Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Daily Telegraph Cryptic

I meet quite a few people who like to cryptic crosswords. I meet quite a few more people who wish they could. Here's something that I've put up designed to help you unpick the clues in Daily Telegraph cryptic. It's not all of the solutions, but some. (I can't do them all myself, for a start). But it 'shows working' and might be of use to some.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Crossword Ends in Violence (5)

If you enjoy Hut 33, and/or crosswords, you may enjoy a novel I've just written called Crossword Ends in Violence (5). It's a quintessentially British thriller about a professional crossword setter who discovers that his grandfather was accused of passing secrets to the Nazis just before D-Day. It's a comic spy novel - with a gulag and some chess grandmasters thrown in. It's like Robert Harris with jokes.

You can read long extracts of it here. And you can buy it here.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Milton Jones & Miranda Hart

As well as writing Hut 33, I get to co-write Another Case of Milton Jones, with the thoroughly delightful and eponymous Milton Jones. The show is produced by equally splendid, but less eponymous, David Tyler. You can listen to it, via the BBC iPlayer, here. And buy the previous series on CD here.

I've also been helping Miranda Hart write her Joke Shop for BBC Radio 2. It aired over the summer and is now available on CD, just in time for the Credit Crunch. Ah yes, comedy is all about timing. It's here.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Enigma News

In case you haven't seen already, it has been revealed that Franco used the Enigma Machine in the Spanish Civil War.

But it may be worth pausing to consider for a moment our country's fascination with the Enigma machine. Why is it such a popular icon - and any stories about Enigma machines are immediately snapped up by the Enigma machine. Why? Here are a few reasons:

1. The Enigma machine represents a tangible, enduring, inoffensive of war memorabila. It is an easily identifiable object that stands for one aspect of World War 2 - and of course, as a nation we are still obsessed with World War 2.

2. The Enigma machine is simple and is in itself a thing of beauty. And yet it represents bamboozling perplexity. Such a small, easily contained item - not much bigger than a typewriter, in a pleasing wooden case. And yet it has serious scrambling power.

3. The British encryption machine, TypeX, was actually more effective and powerful. It was based on the Enigma-rotor system, and was not broken by the Germans. They did not however, have a code-breaking initiative on the scale of Bletchley Park. But it is not such a beautiful design and it doesn't come with the same stories that the Enigma brings. It's altogether less exciting to the man in the street.

4. The cracking of the Enigma machine represents a popular, memorable, British success in World War Two. It's something to be proud of as a nation. I say 'popular' because it is popularly believed that the British cracked the Enigma when it was the Poles who got there first, invented the Bombe and handed their research to the British - saving them months of headscratching work. The Poles were, in my opinion, rather shamefully sidenlined thereafter, but there's not doubt that Turing, Newman et al built on the work and did amazing things with numbers and letters. One unequivocally British success of cracking the Lorenz cipher, Hitler's own personal code that was far more heavily encrypted than anything else previously encountered. And this led to the building of Colussus, which, despite the name, isn't as strong a 'brand' as the German Enigma machine.

Anyway, those are some brief thoughts on the matter. Read about the Spanish Civil War story here.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Some Useful Links

Here are one or two links if you are interested in the business of writing, or thinking about sit-com.

Ken Levine, writer of many American sitcom hits, has a blog here.

I also recommend Rob Long's weekly podcast called Martini Shot, broadcast by KCRW. It's only 4-5 minutes long, but is an interesting window into the comedy writing world. You can find that here. He is also the author of this wonderful semi-autobiographical book published a few years ago called Conversations with My Agent. He has followed it up more recently with Set Up Joke, Set up Joke.

Rob Long writes very well about the Biz, as it were. And there are literally dozens of TV shows about sitcoms from the past. But there isn't much out there on the technical subject of comedy writing itself. One book I read when I was starting out was Writing Comedy by Ronald Wolfe, writer of the now unwatchable On the Buses. But the structural stuff and the way in which comedy works is all useful, even if you end up writing jokes that don't revolve around 'crumpet'.

If I stumble across other resources, I'll put them up here. In case you're interested. You may not be. You may just like Hut 33. In which case, let me reassure you that I'm doing my best to write Series 3 at the moment - and it should be out in the second half of 2009.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Don't Bet on it

Last week's episode (in this current run of Series 1 repeats) was probably my favourite episode of either series. And not just because of the sultry, sizzling tones of Miranda Raison - although that had something to do with it. It's because the character that Miranda played sent the characters spinning off in all kinds of directions - and ultimately back into each other. Once the idea was in place, the episode came together very quickly.

This was not the case with this week's episode - Don't Bet on It, which was the eternally tricky fifth episode. See below for details on why Episode 5 is always the hardest to write. (We circumvented this issue in the latest series of Another Case of Milton Jones by only making four episodes). I was keen that Charles establish some kind of betting syndicate. My original idea was to have them bet on results that Charles could rig - and then eventually bet on baseball in America which he could not rig. Then a crucial game would be cancelled by the intervention of Pearl Harbour.

I did use Pearl Harbour as a plot intervention - in series 2. I also used the German invasion of Russia as a plot intervention in Series 1, which got all the characters off the hook for some Marxist-based misdemeanour. Both, if we're being honest, are cheats. The technical term for them is Deus Ex Machina. They are an event from the outside over which the characters have no control. (I believe Shakespeare uses it occasionally. There's some bit in Measure for Measure when a Duke returns 'fortuitously' and it's all a bit contrived.)

A Deus ex Machina is, to some extent, an admission of defeat. In sitcom, the characters problems are caused by themselves. No matter how tenuous. Ideally it isn't tenuous - and involves the resolution of colliding plots. Because if someone is vindicated - or destroyed - by a Deus Ex Machina, they don't deserve it. Sitcoms are, to some extent, morality tales. When a character is exhonerated unjustly, or maimed without good reason, it seems unfair. (This is one reason why I stopped reading Evelyn Waugh. As an author, he is horrid to his characters who just don't deserve to have life go so badly for them when they've done nothing to deserve it).

I suppose this tells us about our innate sense of justice, right and wrong. We don't want to read, hear or watch stories where people are not treated as they deserve. But here we get far more profound than a preposterous wartime sitcom like Hut 33 merits. So we'll stop there. Suffice to say that Charles, in this episode, gets his just deserts.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Pressing 'pause'

In case you were wondering, the repeat of Series 1 of Hut 33 is taking a short break for the Edinburgh Festival. Episodes 3-6 will be broadcast in September. Fret not.

In the meantime, you may be interested to know that the complete first series of Concrete Cow - a sketch show wot a wrote from a few years ago - is now available on CD. It stars the Olivia Colman (Hut 33's Minka), Rob Webb (of Mitchell and Webb) and the now ludicrously famous Sally Hawkins (Happy Go Lucky, Fingersmith etc). Sally also wrote some of the sketches with Catherine Shepherd, so they're clearly annoyingly talented. The show also starred Chris Pavlo and Steven Kynman. It also contained sketches written by Jon Holmes (The Now Show) and Robin Ince (whom I saw on Richard and Judy the other day). The show even got some good reviews.

Anyway, it's available from places like this.

Monday, 11 August 2008

History Repeating

It seems odd that Episode 2 of Hut 33 should be about one of the characters potentially leaving, but it proved to spark a good spat between Archie and Charles.

A foreign posting in Iraq becomes available and naturally it is assumed that Charles will be the one to be sent - he is the linguist after all and knows the area. But Archie won't stand for it. Why should Charles get the foreign posting? He's only just arrived for a start. A game of cat and mouse ensues and the foreign posting is not quite what it appears. Eventually, they have to join forces to wriggle out of their commitments. They are only saved by exterior events and a Fascist coup in Baghdad which was temporarily taken over by the Germans.

And so begins the theme of "being sent abroad" in Hut 33. It's been a common threat in Hut 33 (as it was in Allo Allo; the German soldiers were all worried about being to sent to the Russian Front, which meant certain death, or worse.) In Series 2 of Hut 33, the big threat was being sent to Burma, a land of poisonous snakes and terrifying diseases. Who knows what threats Series 3 will hold?

In any given sitcom, there needs to be jeopardy. One needs to ask 'What's at stake?' If there are no consequences to failure the audience will rapidly lose interest because they don't care about the characters. In reality, the consequences of failure at Bletchley were often too awful to think about, but since our regular characters are not really at the coalface of code-breaking, there is less at stake. So failure, for them, needs to be punished in other ways. Being sent abroad was one of them.

Of course, the greatest thing to be avoided is 'losing face' or being seen to be wrong. Pride is one of the great sitcom motivators - and in that it really does resemble real life.

Monday, 4 August 2008

Series 1 Repeat

Here's a bit of good news for Hut 33 fans.

Series 1 is being repeated on Radio 4 in the 6.30pm slot. From tomorrow - Tuesday 5th August. Two episodes will be broadcast. Then a break for some Edinburgh stuff. And then the rest of the series will go out in September. That's the plan, I think.

The series begins with the pilot episode in which Professor Charles Gardiner, from St Sebastian's College, Oxford, arrives and encounters unexpected hostility from Archie - for rather personal reasons. Meanwhile, there's an Inter-Hut Bridge tournament that 3rd Lieutenant Joshua Fanshawe-Marshall is keen the Hut wins.

The Problem of Pilot Episodes
This episode, unsurprisingly, was the first episode I wrote. And every sit-com writer always starts with the dilemma of how to start a new sitcom. The pilot episode is by far the hardest one to write. Do you simply get on with it and hope that people pick up the characters and then get the jokes? Or do you work out a way to introduce characters one by one?

The problem with any new sitcom is that sitcoms should rely on character for comedy and plot. They are all part of the same package. Characters say and do funny things because of who they are. 'Wise-cracking' gets boring after a while. We like characters we can identify with who do things and say things because of their own flaws and prejudices. But how do you get laughs from the start when the characters are unfamiliar?

Here are a few cheats that I've learned in the last few years and used to good-ish effect (or not, if you hate the show.)

The first is start with as few characters as possible and put them in a sketch-like situation. So the episode begins with some basic code-breaking jokes that are easy to get, not least because one of the characters, Joshua, is monumentally stupid (that's the other trick - a stupid person who needs stuff explained to them (and so we, the audience, benefit from that explanation)). Joshua thinks German is already a code. A basic joke of misunderstanding. We can all laugh and we're not too worried about who everyone is but the show is underway. We're familiar with some of the voices. There's a Geordie, a young-sounding man, a posh, stupid military-type who sounds like he's in charge and then a strange Polish woman called Minka comes in. We've established some sort of hierarchy in our heads and are already building the set in our mind's eye.

The characters themselves are 'big'. That's a intentional decision and, in my opinion, the most effective way of doing audience comedy. I enjoy nuanced, subtle comedy too. But comedy characters need to have simple driving forces and comic attitudes to be quickly understandable and, therefore, funny. So we quickly find out that Archie is an inverse-snob; Gordon is an innocent bag of nerves; Josh is a patriotic moron; Minka is a psychopath.

After a few pages getting to know these characters, we can meet Mrs Best - who is a very liberal nymphomaniac. Then we can introduce a 'new boy' who can be our eyes in unfamiliar surroundings. He's introduced to people - and we discover he is a pompous snob. He has things explained to him and it's quickly established that we have a problematic central relationship. Archie and Charles are not going to get on. Hooray. We have a fight on our hands. Comedy is about conflict. Who's going to win? Well, I've written twelve episodes of the show and I'd say they're both definitely losing.

If you're new to the show, I hope you enjoy it. If you've heard it and can't understand why Radio 4 insist on broadcasting this rubbish, I say 'each to his own'.

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Fighting against the odds

Over the past seventy years, Bletchley Park has beaten the odds on a number of occasions. The most obvious odds to overcome were the chances of cracking the Enigma code that began emanating from Germany in the late 1930s. Boffins were bundled into vans, linguists rounded up and all manner of experts approached to work on the problem. But the entire enterprise was nearly stillborn before it had even got underway. Admiral Sir Hugh Sinclair had to defeat the insurmountable object that was the British Civil Service. Securing the funds for buying Bletchley Park took so long, Sir Hugh ended up spending £7500 of his own money on the building (c. £1.2m by today’s earnings)

With the site secured, they finally had some luck cracking Enigma. They rapidly discovered the Poles had already done it. Keen to find out what all the muttering was about in Germany, the Poles had broken the wheel-settings and found a way to mechanise the process, creating a giant calculator known as a bombe. Code-breaking activity in Poland was somewhat curtailed in 1939 and the methods and the machine were imported to Bletchley where they were honed, duplicated and industrialised. By the end of the war over 200 bombes whirred away at Bletchley and five other stations.

By 1941, the codebreakers had another problem put in their path. Not another fiendish code – they could handle those - but their own government were causing difficulties. Bletchley Park lacked man-power, and woman-power, and no amount of protesting to the War Office seemed to make any difference to their resources. So a letter was taken to Churchill, delivered to Downing Street in person by Stuart Milner-Barry. He was deputy head of Hut 6, where some of the greatest feats in mathematics, logic and codebreaking of all time were performed. These calculations undoubtedly shortened the war by several months and saved thousands of lives. In fact, you still see Hut 6 now, boarded up, rotting with the paint peeling off. Churchill interceded, funds were found and men moved.

Then a new curious code was picked up in through the airwaves. It was believed to be Hitler’s own secret cipher and no-one had a clue where to begin. It seemed hopelessly complex. Which it was. But a 24-year-old chemist from Trinity College, Cambridge, called Bill Tutte got to work where many before him had failed. With some educated guesswork and some ferocious intelligence, he worked out the secret Lorenz cipher was generated by a machine with two sets of five rotors. On one set of five, the rotors had 41, 31, 29, 26 and 23 settings respectively. On the other, 43, 47, 51, 53 and 59. This astonishing discovery – borne out when a Lorenz cipher machine was captured some time later - did not suddenly render the message legible. It just gave told the codebreakers that the odds of cracking the code itself were infinitesimal. But, as one would expect, with patient brilliance, the codebreakers found a way through. And soon enough, a computer, Colossus, was designed to automate the calculations.

But once again it was the government and authorities, not the numbers, that were the ultimate frustration. Tommy Flowers invented a valve-based computer that was deemed far too expensive to fund, and so he put his hand into his own pocket and partly funded the project himself. The machine was built, the Lorenz cipher cracked and Hitler’s own personal messages were intercepted. Armed with this weapon, the allies could make decisions surrounding D-Day with confidence since they sometimes knew the mind of the Fuhrer before Goering, Kesselring and Rommel.

After the war, the site continued to be used for various government training roles – teachers, post office workers and members of GCHQ. By 1991, however, the site had fallen into disuse and was about to be torn down and replaced with a housing development. It would have been bulldozed but for the efforts of the Bletchley Archaeological and Historical Society. They tracked down former codebreakers so that they could at least say farewell to the place before the diggers moved in. Over 400 attended. One final stay of execution for the site was granted. Bletchley Park Trust was formed the following year, shortly after Milton Keynes Borough Council declared most of the Park a conservation area. In 1993 it was open to the public.

Fifteen years on, the site is barely scraping by. Despite receiving no government assistance, it stands as a national monument to mathematical brilliance, even when the country has never been prepared to pay for it. Only a recent change in Lottery Funding rules has allowed an application for money. Even if the bid is successful, the money may take a year to arrive and not even be sufficient when it does. But one can’t help feeling that given it’s seventy year track record in beating enormous odds, the Bletchley bosses would be better off buying a Lottery ticket.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Bletchley in Trouble

An open letter has been sent to The Times highlighting the financial plight of Bletchley Park. Read all about it here. BBC online has reported it here.

Given the vast amounts of money handled by the Lottery Fund, there must surely be a few million sloshing around to secure this national treasure? The site is in need of investment - and let's remember that the codebreakers undoubtedly saved thousands of lives during the War and arguably shortened the war by a number of months, if not years. While the government officials sit on their hands, it might be worth considering reaching into your own pocket and become a friend of Bletchley here.

Friday, 11 July 2008

A Third Series!

I'm pleased to announce that BBC Radio 4 has commissioned a third series of Hut 33. The recording dates and transmission dates are not yet clear, but it's happening. So that's good.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Think the Unthinkable

If you liked Hut 33, you may be interested in some other shows wot I wrote. One of them is Think the Unthinkable, the second series of which is currently being repeated on BBC7. Quite frequently. You can find the latest episode at here. You should be able to listen again later. This episodes features a company called 'Blue Herring' and contains one of my favourite exchanges with Daisy, splendidly played by the delightful Catherine Shepherd.

Incidentally, the first series of Think the Unthinkable is still available on CD from Amazon and other retailers. If you would Hut 33 to be similarly available please write to your MPs who will no doubt process your requests in the usual way and raise the matter in the House.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Even Gillian Reynolds laughed...

In case you're wondering about critical reaction to the show - beyond the generally enthusiatic one from Chris Campling in The Times - Gillian Reynolds wrote this on 11th June. Hardly a ringing endorsement, but at least she 'fesses up to laughing. She writes:

I confess to mixed feelings about this sitcom set in a wartime de-coding centre. I find it hard to giggle about people who lived in isolated privation to crack essential enemy messages. Yet the cast is good, the characters not invariably too crude to convince and, I admit it, occasionally there’s a laugh. But why schedule, just before it, a repeat of a splendid feature on real-life British military spies, The Brixmis Story, by Jolyon Jenkins. Or maybe they’re all too young at Radio 4 these days to know the difference.

Incidentally, there is also a Facebook group to get Hut 33 commissioned as a TV series. Naturally I'm in favour...

Friday, 20 June 2008

Getting Heavy - Episode 5

The official blurb said:

Getting Heavy
Hut 33's record is the worst in the complex. Charles is mortified with shame, Archie is desperate to prove himself and Gordon wants to impress a girl he has just met. They break into Hut 7b to get extra information on a message they are decoding, which turns out not to be a good idea.

Getting Heavy, the episode of Hut 33 that aired on Wednesday 18th June, was easily the mot difficult episode to write. It happens every series I've ever done. You write episodes 1 to 4 fairly easily as you're fresh and excited about a new series and bursting with ideas. Episode 5 is like pulling teeth. It takes lots of drafts and just doesn't want to settle down. And Episode 6 comes together extremely quickly (see last blog post).

So Getting Heavy was one of those tricky ones that took six full drafts to crack. It was only in the fifth draft that I deleted a whole plot strand about radioactivity. That was what I wanted to do an episode about - our characters not really understanding Uranium, touching some and then being bundled in a van and taken off to some secret facility where they would be tested, poked and prodded. There was even a part where they thought they might have special super-powers as a result of the exposure to radiation - which sounds rather preposterous but let's not forget that in 1941, not an awful lot was widely known about radiation. The first H-Bomb was still to be invented In the end, we had a Quarantine episode in a different show, so the idea of being sealed off was covered in the series.

What I was able to retain, however, was the rivalry about sex-lives between Archie and Charles - and then Gordon. Archie is full of bravado, but short on delivery. Charles is aloof and unimpressed by innuendo, but has finally given into Mrs Best's pestering. Then step forward Gordon, who becomes the star of this show. Once he finds his woman, loses his virginity - he thinks - he becomes a man.

Two parallels spring to mind. One is Arnold Rimmer's alter-ego in Red Dwarf who is known as Ace - and says 'Smoke me a kipper. I'll be back for breakfast' played by the splendid Chris Barrie. The other is Harry Enfield's whining Kevin character, the teenager who hangs around with Kevin and complains about everything. He radically transforms once he's had sex, becoming polite to his parents and very contented.

I should add that I don't share this view about losing one's virginity. It doesn't 'make you a man' or turn you into a contented polite person. We're back to the theme of myself as the writer having different views from the characters that I write. I hope, if anything, that this episode demonstrates that the hypocrisy and lying that goes on around sex is rather feeble and very pervasive. And let's be honest about this. The War was a time of pre-marital and extra-marital sex on a large scale. I don't condone it. I hope to painting a picture of Wartime Britain as it was rather than how we would chose to remember it. With a few jokes along with way.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Where Boffins Dare

Episode 4 in Hut 33 is called ‘Where Boffins Dare’. The episode was, in fact, the sixth and last one to be written and recorded in the series. Like most final episodes in a series of six, it was of a frantic scramble to get written in time. You might think that the last episode is the hardest to write because you’re all out of ideas and have to scratch your head for weeks to find something for the characters to do – that you haven’t done before. This can be the case on individual jokes. Eg. Minka’s silent entrances need a different joke each time. Coming up with three or four is tricky. A fifth and then a sixth is really hard work.

Hearing Voices
Overall, however, Episode Sixes, as a rule, tend to get written fairly quickly. This is normally because Episodes One to Five take longer to write than you’d planned. But the shortage of time for Episode Six is not a disaster by any means. Having written five episodes in the series already, you find you’re writing faster and more ‘in character’ from the start. As a result, your Draft 1 is probably as strong as your Draft 2 on Episode One or Two. As the writer of the whole series, you’ve learnt the lessons again about what’s funny and what isn’t. You’ve re-learned the mechanics of writing radio comedy – and how that differs from television, prose and everything. Also, you can ‘hear’ the voices of all the characters almost instantly – and these voices sometimes lead you away from where you’re wanting to go in any particular scene. So you just have to follow the voices.

Being able to ‘hear’ the voices of your characters in response to any given subject is very important. If you can, you know you’ve got a show that stands a chance of being a success. I was once given some very good advice a long time ago by Gareth Edwards, a BBC producer and thoroughly decent human being. He said that you should be able to take your regular characters, put them into an odd or unusual situation, and know immediately how how the characters will react. If you can’t do that, you need to do more work on the characters. Eg. In your mind, put them in a scene from Alice in Wonderland. How would they respond? What would they say or do?

I did this when I was putting together the show Think the Unthinkable. In my mind, I sent my characters into a coffee shop – hardly Wonderland but effective nonetheless. Also, bear in mind it was nearly ten years ago when places like Starbucks were rather exciting, rather than functional and part of everyday life. Anyway, I knew straight away what my characters would order. Ryan (Marcus Brigstocke) would order some ludicrously overpriced frappelatte that barely resembles coffee (and probably doesn’t even contain any). Sophie (Emma Kennedy/Beth Chalmers) would order a triple espresso. Daisy (Catherine Shepherd) a skinny decaf fairtrade cappucinno with organic chocolate on top. Owen (David Mitchell) would just want coffee and keep saying coffee ‘til he got one – ideally with milk extracted from animal in a slightly cruel way. (Incidentally, Series 1 of that show is now available on CD here)

Last week, episode 3 of Hut 33 called ‘Yellow’, started with a slightly arbitrary scene that tested their character in a slightly unusual way - a simple game of Monopoly. Our regular three characters, plus Mrs Best, play this relatively new game. It should be no big deal. But it’s a great opportunity to express character, prejudice, snobbery and general anger. It was useful to the plot of that episode because it highlighted was a terrible Christmas they were having. And therefore the prospected of having to spend New Year’s Eve together in Quarantine was simply too much to bear – hence the tunnelling and escape plans. In the end, the game of monopoly turned into a large political dispute about the ownership of property which was true to the characters. And the audience seemed to enjoy it – because they were starting to know the characters as well as I did.

In essence, one of the main tricks of sitcom is taking characters out of their comfort zone – without it seeming contrived or ridiculous. It’s up to you to decide whether I’ve been successful in that.

Mistakes in Writing Sitcom
Along the way, then, we can note that this is an area where many first-time writers fall down. New writers are tempted to make their characters sit around and say ‘funny things’ rather than get up, move around and ‘be’ funny. First-time script frequently focus around funny, witty characters swapping jokes and witticisms. This is okay for three pages – Hut 33 attempts to have our characters in the Hut for the first three or four pages talking about stuff to set up the episode and reintroduce the characters – but it doesn’t sustain for forty pages, which is what you need. You need to give them stuff to do, reasons to react with each other and new characters. Put them in Wonderland.

That was the reasoning behind an Australian Doctor in Episode 3 played by Brendon Burns. How would the characters react to this ‘in-your-face’ character? It was a great chance for Charles to demonstrate his colonial prejudice, which come back to bite him later. It’s also funnier to have him confronted with a real-live Australian than simply have Charles sit around and make jokes about Australians. And it’s funnier for this Australian to be equally acerbic as Charles and be able to take revenge on him.

It was also one of the reasons for using the Duke of Kent character in Episode 1. It’s funnier to have Archie, as a working man from a traditional Newcastle mining family, actually have to flirt with a leery bisexual prince, rather than just make a series of jokes about homosexuality. The fact I didn't have to invent such a character was a bonus.

It’s also why I had the characters roaming the countryside in Episode 4, looking for a spy and receiving a live pig in Episode 2 – because these difficult and fraught scenarios set the characters against each other. And then I can hear them talk to each other, bicker, argue and call each other names.

So, yes, I hear voices. Please do not contact the BBC Psychiatric Unit on my behalf. I’m fine with it. In fact, my career depends on it.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

A busload of Quakers

Episode 2 of Hut 33 was called ‘Pigs n Spivs.’ This implies that there is more than one pig and spiv in the episode, but there isn’t. There is one spiv who sells our starving codebreakers a job-lot of bacon. Which is still in pig form. Unfortunately, they discover the origins of this pig and could be in serious trouble.

The general theme of the episode is shortages and hunger. In that sense, it’s similar to an episode in Series 1 in which Charles is so hungry and fed up that officers have much better meals than him, he joins the Bletchley Marxists.

As the writer of the show, I don’t feel all that guilty reprising an episode theme in the second series. Food was in short supply for the whole war and an unpleasant reality for all but the wealthiest. World War Two ration were meagre. Most of us today could eat their weekly ration in a day. So it's good to keep coming back to that.

Quakers, Baptists and Jokes
One last point of interest on this episode. Hopefully my explanation of it will give a small insight into how you sometimes make a joke fit the context. I spotted a comment on someone’s blog about Hut 33. (Clearly as the writer of the show, I’m constantly googling ‘Hut 33’ in order to find out what people think of it). This blogger, a wife of a Baptist minister, blogged about her irritation that the writer of Hut 33 seemed ignorant of certain religious groups and their drinking habits. What am I talking about?

The joke in question is Archie’s joke in response to his discovery that the pub has completely run out of alcohol. He says “So we’re now standing in the world’s first teetotal pub. We expecting a bus-load of Quakers?” And the audience laughed. But the blog pointed out that it is Methodists that refrain from drinking, not Quakers. I knew that. Honestly, I did. I’m a professing Christian myself and have a degree in Theology! But I chose Quakers for the joke. Why?

Shared Knowledge
Comedy relies on shared knowledge and simplicity. If the audience have to think about a joke for too long, or are unsure about any part of it, they can’t laugh. And they don’t laugh. Simplicity and clarity is everything. This partly explains why people get upset about stereotypes. They are a reality in comedy because it relies about compressing information and leaving plenty of things unsaid. In this case, I chose Quakers because I’m not sure how widely know it is that its Methodists don’t drink. It’s also the case that many Baptists don’t drink either. How widely known is that? Less so now than before. However, I judged that the audience would have no problem believing that Quakers don’t drink – partly because in my mind there seems to be some kind of overlap between Quakers, Puritans and the Amish, at least in terms of their public perception. In reality there are vast differences between these groups of Christian believers. The puritans in particular were a remarkable bunch of Christian folk who were nothing like the the adjective named after them - 'puritanical'.

Returning to the joke in question, we have to bear in min that this is a joke for 2008. So I chose Quaker. Even though the joke is set in 1941, when the vast majority would have been clear that Methodists don’t drink.

Add to the equation the fact that characters are the creations of writers – and do not represent the views of the writer, or share their factual knowledge. So Archie, Charles and the team, and especially Josh, say plenty of things that are wrong, or grammatically incorrect. But don’t shoot the writer!

Incidentally, the Quaker website says:
One testimony that Quakers have had to give careful thought to is our testimony on moderation. In the nineteenth century Quakers saw the bad effects that drink and drunkenness had in society. Along with other Non-conformist Christians they campaigned against alcohol. Many Quakers were active in the Temperance Movement - a movement of people who "took the pledge" (promising that they would never drink alcohol) as a witness against the evils it caused.

Monday, 26 May 2008

Did Hut 33 actually exist?

No. There were a number of real huts, namely Huts 1, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11, 14 and I read somewhere about a Hut 17. I also don't know why there wasn't a Hut 2, 5, 9, 12 and 13 to speak of. But then, this was a place for mathematicians, so maybe there is a sequence buried in those numbers in some complex logarithm. That said, there was plenty of linguists, musicians and brains from all disciplines so perhpas its not a maths puzzle at all.

The point is Hut 33 is a fictional, outlying, also-ran hut created on purpose for Archie, Charles, Gordon, Josh and Minka. When I originally thought of setting a sitcom in Bletchley Park, the show was called 'Hut 6'. It scanned nicely as a title and had something about it. Perhaps it was because this was a famous hut (You can read about the goings on and its personnnel here.) But it was mainly out of respect for these wonderful, intelligent men that I veered away from taking a real hut and moved towards inventing one.

I therefore hoped to avoid causing offence on those grounds. In this, I still failed. The first series was criticised on BBC Radio 4's Feedback programme by a veteran of Bletchley Park who said life in the huts was nothing like that portrayed in the sit-com. I am relieved that this was the case, or else we might have lost the war. (I suspect occupied France did not resemble that portrayed in Allo Allo). But this is what happens when you set a sit-com in a specific place. People complain. I remember a sitcom a few years ago called 'Chalk', set in a school. Lots of teachers complained about that. It's right and good that people complain and voice their opinions. It's a free country. It's why we fought the war in the first place.

So where did the number '33' come from?
It seemed the right number, despite not being a prime. In case you didn't know, prime numbers are funnier than non-Prime numbers. I don't know why. They just are. It explains why 17, 19, and 37 crop up in comedy disproportionately often. A friend suggested whether 'Hut 33' was a reference to Catch 22. Subliminally, it may well have been. I read Catch 22 round about the time I was writing the pilot of the show.

What is the fictional role of Hut 33?
In Series 1, our regular characters are breaking Italian Naval codes. It's worth noting that, despite jokes about the inadequacies of the Italian Army, the Italian Navy were rather handy and cause the Allies plenty of strife in the Mediterranean. In some ways, their role felt too important given their ineptitude and bickering so in Series 2, Hut 33 have been demoted to Norway. Norway was invaded and overrun in 1940 in Operation Weserübung. The fight did not last long. Thereafter, Norway was something of a backwater, with a hint of excitement in its heavy water plants, which does crop up in Series 2 at some point.

Friday, 23 May 2008

Times Review

Some say it's bad form to quote your own reviews. Well, click here for a fairly flattering one from Chris Campling in the Times.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Episode 1 - Royal Visit

Episode 1 of Series 2 is called Royal Visit. This is the blurb:

A royal visitor is coming to inspect Bletchley Park, but the top brass are worried that this particular royal is a Nazi sympathiser. Hut 33 has to delay him and make sure he doesn't see any of the code-breaking machines.

Allow me to fill you in on how and why this episode came together without, hopefully, deconstructing the whole thing into a joyless series of components.

The Inspection Episode
The 'inspection' episode is common sit-com device and also a very useful one. Characters are sent rushing around getting things ready. Cleaning, polishing and tidying. In the process, skeletons can be found in cupboards, difficult tasks can be comically compressed and plenty of dirt can be swept under the carpet. See the effect of the Inspector in JB Priestley's An Inspector Calls. The presence and prospect of an Inspector causes lives to unravel.

Another advantage of the 'Inspector' episode it is simplicity. Simplicity is everything in comedy, especially in half-hour sit-com. If the audience is confused, even slightly, they can't laugh. In that sense, sit-com is contrived reality, over-simplified and sign-posted. The audience is normally happy with this because they understand the genre. The trick is, within the contrived situation, to make the plot and events seem as organic and un-contrived as possible. We start with something believable, and through a series of believable steps end up somewhere original and bizarre, so we're left thinking 'How on earth did we get here?'!

Inspections are a reality of life - audits, royal visitors, tax men - so we have a believable, clear goal that we can all understand - everything has to be ready for the inspector or special visitor. It's a variation on 'The Boss Comes to Dinner' episode that's common to many domestic sitcoms.

The Twist

The trick of sitcom, then, is to take a familiar situation and push them further, into unfamiliar areas. World War Two threw up plenty of these. And so when I came to consider the inspection episode, I tried to think of what the twist would be. As the blurb of the show suggests (so I'm not spoiling it) what if the Royal visitor cannot be trusted?

This taps into the very real concerns during the war that some members of the aristocracy could not be trusted and were well-known for Fascist sympathies. It is a running theme of the series - partly embodied in the character of Professor Charles Gardiner. As a well-connected Oxford professor, he moves in elevated circles and was friendly before the war with high-ranking Nazis and sympathised with some of their views. Every episode, Archie normally makes jokes implying that Charles played some kind of gentle sport with a prominent Nazi. And Charles has to concede that he was friendly with the Von Ribbentrops, the Rommels and even Mussolini.

And so as I was thinking about which Royal visitor, real or imagined, could visit Hut 33, I stumbled across Prince George, Duke of Kent. If you read his profile here, you will see that he was a very worrying figure for the British Establishment. Given the extraordinarily secret nature of the work at Bletchley Park, the Prince's visit would have to be frustrated in some way. If news of the breaking of Enigma was leaked back to Germany, it would have proved disastrous for the Allies.

German High Command had no idea that the British were reading their messages so a hint to that effect would have been catastrophic for Bletchley. 1941 was a difficult year for the Allies. Britain stood alone against Germany and was on the verge of starvation. The convoys in the Atlantic bringing food and supplies from America were a lifeline. This, then, gives an intensity to the story that hopefully makes it play and gives good motivations for our regular characters who are instrumental in keeping the prince away from the code-breaking machinery.

Guest Star
Fans of Radioactive will recognise the voice of the Prince. He is wonderfully played by Michael Fenton Stevens (who also played alongside Robert Bathurst (Charles) in My Dad's the Prime Minister).

Just one week to go now...

The more observant of you will have spotted that our previous date for the start of Series 2 didn't actually exist - being advertised as Monday 21st May. The 21st is a Wednesday, and that is the day of the first episode of Series 2. It's a week from now. Excited? I am, and I know what I happens.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

All Now Recorded

The whole second series has now been recorded - over three recordings in the Radio Theare in Broadcasting House.

In the final recording on Monday 31st March, our regular cast were joined by Perrier-winning comedian, Brendon Burns and all-round rising star (and Perrier Best Newcomer winning some time ago...) Ben Willbond.

Nearer the time of transmission, information will appear on this blog about individual episodes, historical detail and such like which some, several or fewer may find interesting.

Friday, 28 March 2008

Hut 33

Hut 33 returns for a second series on Monday 21st May at 11.30am on BBC Radio 4.

Nearer the time, background information about the series, how it came together and bits of historical detail will appear on this blog, written by me, James Cary, the writer of Hut 33. For now, there's some information on here.

Four episodes of Series Two have already been recorded, but the final recording of the series takes place on Monday 31st March at the Radio Theatre in Broadcasting House. All tickets are currently allocated, but if you turn up on the door, there's a chance you'll get in. But you might not.