- 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
Yesterday 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.
As 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.
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.
The 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.
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!".
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