58. Secret messages

By Peter Fraenkel

However did the BBC come to make me their Greek programme organizer? When appointed I could not even read the Greek alphabet.

Strange things happen in the BBC.

In fact, it was my friend Victor who was first appointed.   He, too, didn’t know any Greek but he had at least one minimal qualification: he had written a novel set in Cyprus. Moreover, he spoke many languages and could certainly learn one more. There had been a reluctance to promote any of the Greek broadcasters, though talented people. The unit was known to be riven by factions – pro-George Papandreou and anti-Papandreou.  A neutral, an outsider, was needed. Victor accepted, but made a condition. He had earlier applied for another job which was more in his line. A decision on this application was due. If he were to be selected for that one, could he withdraw from the Greek job?

A week or two later he was offered the preferred job.

“What do we do now?” they asked.  He must have felt he was letting them down. “Why don’t you ask Peter,” he suggested. “He comes from a family of Greek scholars.”

That was a gross exaggeration. I may have told him once that my uncle Friedrich was passionate about classical Greek. He had grumbled that he could not understand how I could pretend to be educated when I couldn’t read the Greek classics in the original language. Friedrich – as an émigré in South Africa – made his living as a chemical manufacturer, but he still spent his evenings reading Greek for pleasure. My father, too, had spent his school years swotting classical Greek but he never shared Friedrich’s passion, though something of his schooling lingered.  I was with him once when he was buying cigarettes at Raftopoulos’ grocery. On the counter was a Greek language newspaper. My father picked it up and read out aloud – declaiming sonorously as if he were declaiming a Homeric ode.

“You read very fluently,” said an astonished Mr. Raftopoulos, “but with a strange pronunciation.”   It was, in fact, the Erasmian pronunciation taught in German schools. “But, you know,” said my father, “I have only understood a few words. The language has changed a lot.”

That’s how I became Greek programme organizer.  Strange things happen in the BBC.

I was happy to be going to a peaceful backwater. I might redeem myself with Uncle Friedrich and have time to read the classics, perhaps even in the original. About a week or two later I was in a crowded lift when someone said “Exciting times, for you!”  I had not the remotest idea what he meant but soon found out. There had been a coup in Greece.  A junta of colonels had seized the government.  Things became busy. The colonels let it be known that King Constantine supported their coup. Constantine, however, assured the British ambassador that this was a lie. This news came through while our late evening transmission was on the air.  I rushed down to the studio and handed a “news flash” to our broadcaster. He translated it, “unseen”.

Not long after an anniversary of the Greek service was coming up. It had been started during World War II while Greece was invaded by Italian and then German troops. There had been Communist resistance forces and anti-Communist resistance forces. I had heard that BBC transmissions had been used to convey coded messages to the resistance but I could find no record of these wartime broadcasts. Nobody could remember.

Wartime coded messages had also been transmitted to the Free French resistance and there were people who still remembered these.  I assumed Greek messages must have sounded similar.  On this basis I invented several such messages.

“The baker will be at the corner this Saturday.”  “If the rain holds off, we will meet as before…” and similar. We recorded several such messages, starting, always, with the dot-dot-dot-dash of the Morse code V for victory sign. This had been widely used in the war years.  My plan was to broadcast such signals for a fortnight and only then explain “If you remember similar broadcasts from the war years, do write in and send us your memories.  We will broadcast the best of your letters.”

I kept my boss, Austin Kark, informed.  He laughed and said “a fortnight is too long to keep people guessing. Make it a week.”

I was about to go on leave. We had booked a country cottage in the North of England for our family. But a wartime anniversary was approaching and could not be delayed. Our mysterious broadcasts went out.  I heard them at our holiday cottage on my portable radio. We had no phone at the cottage. We used to send to the nearby village for a daily paper. My 12 year-old son was happy to go – especially as he always got some money for chewing gum as his reward.

On Day Three of our messaging I heard him calling while still far. “Dad! You’re in the paper.”

Teasing, no doubt? Not quite – I was not mentioned by name but the story was on the front page of the Times. The British ambassador at Athens had been summoned to the Greek Foreign Office. “What was the BBC up to? Had it become British policy – the policy of a Nato ally – to support anti-regime forces?

The British Foreign Office was as puzzled as the Greeks.  They phoned the BBC’s managing director.  This was getting serious – or ridiculous?

I drove to the village phone box and phoned my boss: “Austen. Have I still got a job?”

He laughed – a little nervously: “Why do you trouble me with your petty concerns?  The real question is: Have I still got a job?”

He survived. So did I. Fortunately our Big Boss had a sense of humour.

 Strange things happen at the BBC – occasionally.