Every war has its invisible heroes. I’ve been thinking about that recently in the context of the novel I’ve been working on, Far Away, which is based on my father, Robert Blake’s, account of escaping from a prisoner of war camp in Italy during the Second World War. In some respects his account is a classic Boy’s Own account of derring-do. But what he never wrote about was that when he got back to England he was in MI6, albeit at a fairly junior level. So there is the visibility and drama of his escape story contrasted with the complete silence of what happened next. At least he could talk about some part of his war experience if he wanted to.
Alan Turing could not say a word.
He’s the subject of the recent film The Imitation Game and if ever there was an invisible hero it’s Turing. He was the British mathematician, who, at Bletchley Park, was responsible for creating the machine which broke the German Enigma code during the Second World War. That act, the film tells us, is supposed to have been responsible for ending the war two years early and saving 14 million lives. Turing is also viewed as the inventor of the digital computer. So, an extraordinary thing to have done, and by any consideration an extraordinary individual.
However, he was a gay man at a time when homosexual acts were illegal in Britain. In the 1950s he was prosecuted for gross indecency (i.e. sleeping with his boyfriend in his own home) and given the choice between chemical castration and two years in prison. He chose the drugs and then one year later committed suicide at the age of 41. His security clearance for GCHQ had been removed by the government because at that time homosexuals were viewed as a liability due to the risk of them being blackmailed. The way he was treated was eventually viewed as so shameful that Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an apology in 2009:
‘On behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work, I am very proud to say we’re sorry, you deserved better. So much better.’
In August 2009 a petition was started to get him pardoned, leading to the Queen signing a posthumous pardon for his conviction of gross indecency, on Christmas Day 2013. I had seen Hugh Whitemore’s play, Breaking the Code, with Derek Jacobi playing Turing, in the late eighties (that was adapted for TV in 1996) and loved it, so I was interested to see what the film would be like. Click below if you want to see the 1996 TV drama and do your own compare and contrast.
Benedict Cumberbatch is wonderful and I can see why he’s been tipped for an Oscar but the film he excels in is rather pedestrian and filled with the sort of fake obstacles that screenwriters use when they are not trusting the innate power of their story or the intelligence of their audience. The effect was to stretch my credulity to breaking point too many times and make me wonder what might have happened if Tomas Alfredson, who directed the film of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, had been in charge. Or indeed Mike Leigh.
There are some striking differences between the play and the film. In the film there are no scenes which depict Turing with his male lovers whereas in the play there are several. The film focuses instead on the relationship between Turing and a female code breaker, Joan Clarke, played by Keira Knightley. Obviously, I can see the commercial reasons for giving Knightley a prominent role but the absence of his male lovers still seems to me pretty baffling. We are supposed to live in more enlightened times, aren’t we? and yet this is a film that seems to have taken one step back into the closet. In the play we also see Turing with some kind of emotional hinterland; there are his lovers and also his mother. The depiction of him is of a less traumatized and more connected individual. Certainly he’s eccentric but he’s not as isolated. In the play it is also clear that Turing naively shops himself to the police by telling the truth about his relationship. There’s none of that in the film or the fact that he killed himself by biting into an apple laced with cyanide. So, no mother, no lovers, no apple and no cyanide.
So what does the film have going for it?
Well, it’s got Cumberbatch’s performance and it’s also got the machine (or Bombe as it was called) and that’s gripping, lots of red spaghetti-like wiring and whirring and clicking cogs. And it also has a stand out performance by Alex Lawther as the young Turing.
One other thing that I liked very much in the film was the phrase ‘blood-soaked calculus’. This was used to describe the calculation the secret services had to make about whether they could act on the information they got from deciphering German messages. This was because they did not want the Germans to know they had broken Enigma. So the decision with each piece of information was: Can we use this or will it give the game away? As a writer, I’d have been very proud of myself if I’d come up with that expression. As a human being I’m very glad I’ve never had to make those sorts of decisions.
Both Jacobi and Cumberbatch are fantastic actors and where they both excel is in conveying in a compelling manner reams of barely comprehensible (to me anyway) mathematics in a way which means that you completely believe that they understand what they are saying, even if you haven’t got a clue. On the whole I think I preferred Hugh Whitemore’s Breaking the Code, which seemed to me more sophisticated and more nuanced than the film.
One last point. As the film points out, 49,000 men were prosecuted under the same law as Turing. What about them? It makes no sense to pardon Turing and not them. No sense at all.
This is what Lord McNally, the Lord Chief Justice at the time Turing’s pardon was being considered, had to say on the matter:
‘A posthumous pardon was not considered appropriate as Alan Turing was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence… It is tragic that Alan Turing was convicted of an offence that now seems both cruel and absurd – particularly poignant given his outstanding contribution to the war effort. However the law at the time required a prosecution and as such long standing policy has been to accept that such convictions took place and, rather than try and alter the historical context and to put right what cannot be put right ensure instead that we never return to those times.’
To paraphrase: Back then the law was an ass but it was the law. I can see where he’s coming from but I’m glad his view and ‘long standing policy’ didn’t prevail. The human heart requires a different response, doesn’t it?
Andrew Hodges’ brilliant book Alan Turing: The Enigma published in 1983 was the source material for both Breaking the Code and The Imitation Game. Here’s the link to his website: http://www.turing.org.uk
What do you think of retrospective pardons and apologies? Too little too late? Or an important way in which society seeks to tell itself that it’s changed for the better. What did you think of the film?