Thursday, 25 July 2019

Saving Bletchley Park

Back in 2014, I co-wrote a book called Saving Bletchley Park with my dear friend and all-round superwoman Dr Sue Black. She's the lady whose tireless campaign led to the place being saved for the nation. And since then she's become a professor , landed an OBE and been on Desert Island Discs! And deservedly so.

But let's return to June 2014 when we were invited to the grand official opening of Bletchley Park; home of Station X - the code-breaking hothouse that shortened the war by at least two years - and the birthplace of modern computing. To mark the occasion, Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, was in attendance to perform the grand opening and to plant a new tree in the park. The day also marked the end of Phase 1 of the project to save and restore the site.

By this time Sue had finished writing her first-hand blow by blow account of how the campaign began, who the major players were, and how the money was raised. However, the campaign needed to be set against a historical perspective; to tell the story not only of how it was saved but why it had to be saved. So Sue had asked me to research and write this part of the book with her and, as this day marked the completion of the first phase of reconstruction, a description of the day would make a perfect wrap to Sue's story. So I came along, camera in hand, to talk to some of the key players in the campaign and to get some nice 'after' shots to go alongside Sue's 'before' shots of what Bletchley Park looked like when she'd started the campaign in 2009.

I'm not going to write much more as there's very little more I can say. It was wonderful to walk around the grounds, to chat to veterans (sadly, many of which have since passed on) and trustees and to see how wonderfully and sensitively they've restored several of the code-breakers' huts.

I should explain that this isn't some Disney-esque theme park attraction; everything has been done as authentically as possible even down to the half-full ashtrays and grime around the light switches. The huts look as if the staff have simply stepped outside for a break and left the place feeling a little like the Marie Celeste. To see the dingy, narrow corridors, the gas masks and scarves hanging on coat-hooks, the rolled-up maps, and the chalkboards scribbled over with arcane codes is to get a sense of what life was really like during the War. Even in Alan Turing's office, with its iconic tin mug chained to the radiator, it feels like the great man is somehow still in residence.

Lunch on the lawn was a splendid affair and also an opportunity for me to chat to the great and the good including the ex-head of the Royal Navy, Baron West of Spithead (who once appeared on an episode of The Museum of Curiosity) and General Sir Michael Rose, ex-head of the SAS. And, of course, I must mention the Duchess of Cambridge who stoically stood smiling through all of the sandwiches and speeches before performing her royal duties.

What's happened at Bletchley Park is testament to Sue and the others who have run this campaign. It's proof that the ordinary man or woman can make a huge difference ... just as the thousands of ordinary people at Bletchley Park did during WW2, despite knowing that no one would ever learn about the extraordinary work they did for a least four decades.

Saving Bletchley Park by Sue Black and Stevyn Colgan.

All photos (c) Stevyn Colgan and may only be reproduced with permission

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Puppetry of the Pizza

All of the best stories have their roots in real life.

Following on from my last post about the origins of Cockerings, let me explain where some of my inspiration for the circus characters came from.

Back in the early 1980s, when I was a young cop pounding the beat in Uxbridge, West London, there was a pizza joint near the bus station called Stanelli’s. I often thought, as I wandered past, that it would be quite funny to discover that the owner was actually called Stan Ellis (he wasn’t) and that he’d adopted the Italian sounding name in order to sell more pizzas (he hadn’t).

So, when I began thinking of a name for the circus in Cockerings, the name Stanelli’s tumbled out of my memory. It was perfect and it would allow me to use the Stan Ellis gag. However, I first decided to google it - just in case the pizza place was still going or, indeed, if there really was a circus called Stanelli's). And to my utter surprise there was! Except ... it was a puppet circus.

The very talented British puppet maker and performer Stan Parker had once created and toured a show called Stanelli’s Super Circus. Some of his splendid puppets  are peppered throughout this post (all photos from The moment I saw them I was smitten. These puppets were so close to how I imagined the characters in my geriatric circus would look. It was like suddenly seeing my players made flesh (or wood, anyway). The Flying Mannings’ trapeze troupe. Della the incontinent elephant. Strongitharm the balding strong man. And a character that I mentioned in my previous blogpost and who I'm sure you'll grow to love - Bozo the alcoholic clown.

Parker died in 2004 at the age of 78. But in his time he performed all over Europe, Japan, Korea, Israel, Pakistan and even the USSR. His beautiful hand-made puppets became a huge inspiration for me and were always in my mind as I was writing the book. There are some lovely videos of the puppets in use here. But here's one of them.

 I’m pleased to report that when he died, his collection of puppets was saved for the nation thanks to a grant from the National Lottery. It’s now safely housed and archived at the Up Front Puppet Theatre in Cumbria.

Naturally, I wanted to include a tribute to Parker’s work in the book but, obviously, I didn’t want to cause any copyright hassles by using the name Stanelli’s.

So that was how Ben Ellis and Benelli’s Circus was born.

Different name, same gag.

Isn’t it amazing where a pizza can lead you?