Wednesday, 21 October 2009

The Big Machine

Episode 2 of Series 3 is now on iPlayer here if you want to have a listen.

The episode is about machinery and early computers so, as you can imagine, there are lots of jokes about computers and IT. Lots and lots has been written on this subject and I have waded through much technical data in the last few years as I've written this show and the novel Crossword Ends in Violence (5) (available here). I read a book about Colossus by Paul Gannon, large parts of which I had to skim since they were extremely technical. I didn't much enjoy the book, but I was very glad that someone had bothered to write it. But it did teach me about the astonishing technical achievements achieved under such pressure.

Turing naturally gets much retrospective credit in all of this - and rightly so. His brain was a very rare thing indeed. He vastly improved the Bombe, building on the achievements of the largely forgotten Pole, Marian Rejewski who first cracked Enigma in 1932 (thanks in part to some splendid espionage by a Frenchman). But often overlooked is Max Newman and Tommy Flowers who were largely responsible for the amazing Colossus.

The machine invented by Gordon, and streamline by Archie, in this episode is an arbitrary one, designed to automate the process of trying to drag a crib through the text and spot links (since the Enigma machine never encoded a letter as itself) - it's getting boringly technical now, isn't it? This is what I'm up against, you see, writing an audience comedy show set at Bletchley Park.

I had a lot of fun writing it although, for some reason, this took the longest to write by far, going through several drafts. One of the problems stemmed from the dilemma the characters find themselves towards the end of the show. I don't want to spoil the plot, so I won't (I hope). But the machine that is created obviously has ramifications - but to suggest that our heroes would do something as malicious and self-serving as sabotage it is unthinkable. Still, our characters are feckless and petty, so nothing is beyond them. Naturally, they are nothing like the hardworking folk who laboured away at Bletchley for real - it's just a sitcom, remember... (In the same way, the German occupation of France did not resemble the goings-on of Allo Allo). Hope you enjoy this one.