Behind The Imitation Game

The Imitation GameLike many others, I am eagerly looking forward to the upcoming release of The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. In the film, the actor portrays the brilliant mathematician and cryptoanalyst Alan Turing, who was absolutely mission-critical to the breaking of Germany’s enigma code during World War II. The film delves, deservedly, much deeper into the troubled and complicated life of Turing, who died in 1958 from cyanide poisoning just a few days before his 42nd birthday. The film opens November 28 worldwide.

I’ve been wondering how many people have a good history of just what the men and women of Bletchley Park accomplished. I know my British friends and historian friends are steeped in the story, but so many people don’t learn proper history these days. I think it’s a very good thing to put Turing’s story on the big screen for all to see, especially as portrayed by someone of Cumberbatch’s extraordinary abilities.

We’ve seen Bletchley Park portrayed before, of course, though not quite so accurately. There was the 2001 film Enigma, based on the novel by Robert Harris, although that was filmed elsewhere. There was also the recent British television drama The Bletchley Circle, and either before or after you see The Imitation Game, I would recommend a viewing of the new drama-documentary Codebreaker, which goes into quite some detail about Turing’s life before and after the war as well.

I think I have some affinity for this story, too, because I stood where Turing did, once. Some time ago when I was living in London, we took the train out to Bletchley Park and spent the entire day exploring the grounds and buildings, talking to elderly volunteers who had either worked there or had relatives who had, and learning much more about the project than I had ever previously known. I was also lucky enough to have met the late computer engineer Tony Sale, who led the reconstruction of the Colossus computer that is now one of the centerpieces of the National Museum of Computing that is on site at Bletchley Park.

On the eve of the release of The Imitation Game I thought it might be worth revisiting the travelogue I wrote about Bletchley Park immediately after my visit. Enjoy.

The Secrets of Station X

The mansion at Bletchley Park was built in 1838 and renovated extensively by Sir Herbert Leon starting in 1883.  As war loomed closer in 1938, the Government Code and Cipher School purchased the property, valuing its good transportation links and location outside of London, later bombed heavily during The Blitz.

The mansion at Bletchley Park was built in 1838 and renovated extensively by Sir Herbert Leon starting in 1883. As war loomed closer in 1938, the Government Code and Cipher School purchased the property, valuing its good transportation links and location outside of London, later bombed heavily during The Blitz.

It was by far the best-kept secret of World War II, England’s secret weapon against the onslaught of Nazi military power. Not a rocket or a tank, the savior of thousands of soldiers was a secret intelligence headquarters codenamed “Station X,” housed in a moderate country manor north of London called Bletchley Park. Here at the Government Code and Cipher School, more than 12,000 mathematicians, cryptoanalysts, linguists, engineers, and clerks worked around the clock to decipher Nazi codes being delivered between Germany and its armies in Europe and Africa as well as U-boats and other naval forces attacking Allied convoys in the North Atlantic.

During the entire course of the war, it never slipped that a secret army of code breakers was fighting a secret war on the Bletchley campus. In fact, the work of Station X was so secret that Winston Churchill himself ordered all of its paperwork destroyed and the site was not declassified for more than thirty years. At Bletchley Park, secrets were not just deciphered but kept as well.

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70 Years After: The Great Escape

There was a great ceremony in Zagan, Poland this week, to mark the 70th anniversary of the escape at Stalag Luft III, the German prisoner of war camp popularized in the 1963 film The Great Escape, which starred Steve McQueen, James Garner, Sir Richard Attenborough and James Coburn, as well as the great Scottish actor Angus Lennie as Sir Archibald Ives, who keeps McQueen company in “The Cooler.” At the ceremony on Monday, members of the Royal Air Force carried pictures of the original prisoners. One speaker properly said, “They were not prisoners of war. They were prisoners at war.”

50 soldiers set out from the site of Stalag Luft III to a war cemetery to honor the 70th anniversary of The Great Escape.

50 soldiers set out from the site of Stalag Luft III to a war cemetery to honor the 70th anniversary of The Great Escape.

Strangely enough, I have some personal experience with these men. In May of 2004, I was living on the South Bank in London. That morning, we heard on the radio that six former prisoners at the camp were going to reunite for a private event at the Imperial War Museum that afternoon. Using nothing more than a business card that identified me as a writer, I talked my way into the event, which was incredible. I got to meet two of the surviving escapees, squadron leader Bertram “Jimmy” James and flight lieutenant Sydney Dowse, both of whom since passed away in 2008.

It was also thrilling for me that several actors from the film adaptation were there as well, including John Leyton, George Mikell, Tom Adams and Angus Lennie. I got to spend a good half-hour with Angus talking about the making of the film, the London stage, and working with actors like Alec Guinness. “People in my business have great strength,” he said. “I used to go and see the films and think I could do that. How could I do that? I was just a little boy who wanted to sing and dance. I think it was determination, too. At the age of 16, I was in London performing. If you did that today, you’d end up sleeping on the Strand.”

James Garner and the late Donald Pleasance in a publicity still from The Great Escape (1963).

James Garner and the late Donald Pleasance in a publicity still from The Great Escape (1963).

I also spoke briefly with Tim Carroll, author of The Great Escape From Stalag Luft III about the connections between the film and the real-life events of the escape. “There’s a moment in the film that captures the experience for me, and it’s the moment just as Donald Pleasance, playing the forger, is killed by the Germans,” he said. “He says to James Garner, ‘Thanks for saving me.’ That’s what these men cared about.”

In honor of the anniversary, I thought it was worth reprinting my original story. Enjoy.

THE GREAT ESCAPERS REUNITE IN LONDON (2004)

Trolley Escape

Jimmy James and Sydney Dowse with a recreation of one of the escape trolleys used to flee from Stalag Luft III.

“For you, the war is over,” said Nazis to Allied aircrew that were shot down over Europe in World War II and captured. That was not good enough for the prisoners of Stalag Luft III, a POW camp 100 miles southeast of Berlin run by the Luftwaffe. Dozens of prisoners spent eleven months excavating three escape tunnels, “Tom, Dick and Harry,” with bed boards and stolen materials while others forged fake identification and scrapped together civilian clothing.

The March 24, 1944 escape of 76 prisoners is one of the best-known episodes of World War II and was fictionalized in the 1963 film, “The Great Escape.” The 60th anniversary of the escape was marked by a reunion on March 16 at the Imperial War Museum in London. Attending the event were two escapees who made it out of the tunnel, Squadron Leader Bertram “Jimmy” James, 89, and Flight Lieutenant Sydney Dowse, 84. Fourteen other veterans attending included Flight Lieutenant Alex Cassie, a skilled artist who played a crucial role as a forger of documents and Flight Lieutenant Ken Rees, who was caught in the tunnel when the Germans discovered it and inspired Steve McQueen’s role in the film as “The Cooler King.”

The unprecedented escape was a major disgrace for the Nazis and led to tragedy for many of the escapees. Out of the 76 men who left the tunnel, only three made it to safety and 50 of the recaptured prisoners were murdered by the Gestapo on Hitler’s direct orders.

Read more about The Great Escape after the jump.

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Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation

ImageI’m doing a lot of interviews with cool people right now, but I wanted to jump on for a few minutes and add a little back story to a story that was published today. In a feature I think turned out pretty good, I interviewed the great singer-songwriter Joe Henry and his talented filmmaker brother David about their new collaboration, Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World that Made Him. You can check out the resulting feature, “A Little Pryor Love,” at Kirkus Reviews here.

Now, I know a lot about Richard Pryor—we’re talking professional-level lore about his comedy, his process, and his deeply screwed-up life. Not only did I read his autobiography and several other books about the man, but I own maybe three box sets that chronicle his decades of comedy and dozens of associated albums. To me, he was in that pantheon that includes George Carlin and Bill Hicks where I just couldn’t get enough of the man. Much of comedy is of its time. People like these—and let me include contemporary comedians like Tig Notaro in that lineup—somehow breach that barrier.

In these very early interviews, Joe and David both said they were the same way; swapping Richard Pryor albums and staying up late to see him on television. I had heard a rumor that Joe keeps a portrait of Richard in his office, and I was pleased to find out that not only was the rumor true, but it still hangs there today. Anyway, the point is that I took this book with me on vacation to the heart of desolate Mesa Verde National Park and was just absorbed by it, and learned a great many things about Pryor that I—and in fact, not many other people—knew at all about the fiery rise and doomed arc of his life.

I tend to write long anyway, so I’m grateful to my editors at Kirkus Reviews for as much rope as I get, but there’s a lot that gets left out of these stories. I always liked liner notes, so here’s a couple of unpublished bonuses for you travelers who followed this story down the rabbit hole. Here’s David Henry on the dual nature of Richard Pryor:

“Almost everybody we talked to still absolutely love him, even if they were brutalized by him or betrayed in some way. He was an irresistible person. But no, we didn’t soft-pedal any of his behavior. He was very forthright about using coke to wild excess, but he always placed it in the past. He never owned up to being a current user. He could still tell the truth but he wouldn’t admit that he wasn’t going to stop.”

And here’s Joe, when I asked him if the experience of producing or collaborating with so many different artists (and it’s a laundry list) comes to mind when he thinks about the mad life of Richard Pryor

“It does have an effect. Anytime I’m that deeply invested with another artist, it changes things for me in ways that I sometimes understand, and more deeply in ways that I don’t. I think the most visceral way I can suggest studying Richard has changed me is to be so aware of how vulnerable one has to be, in the grander sense of the word, to be able to give something back of substance.”

Just to add to the experience, I wanted to share the song that started this whole ride. In 2000, Joe wrote a song that later appeared on his 2001 album Scar, and featured accompaniment by the legendary jazz trumpeter Ornette Coleman. It’s an extraordinary piece of art in which Joe sings in the persona of Richard Pryor.

You should also check out Joe’s Esquire article that followed, “How to Write a Song.” And on David’s behalf, I would also encourage you to check out his new movie, Pleased to Meet Me. Although the film hasn’t been sold yet, there’s a lot of interest in it, and it’s a very strange comedy starring John Doe from X, Aimee Mann, Loudon Wainwright III, and Joe Henry. There’s a great trailer on the site as well.

And by all means, go check out Furious Cool. It’s a fantastic examination of one of America’s most gifted, searing and flawed personas. I’ll leave you with one of my favorite moments with Richard Pryor from Live on the Sunset Strip.

Keep in mind, almost everything Richard Pryor ever put on tape is NSFW, so be forewarnedit’s not at all my intention to offend anyone, so be aware there’s some hard language here. But give yourself a few minutes of open-mindedness and you’ll experience a great moment of enlightenment on the part of a guy who was often not very self-aware. Ladies and gentlemen, Richard Pryor.

Louis Prima Played It Pretty For the People

Author’s note: sometimes you don’t want good stories to disappear. This was one of my first magazine features, and because it’s of a historical nature, I think it holds up. It was also a lot of fun to write, and some of the original voices in the story, like sax man Sam Butera, have left us. Anyway, every so often, you may see me resurrect an old story for my entertainment, and for yours. A slightly alternative version of this story originally appeared in the late Atomic Magazine. Ladies and gentlemen, Louis Prima.

To his guys, he was simply, “The Chief,” or “The Boss.”  To throngs of admiring women, he was a magnetic, charismatic star with a dazzling and disarming smile.  For musicians he was their sensational trumpet player as well as the bandleader who knew how to bring out the best playing they had in them.  For children, he remains forever the voice of “King Louie,” from Disney’s The Jungle Book.  To a legion of music lovers worldwide, he is the indomitable, gravel-voiced giant of swing that is the one and only Louis Prima.

Atomic Louis Prima One

For Prima fans, a large chunk of the musician’s formidable output has been widely unavailable until now.  Louis’ widow, Gia Prima, has recently re-released nine albums that were originally available on Prima’s own Prima 1 Magnagroove label.

“It was a long, hard battle but I’m so proud of them.  I think they look beautiful and they sound wonderful,” said Prima of the process of re-releasing the records.

Featuring original album covers and remastered recordings, the discs cover the years from 1962 to 1975.  They include such rare albums as Prima Show at the Casbar and King of Clubs that have been out of print since the early sixties as well as regional favorites like Just A Gigalo and The New Sounds of the Louis Prima Show, which sold almost exclusively at live gigs in Las Vegas and New Orleans.

“You close your eyes and it’s like a time machine taking you back to a Las Vegas of long ago,” said New Orleans radio host Ron Cannatella, who has consulted with the Prima estate on the re-releases.  “It’s really like being in the audience.  You can hear the clinking of the glasses and the crowd really getting into it.”

Louis & KeelyThrough three-quarters of a century, King Louie’s finger-snapping, foot-stomping brand of New Orleans-flavored jazz continues to reign over fans, critics and other artists.  His music could fill three lifetimes and has deeply entrenched itself into the fabric of American life.  He was a crack big band leader who went on to form the hottest combo in the world.  In his later years he became a children’s favorite but never stopped experimenting with style and substance until he passed on into legend with his death in 1978.  Since then, he has passed his unique combination of deft musicianship and daft humor onto a broad spectrum of artists ranging from ridiculous remakes to smoking tributes from the neo-swing set.

Prima is also the bridge between two other monoliths of 20th century American music.  Alongside him is Louis Armstrong, a more serious horn blower, but one who came out of the same New Orleans tradition that Prima was born into.  After Prima comes Frank Sinatra, who took Prima’s reconstruction of the lounge act and forged his own famous “Rat Pack.”

Louis Prima would be a legend if all he had ever done was to compose the now-classic “Sing, Sing, Sing,” around 1935.  The big band anthem became hugely successful for the famous rearrangement performed by the Benny Goodman Orchestra and was the first song to be put into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Lucky for all of us, on December 26, 1954, the stars aligned and Louis Prima struck gold again on the night the Witnesses were born. (Keep swingin’ with Louis Prima after the jump).

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