THE BLETCHLEY PARK ACTRESS
She was born Susan Pamela Gibson (always known as Pamela) in London, into a very musical family. Her father, Thornley Gibson, had been a noted opera singer turned stockbroker and her mother, Elizabeth ‘Dolly’ Wetzlar , was an accomplished amateur musician.
She was born during a Zeppelin raid on Knightsbridge during the First World War.
The family always enjoyed the PWEs (Pleasant Wednesday Evenings) when her parents collected their musical friends together and played throughout the evening. Pamela and her brother Patrick were allowed to sit on gold chairs providing they did an occasional recital for the audience.
Aged 6 she was sent to boarding school, firstly in Kent and then Gloucestershire. There she took elocution lessons in order to help her ambition to become an actress.
In 1936 she became a debutante, although she hated the whole process.
She walked out of the ‘social season’ and took herself off on a solo bicycle trip to France.
There she met Yvette Guilbert who was a star of the Moulin Rouge. Yvette taught Pamela French- and all the skills of cabaret performance.
Pamela moved on to Munich to learn German and stayed there for a year. She later admitted, “I’m ashamed to say I don’t think I was aware of the ghastly things that were going on. I was, like so many young people, preoccupied with myself. I wanted to get back to London and act.”
Back in England, Pamela enrolled on a Webber Douglas course in Dramatic Art and became an actor – just as the Second World War broke out.
She was assigned to ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association) due to being in a ‘reserved occupation’ (acting) and was sent to Bournemouth and then Birmingham.
But she was frustrated at being in what she considered below par productions – until she was called to London to star in her first West End production, ‘Watch on the Rhine’.
She also appeared in ‘The Playboy of the Western World’ by J.M.Synge, starring opposite Cyril Cusack.
It was at this point she was recruited for Bletchley Park by her Godmother, who said, “I know you are doing splendid work entertaining the troops but there is a place where they want girls exactly like you…Here’s the address.”
At this point her brother had just been captured in Libya and was a prisoner of war – so she wanted ‘to do her bit’.
She was interviewed by Frank Birch, a former actor who was working in naval intelligence. He was impressed by her social standing and her ability in German. She told him she liked the prospect of intelligence work but loved acting. He responded, “The stage can wait. The war can’t.”
When recruited Pamela was initially disappointed to find she wasn’t going to be parachuted into France or Germany as a spy (although she later admitted she wasn’t quite fluent enough). Instead, ending up in Hut 4 at Bletchley Park was a bit of an anti-climax.
Hut 4 was indeed naval intelligence and very soon she was put in charge of indexing – something which required an excellent memory and sharp-witted skills. She was in charge of a group of 50 upper-class girls, debutantes, who were not used to being given instructions. But nobody argued with Pamela. Hut 4 quickly spread to three separate huts.
She earned the respect of the other girls who called her, “Brainy, creative and very quick at picking up foreign languages.” She wouldn’t stand any nonsense from the men (including their assumed superiority) and was considered a bit of a rebel herself. Nevertheless, she was one of the most senior women at Bletchley.
She refused to live in overcrowded digs or to share a room, so she hired a caravan and lived in a field.
She underplayed her role. “I was only promoted because I couldn’t type, and at 24 I was older than most of the other women – oh- and I was pretty fluent in French and German.”
There was little time for entertainment, but Bletchley Park did have an Amateur Dramatics Society. She played alongside Wing Commander Jim Rose who was in Air Force Intelligence, being considered too old to fly at 32. They fell in love.
On their first date he took her for a meal at the Savoy – only to find there were no available tables. So, Jim pretended to be an Irish peer (whom he knew was out of London at the time) – and they got a table.
Halfway through the meal they noticed a friend and his girlfriend at a nearby table. The friend had also pretended to be the same Irish peer.
After the war she briefly returned to the stage but then married Jim almost immediately (going on to have two children). They initially lived in a bombed out flat in Knightsbridge.
He left the air force and became a journalist, creating the International Press Institute in 1950. They moved to Zurich for 5 years.
When they returned to London, she considered resuming acting.
Jim told Pamela, “If you go back on the stage, you’ll be going out to work just as I am coming in.” She decided to give up acting for good.
Instead, she began to work in North Paddington comprehensive school, running a mentoring scheme for African – Caribbean children, who had come to England as part of the Windrush generation. She considered this counselling work as more important than her Bletchley work.
The couple were considered cultured, kind, generous and keen to make the world a better place. Pamela was asked to be Godmother to her friend’s daughter Janie Hampton. As a christening gift she gave a battered silver mug, and also paid for a Swiss nanny for six months. And then she paid for Janie’s piano lessons for the whole of her childhood.
She did lots of charity work too, being vice chair of the NSPCC and chair of the Stroke Association.
Jim died in 1999, so she finally decided to go back on stage. She did a refresher course, saying acting was “as simple as buying fish.”
She was recruited to be Googie Wither’s understudy at the Haymarket Theatre in the West End, in ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’ in 2000, directed by Peter Hall. Withers fell ill, so Pamela appeared on stage, playing opposite Vanessa Redgrave.
She had very little time for the media’s interest in Bletchley Park, calling it “a cushy berth” – but added, “a common enemy draws people together like nothing else.”
However, once she saw the 2014 film ‘The Imitation Game’ she changed her mind. “I realised everybody else was talking about it, so why shouldn’t I?” She admitted she knew Alan Turing – “but not very well.”
She appeared in Tessa Dunlop’s 2015 book ‘The Bletchley Girls’ and appeared that same year on Desert Island Discs (aged 97), attributing her life to “luck, optimism and a great belief in the human spirit.”
RIP – Rehearsals Interrupted (until) Peacetime