CHANNEL 4’s airing of the docudrama Britain’s Greatest Codebreaker on 21 November marked an early start to the Alan Turing Year, 2012, during which a series of events are planned to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of Alan Turing’s birth on 23 June 1912.
The film tells Alan Turing’s story using three interwoven strands. One is the authoritative-sounding voice of an off-screen narrator (spoken by Paul McGann). The second is a series of talking heads – people with a particular insight into some part of Turing’s life or work. The third is a sequence of dramatised interviews between Turing (played by Ed Stoppard) and his psychotherapist Franz Greenbaum (played by Henry Goodman).
It is this third strand that puts the drama into the drama documentary. During the last eighteen months or so of his life, Alan Turing did actually consult a Jungian psychoanalyst called Franz Greenbaum, who became a personal friend as well as professional therapist. However, we know almost nothing of what passed between them beyond the fact that Greenbaum asked Turing to write down the content of his dreams, which he did (although the notebooks were destroyed following his death). The dialogue in the film is instead a dramatic device to enable Turing to contribute directly to telling the narrative. But its substance is largely based on the historical record as collated by Andrew Hodges in his groundbreaking 1983 biography Alan Turing: the Enigma – at least for the first half of the film.
The talking heads represent a variety of perspectives. They include several academics from different fields (one of whom, Ian Stewart at the University of Warwick, taught me the Foundations of Mathematics 40 years ago). There are some surviving veterans of the wartime codebreaking activities at Bletchley Park (Asa Briggs, Jean Valentine, Rolf Noskwith). There is David Leavitt, the author of a more recent Turing biography, The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer (2006). There is Tony Sale, who made a colossal contribution to the modern preservation of Bletchley Park until his recent death, There is Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Inc. (whose logo, incidentally, is not based on Alan Turing’s apple as urban legend would have it). Perhaps most interesting of all, there are Franz Greenbaum’s daughters Maria and Barbara, two of the few remaining people who were close to Alan Turing.
A programme lasting just over an hour (discounting commercial breaks) could not hope to cover every significant aspect of Alan Turing’s life, or indeed to cover any aspect of it in depth. The film provides a quick run through, stopping at most of the important milestones – the teenage death of his school friend Christopher Morcom, his seminal paper On Computable Numbers, his codebreaking achievements at Bletchley Park, the Turing Test, his work on early electronic computers at Manchester, his investigations into morphogenesis, his conviction for having sex with another man.
Nearly half of the film is devoted to the last two and a half years of his life, from his fateful first encounter with Arnold Murray in Manchester towards the end of 1951 to his suicide in June 1954. At this point the story becomes more speculative. The film espouses the now popular theory that Alan Turing’s death was a direct consequence of his treatment by the state authorities, particularly the treatment with female sex hormones that he had to endure for a year after his conviction in order to avoid a prison sentence. The theory gained popularity following the publication of David Leavitt’s biography at the start of 2006. But the two biographers are at odds on this. Andrew Hodges wrote in his review of David Leavitt’s book that: “Leavitt’s focus […] is on Turing as the gay outsider, driven to his death. No opportunity is lost to highlight this subtext.” And: “This is no groundbreaking book, nor does it do much hoeing or weeding. It is a survey of a field long cultivated by other hands, devoid of new witnesses.” It may be significant, then, that David Leavitt plays a substantial role in the film, visiting various locations and effectively acting as an additional narrator, while Andrew Hodges – the acknowledged expert on Turing – is not to be seen, either on the screen or in the credits.
Nonetheless, despite its speculative aspects, the programme is well worth watching and Channel 4 is to be congratulated on showing it in prime time.
Britain’s Greatest Codebreaker is the first major new film for over a decade to focus on the life of Alan Turing, following the documentary The Strange Life And Death Of Dr Turing shown on BBC2 in March 1992 and the television adaptation of Hugh Whitemore’s 1986 play Breaking the Code shown on BBC1 in February 1997. It may not be the last. Warner Bros. were recently reported to have acquired the script for a proposed new film provisionally titled The Imitation Game (Alan Turing’s name for what we now call the Turing Test) in “a 7-figure deal”, with a view to Leonardo DiCaprio playing the lead role. It’s rumoured that they hope to persuade David Yates – Britain’s most commercially successful film director thanks to Harry Potter – to direct it.