‘In 1941 an interfering godmother told me I was wasted on the stage and there was interesting work to be done if I applied to the Admiralty.’ Pamela was interviewed, and offered a secret job. ‘I was torn because my brother Patrick had just been captured in Libya, and was missing, so I wanted to be useful. But on the other hand, I had just been offered my first part in the West End, which was rather thrilling. I asked the man at the Admiralty who’d interviewed me, what he thought. “The stage can wait, but the war can’t,” said the man.’ So she accepted.
‘I thought it would be exciting and I’d be dropped into France as a spy. But I was sent to this big cold house called Bletchley. I suppose I was recruited because of my well to-do background. They thought that if they took in girls from families they knew something about, they were less likely to be German spies. I was very disappointed when I learned that my job was copying words onto index cards. The codes came in broken up and then we had to cross-reference them. There was a separate card for each battle ship, another for the port it was leaving, another for where it was arriving. Some days it was incredibly exciting but mostly it was quite dull, with messages about onions or something.’ Having lived on her own since she left school six years earlier, Pamela refused to live in a stuffy billet or share a room, so she rented a caravan in a field.
|Bletchley Park Mansion, Buckinghamshire
|Naval Intelligence hut, Bletchley Park. Photo by Toby Oxborrow.
They were married in 1946, a perfect match: both were cultured, generous and keen to make the post-war world a better place. They moved into a bomb-damaged square in Kensington, a few doors down from my family. When I was born, my parents asked Pamela to be my godmother. She was an unusually thoughtful one: my christening present included not only a silver mug (battered but still loved) but also a Swiss nanny for six months. Apparently Sister Klarli looked after not just me, but also my parents and my three older siblings; and was there for the arrival of my younger sister. Instead of toys for birthdays, Pamela paid for my piano lessons – a present that goes on giving. After the Roses children, Alan and Harriet, arrived, they moved to Zurich where Jim Rose was founder-director of the International Press Institute, an important global force for the freedom of the press.
For ten years after their return to London, Pamela was the school counsellor of North Paddington Comprehensive, caring for pupils who had recently arrived from the Caribbean. When she was 60 she had to retire, but didn’t give up. ‘I had to do something, so I became the vice-chair of the NSPCC,’ she said as if it was as simple as buying the weekly fish. After Jim died in 1999, Pamela, then aged 84, went back to her first career and renewed her membership of Equity, the actor's union. A few acting lessons later, she was cast as Lady Jedburgh in Lady Windermere’s Fan, directed by Peter Hall at the Haymarket Theatre. She also understudied for Googie Withers, then just 83. After only three nights, Googie Withers fell ill and Pamela was called upon to play The Duchess of Berwick. With several more parts over the next five years, she has maintained her position as the actor with the longest period of ‘resting’ between jobs. ‘It was wonderful to get back on the stage after 60 years. Acting helped me get over losing Jim. The fear of going on stage is the best defence against grief.’
Churchill described Bletchley Park as ‘the goose that laid the golden egg but never cackled’. Everyone there had signed the Official Secrets Act and until recently Pamela never spoke of her war-time career. Not even that she had known the computer scientist Alan Turing, though she insists not well. ‘He was polite and intelligent, but he really preferred the company of men.’ Even when the film Enigma about Bletchley Park was released in 2001, she only commented to a few friends, ‘We never wore hats like that.’ When The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, came out in 2014 she changed her mind. ‘I realised that everyone else was talking about it, so why shouldn’t I?’ she told me. Suddenly she was in the limelight with appearances in books and on television, and even Desert Island Discs. ‘But we don’t need to be glorified. We were all well protected and properly fed.’
Pamela will be 100 years young in November and remains as beautiful and chic as ever. She still entertains friends and grandchildren in the elegant Georgian house in Kensington that has changed little since she moved there 71 years ago. ‘I’ve had a lucky life,’ she says. Nonsense, I’d say it wasn’t luck, but resilience, determination and chutzpah.
|The cast of The Marraige of Figaro, Bletchley, 1943