CHRISTOPHER STEVENS: Reviews last night's TV

CHRISTOPHER STEVENS: Good at puzzles? Wait till you meet this heroine codebreaker

The Codebreaker 

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The Great British Sewing Bee 

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The story of how tortured maths genius Alan Turing helped break the wartime Enigma ciphers is a favourite of television historians.

Everyone has heard of Turing. This Bletchley Park wizard has been played on screen by Benedict Cumberbatch and Derek Jacobi. He’s even going to feature on the new £50 note from June.

But his American counterpart is almost completely unknown. Elizabeth Friedman’s crucial work, which saved countless thousands of Allied lives, was classified as top secret until 2008. She was never allowed to speak of it to anyone, not even her husband — also a brilliant cryptologist.

The Codebreaker (PBS America) shed long-overdue light on her extraordinary life — though you might have to be a bit of a puzzle fiend yourself to have spotted this hour-long documentary hidden in the schedules, on Freeview channel 84.

The Codebreaker (PBS America) shed long-overdue light on her extraordinary life — though you might have to be a bit of a puzzle fiend yourself to have spotted this hour-long documentary hidden in the schedules, on Freeview channel 84

Born in 1892, Friedman was the youngest of ten children in an Indiana Quaker family. Despite her parents’ opposition, she moved to Chicago, landing a job with an eccentric millionaire to scour Shakespeare’s first folio for clues that the Bard didn’t write his own plays.

That kindled a fascination with cryptanalysis — the breaking of codes. Friedman was so good at it that, by 1918, she and her husband William were in charge of decrypting all German messages for the U.S. military.

Throughout the 1920s, during the Prohibition era when alcohol was controlled by organised crime, she was chief codebreaker for the American coastguard, catching rum-runners and their booze shipments. Gangsters disguised their codes by sending scrambled messages in multiple languages — but Friedman was able to spot codes, even in Chinese.

Neither the criminals nor the law enforcers could quite credit the fact that any wife and mother could be so brilliant. After her evidence in one bootlegger’s trial, a newspaper described her as ‘a pretty woman who is defending the U.S.’.

But it was in World War II that she did her greatest work, thwarting the U-boat packs that hunted merchant convoys in the Atlantic.

At Bletchley Park, early computers were used to crack the Enigma ciphers. Friedman did it with paper and pencil.

At the war’s end, FBI chief Herbert Hoover took all the credit for her work. This appreciation of a heroine in two world wars was inspirational.

It’s repeated today and again on Saturday evening — make sure you catch it.

Those seeking a heroine closer to home need look no further than Esme Young, the tiny but indomitable judge on The Great British Sewing Bee (BBC1). Inspecting a shoddily sewn cloth cap, she took hold of the button on top and ripped it off.

Those seeking a heroine closer to home need look no further than Esme Young, the tiny but indomitable judge on The Great British Sewing Bee (BBC1). Inspecting a shoddily sewn cloth cap, she took hold of the button on top and ripped it off

Then, as she explained why a workman’s jacket had many pockets, she revealed the items she always carried: a sandwich and a hand grenade!

As contestant Andrew fervently remarked: ‘I wouldn’t like to meet Esme in an alley on a dark night.’

Her fellow judge Patrick Grant was stalking the floor like the reincarnation of Captain Peacock from Are You Being Served? and presenter Joe Lycett was indulging in his usual unbridled daftness — at one point, with a jacket over his head, doing a Manchester accent and claiming to be Take That’s Gary Barlow.

This charming, frivolous series has become one of the high points of the week, with its combination of cameraderie and competition.

And Joe’s jokes are a delight. ‘Patrick is a gent so classic,’ he declared, ‘the National Trust do tours of his trousers.’ Silly boy.

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