Thursday, November 24, 2011

Britain's Greatest Codebreaker - review

Ed Stoppard plays Alan Turing
I watched the new Channel 4 doco on Alan Turing last night and here's my review. Let's be honest if you want to watch a documentary about Alan Turing you've not got much choice so you're likely to watch this one. First it's strengths; basing the dramatised reconstructions around Turing's sessions with psychiatrist Dr Franz Greenbaum works very well. This narrative device allows different aspects of Turing's life to be visited in a natural way; though what was actually said in those sessions must be pure speculation. The interviews with people who knew Turing, and with Greenbaum's daughters in particular, were a delight and really helped flesh him out. Ed Stoppard plays Turing very well; he doesn't have the stammer and ticks of Derek Jacobi's portrayal, but instead he plays with his fingers, bites his nails and looks both intelligent and troubled.
    I've been wondering what the documentary makers intention was; what they wanted the viewer to take from their efforts? I think they want us to get to know what drove Turing, where his genius sprung from and why he was eventually driven to suicide. It's always going to be hard to get inside a man about whom we know so little.  We are encouraged to believe that Turing's desire to excel in science sprang from his wish to live up to the expectations of his dead childhood sweet-heart Christopher Morcom. This may well be true. His desire to excel at code-breaking was driven by patriotic duty, something that would have been drummed in to him at public school. His desire to kill himself was brought upon by depression caused by his chemical castration and the increasing pressure he was coming under from a paranoid secret service obsessed with spies and Cambridge homosexuals. In the final scene you do wonder why Dr. Greenbaum didn't put Turing under suicide-watch.
    So what of Turing's great scientific achievements? The concept behind the Universal Turing Machine is brought across nicely in a long segment that features Steve Wozniak, amongst others, giving credit to Turing for inventing the computer. His work at Bletchely Park is somewhat glossed over; but let's be honest this aspect of his career has been well covered elsewhere and is what people already know Turing for if they know him at all. In contrast rather longer is spent on his later work on biological morphogenesis, which is likely to be new to most viewers. Turing is presented as a man who invented the idea of the computer, who cracked the German Naval Enigma codes, thereby winning WWII and saving millions of lives, and who invented the disciplines of artificial intelligence and bioinformatics - quite enough for one genius I think.
   If you want you can criticise this documentary for not explaining in detail how Enigma was cracked and not even mentioning the Lorenz cipher but that would be a different film. This one wants to tell us more about Turing the man and given that we know so little about his personal life it succeeds.