Rory Cellan-Jones

Bletchley Park - the Fry effect

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 12 May 09, 09:27 GMT

Which celebrity would you want to back your cause? If you were a Gurkha the answer would obviously be Joanna Lumley, but if it were a matter involving technology who better
than Stephen Fry? A while back I found myself pondering whether Mr Fry could kill a gadget after he made clear his distaste for the Blackberry Storm, now I'm wondering just what impact he might have on the campaign to revive Bletchley Park

Stephen Fry at Bletchley ParkYesterday the actor, writer, gadget-fan and polymath came for a look around the wartime decoding centre, at the invitation of the trust which runs it, and I was lucky enough to join his tour.

Last July, a computing academic Dr Sue Black wrote a letter to the Times which sparked off a campaign to try to restore the dilapidated site.

The campaign has had some success - enough money has been raised to put a new roof on the mansion which served as the original wartime headquarters. But most of the huts where thousands of people worked during the war cracking German codes are still in a pretty dreadful state, and Bletchley Park struggles to give its increasing numbers of visitors a coherent picture of what went on and why it was so important, not just to the war effort but to the development of computing.

In fact, I learned a lot more than on previous visits simply by tagging along with Stephen Fry as Simon Greenish, the director of the Bletchley Park Trust, gave him the kind of tour that we'd all like to have.

First, he got to play with a real Enigma machine, one of those used by the Germans to send the coded messages cracked by brilliant minds like Alan Turing.

Then it was off to every corner of the site - from the gate where dozens of despatch riders arrived each day bearing intercepted German messages, to the restored hut 8, where Turing worked on cracking the codes.

One of the new highlights of the site is now the National Museum of Computing, a modest collection which has just got underway but has a wonderful exhibit as its starting-point, Colossus. The world's first electronic computer, which cracked the Lorenz code used by Hitler to communicate with his generals, has been lovingly rebuilt over the last 15 years by Tony Sale, who was on hand to explain its mysteries to Stephen Fry.

Dorothy Richards and Stephen FryAs we were walking across the site we came across a family group escorting an elderly visitor on her first trip back to Bletchley Park since 1945. Dorothy Richards told us she had been drafted to Blethcley, aged 18, and for four years had worked on a punch-card machine. She'd had no idea at the time - or for decades afterwards - of how important the work was, but she knew it was top secret: "We had security talks every week in the big house telling us to keep quiet."

When I recorded a quick interview with Stephen Fry near the end of his visit, he stressed how little recognition Mrs Richards and thousands like her had been given for their contribution to bringing the war to a premature end, and urged everyone to visit the site and understand its importance. If Bletchley Park had wanted to recruit an ardent supporter to the cause, it looks as though the visit did the trick.

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A few years ago such support would have been welcome but of only minor significance. That was before the social media revolution. Stephen Fry's every move is now followed on Twitter by nearly 500,000 people, and Bletchley Park itself has embraced the micro-blogging service.

Late last year a group of ardent geeks visted the site and decided it needed a presence on Twitter. Among them was Christian Payne (known on Twitter as @documentally), and he was at Bletchley yesterday taking the photos you can see on this post, and ardently tweeting, fliming, and recording every moment.

Screen grab of Stephen Fry's Twitter pageThe moment Stephen Fry turned up by the lake near the mansion another visitor spotted him and tweeted his presence, and what had started as a private visit became a major social media event.

Fry's own pictures of his visit, Bletchley Park's website and the site where Tony Sale explains the Colossus project will all have been viewed many thousands of times in the last 24 hours.

So will this make a difference - in crude terms how much cash will come Bletchley Park's way as a result of the visit? Difficult to say, but what Stephen Fry has done is to reinforce something that was already happening, the building of a virtual community of technically-minded people who are passionate about the place and want to make sure its legacy is preserved. So maybe he can be as helpful to Bletchley Park as Joanna Lumley has been to the Gurkhas. All he needs now is a war-cry to match "Ayo Gorkhali!".


  • Comment number 1.

    It's a pain isn't it, every time I read about him, my respect for him grows more! Evebn the fraud bit. A true English gent, saving a true English institution.

  • Comment number 2.

    My parents were heavily involved with Ultra during WW2, and the importance of what they and all the people in the intelligence community just cannot be over stressed.

    I never knew what they did in the war till Winterbottoms book was published in the 70s (after the 30year rule was up), but even now we are still finding out exactly how important this was to ending such a bloody war.

    Sadly, my late father, who ran the Ultra unit in Dehli for General Slim, never talked about the detail, and my mother, who was his sergeant, was not privy to what he shared with Slim, though she is trying to write much of it down for a book for the family.

    But these people were terribly honourable, and were very true to their oaths to the crown and the official secrets act - even after the 30 years was over, they were reluctant to talk of more that the general outline of what they dealt with. We see little of such solid loyalty these days, it seems.

    Bletchley Park tells the story of that part of the allied operation, lead by the British, that was the backbone to the fight back against Hitler and the Japanese of that time. The vast effort of the Americans would not have been possible without this very British coup, though the sharing of information was a problem. In Dehli, the British kept their unit hidden away in a nondescript wooden hut with a sergeant sat at the door (not my mother!) The Americans based there's in a brick building surrounded by armed guards and barbed wire. The British worried that this building was vulnerable mostly because it was so obvious - no one took even a second glance at the British hut!

    I think it is sad that Bletchley Park has had so much trouble to raise its profile, and the money that goes with it. Lets hope they get the cash, and we get to keep probably the most important secret of the 20th century - the secret that won a war.

  • Comment number 3.

    My grandfather served at Bletchley during WWII, in the naval section, were it not for the actions of him and the many thousands of other people who served there, we would all be speaking German and no-one would have any Jewish friends. I can confirm the above about loyalty to the oath of secrecy, he only started to write down the details of his work towards the end of his life.
    I find it striking that twitter is now helping support one of the very institutions that helped defeat a regime that would have ruthlessly exterminated the twitterati had they existed back then.

  • Comment number 4.

    "Simon Greenish, the director of the Bletchley Park Trust, gave him the kind of tour that we'd all like to have."

    Actually the wonderful thing about Bletchley Park is that everyone DOES get that kind of tour included in the ticket price. Tony Sale is frequently on hand to chat about Colossus and several of the tour guides worked at Station X during the war. And you can keep going back on the same ticket for up to a year afterwards.

  • Comment number 5.

    Bletchley Park needs all the help it can get. I am glad Fry is getting involved - and with his well known sexual orientation perhaps something can be done to raise the profile of that genius Turing who was so badly treated because of his that he committed suicide. Who knows where computing would be today if he'd been allowed to continue his work.

  • Comment number 6.

    Living in Milton Keynes for the past few years I - at long last! - visited Bletchley Park a couple of weeks ago and was really impressed, in so many ways.

    The site is much much bigger than I had realised, the pre-war history is amazing, the level of detail and knowledge the volunteer guides have is fantastic, and (IMHO) isn't too pricey to get in AND then surprised when told the ticket can be used again & again all year long.

    The site is clearly in need to repairs though - some of those wooden huts look like they'll struggle to keep water out.

    Anyway, a wonderful place & an amazing history. If you get the chance to go - do!

    PS Hurray for Stephen Fry!

  • Comment number 7.

    I can confirm the outstanding quality of the (free) tours, having been there on my first visit 2 weeks ago.

    A demo of a real enigma machine (my GF got to play code reader) from one volunteer, a tour of the site lasting over an hour from another volunteer (a truly excellent speaker of the Mr Gormsby school - "Try and keep up at the back there!"), a *personal* tour of the history of computing exhibits during a quieter moment at the end of the day (I offered them my pre-production Psion Netbook if they want it for the collection), and finally a "most enlightening" conversation with a retired MI6 employee regarding the evolution of the Typex machine in service.

    Your admission ticket is "all areas", "all tours" and "as many repeat visits as you want, for 12 months".

    Part of the charm is the ongoing restoration - see it now, see the huts unchanged and unrestored, be part of the process - I heard several accounts of visitors that walked in and spotted the piece of kit on which they had unrivaled expertise.

  • Comment number 8.

    Here's a fantastic quick interview with Dorothy Richards

  • Comment number 9.

    I visited Bletchley Park in 2007 with the Audio Engineering Society and was able to trace digital audio as we know it to the code breakers at Bletchley who used the colossus computer, the first programmable digital computer using about 2500 valves, and it is fitting to preserve this site. Bletchley Park was used to intercept the instructions sent to the german u-boats in the north atlantic and the work done at Bletchley Park during the war is estimated to have shortened the second world war by two years using the enigma machine and colossus. If we are prepared to give banks £900,000,000,000 pounds (we probably won't see that money again soon) to stay afloat with their questionable agendas, then Bletchley Park deserves more of a consideration for her work. As a country we need to preserve our heritage when given the opportunity, and we need to learn from history so we can see the future more clearly.

  • Comment number 10.

    It is most appropriate that new technology is coming to the aid of a shinning past example of technology innovation. It shows what is possible and demonstrates what we in the UK need to foster for our future national wealth. The government's lack of support for Bletchley Park, is reflective of their short sighted policies and lack of support to innovation and technology and the UK's future

  • Comment number 11.

    I'd agree about the lack of government funding for Bletchley Park being shortsighted.

    At the moment, my impression is the greater proportion of visitors are in their "senior years" - and yes, it does take some intellectual effort to fully appreciate the work of the museum - *but* it's the very essence of what will inspire the next generation of talented mathematicians and engineers. You know - those people that create things that people actually need, want and buy - rather than the illusory riches of financial speculation.

    Places like this also act as contact point where professionals in the field tend to meet and chat - and *that's* where the really great new ideas have their birth.

  • Comment number 12.

    on a lighter note the hut6 at Bletchley Park is looking for votes for Shed of the year 2009

  • Comment number 13.

    I do have respect for SFry - however I think people latch onto his views as if they are some message from God - the Blackberry Storm that Rory mentioned has not suffered because it is a good product - the article where he slammed it all he spoke about were Apple products and they encourage people to buy overpriced under-resourced products where style triumphs over function. Sadly I now take Stephen and his causes in the same way - he is a "Hostage to Jobs" (Steve Jobs Apple CEO) and as such his views are not balanced - he has only himself to blame!

  • Comment number 14.

    I admire Stephen Fry, I really do. I've followed his Twitter feed since he started and there were less than 5000 of us. But why has he suddenly become the guru of all things technical? He won't even go near anything non-Apple. And though Apple products might be ok, with such a blinkered outlook, he cannot claim that he really is a tech expert and nor should we.

  • Comment number 15.

    The place is one of the greatest treasure in our History and wish it well. I would love to go and take my two daughters, but the cost is far too great. Especially with having to paying to park that is too money grabbing. What selling point is the ticket that lasts 12 months - I so rarely go past Bletchley or Milton Kenynes there once in year to make it much of an incentive.

    I prefer to spend that little bit more and join the National Trust and have the chance to visit 100's of our countries other great buildings and locations. Far more choice and that ticket also lasts 12 months.

    As I said, I wish them well, but it is far too expensive.

  • Comment number 16.

    "Which celebrity would you want to back your cause?"

    Personally I wouldn't want a "celebrity" who has been done for fraud midemeanors and thinks that the current MPs expenses issue is nothing to worry about backing my cause.

    Bletchley Park is an important piece of world history let alone British history but do they really need crooks backing their cause?

    Mind you it's getting tough to find anyone who isn't a crook these days...

  • Comment number 17.

    "A while back I found myself pondering whether Mr Fry could kill a gadget after he made clear his distaste for the Blackberry Storm, now I'm wondering just what impact he might have on the campaign to revive Bletchley Park"

    Sounds like the guy packs quite a punch when it comes to reviews....


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