to the war secret even from their families. Women were being used for their brilliance and then told to conceal it from the rest of their lives. It was really a travesty.”
All of these angles are used to keen dramatic effect in The Bletchley Circle.
"Certainly, I wanted to get the sense of isolation of having to keep a state secret and never reveal it. Then there was the fact that women were told immediately that they wouldn't ever get any advancement out of their work. It was a dead end. Then, the pressure comes because [after the war] you have to be ordinary again.
“I think it’s a painful metaphor for what was happening with women generally.”
He hopes the programme will appeal to young women. “I think we’re living in interesting times in terms of what geekiness means. People are being a bit more liberal in their geekiness; young people are more technically aware, they’re more comfortable with the areas that kind of made you an outsider when I was growing up.”
Now a fully fledged tourist attraction just a short train journey from London, Bletchley’s survival had been uncertain, with the threat of turning it into a car park. But in recent years it has secured £8 million in development funds, which will contribute to a major period restoration of two of the key codebreaker huts on the site, to open this summer.
“It will be very evocative,” Wolpole says. She hopes the series will raise Bletchley’s profile as it prepares to raise another £20 million to renovate crumbling buildings and do further work to enhance the visitor experience.
RECOLLECTIONS OF BLETCHLEY
Gwen Burton (née Witchell)
Bletchley Park, Jan 1944-1945 Block E, Communication Centre
“I was offered a post with a wartime branch of the Foreign Office, somewhere in the south. My interviewer was unable to provide any details of the work I would be doing as it was hush-hush, except that there would be ‘unceasing typing night and day’. On January 3rd, 1944, I travelled with another girl from Wakefield – Margaret, whose father also worked in the Education Department, and on the train we met two other girls from Durham and West Hartlepool. We changed trains and stations in London and finally arrived at Bletchley station.
“We were told that the Germans knew we were there and that we must not talk about our work to anyone, inside or outside the Park... Our job was to transpose blocks of five letters in Morse code printed on ticker tape into the same blocks of ordinary type, and of course it was essential that there were no mistakes . . . It was not until 30 years after the war when the book The Ultra Secret was allowed to be published that we became fully aware of the importance of the work we had done.”
Peggy Barbara Robertson (née Eyre)
WRNS, Bletchley Park, Colossus Operator
"I never heard the word 'Enigma' when I was at Bletchley or knew anything that went on in the other huts – extraordinary . . . When it leaked out in the 1970s, I could finally tell my husband. Some people are still nervous to talk about it as it was planted on us not to talk about it – no one asked us questions at the time as they didn't know it existed. I tell my grandchildren that I worked on the very first computer." (Source: Bletchley Park memoirs, rollofhonour.bletchleypark.org.uk)
The final episode of The Bletchley Circle airs Monday at 9pm on UTV. The first series is available on DVD. For more information on Bletchley Park and its history, reminiscences from veterans, and school maths and codebreaking materials for teachers, visit bletchleypark.org.uk