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.