If the story of World War II code-breaker Alan Turing had been fictitious, it wouldn’t have been believable. The Imitation Game, the inspiring and ultimately tragic retelling of Turing’s life, hits UK cinema screens today, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing and Keira Knightley as fellow code-breaker Joan Clarke.
Some dramatic licence may have been taken (it is a movie, after all), but Turing’s little-known story needs no Hollywood makeover.
Turing’s team, working at the top-secret Bletchley Park, is credited with cracking the ‘unbreakable’ codes of Nazi Germany’s Enigma machine, helping to shorten the war by two years and saving an estimated 14 million lives in the process.
He is also considered the founding father of the computer, and pioneered research into artificial intelligence.
“He was a remarkable human being,” says Cumberbatch, “a very kind soul, a very benign, slightly gauche, but very doggedly determined, single-minded human being of extraordinary talent and ability.”
And yet, while The Imitation Game does admirable work showcasing the complexities and brilliance of Turing the man, its greatest successes may fall beyond box office receipts and awards hype.
Bletchley Park exhibition
The film has sparked renewed interest in Turing’s then-unsung team and workplace. Bletchley Park, once Britain’s best kept secret, is now open to the public showcasing props, sets and permanent exhibitions. It prompts someimportant, if uncomfortable, questions about contemporary civil rights.
When Turing died in 1954 he did so in virtual obscurity. Two years earlier, his relationship with a man at a time when homosexuality was still illegal, had led to a criminal conviction. Faced with imprisonment or chemical castration he chose the latter.
Whn he was only 41, he was found dead at his home. Lonely and persecuted, he had committed suicide by eating an apple laced with cyanide.
While the film goes with the official verdict of suicide, there are some who believe foul play was involved. Last year, human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell called for a new investigation into Turing’s death.
“He was regarded as a high security risk because he was gay and because of his expert knowledge of code-breaking, advanced maths and computer science,” Tatchell says.
“At the time of his death, Britain was gripped by a McCarthy-style gay witch hunt and all gay men were regarded as security risks because they were vulnerable to blackmail.”
Turing was not alone in his treatment at the hands of state-sponsored homophobia, but his victimisation in the 1950s, together with high-profile cases such as Lord Montagu and Sir John Gielgud, led to pressure for homosexuality law reform.
This first resulted in the Wolfenden Report and then later the Sexual Offences Act of 1967. Although this was an important step, Tatchell adds the caveat that decriminalisation was very partial and limited.
Last year, as the film highlights, Turing received a royal pardon for his conviction. But the tens of thousands of others prosecuted did not. Gay rights campaigners have mixed feelings about it – and so does Turing’s nephew, Dermot Turing.
“On the one hand it’s completely wrong to be grumpy about it in any sense, it’s very good his contribution is recognised in that way,” says Dermot, a trustee at Bletchley Park.
“But an awful lot of people were prosecuted and subjected to the same kind of treatment and so to single out one person because he happens to be famous seems to be a bit of a kick in the teeth to the others.”
“I would like to hope that the Imitation Game will not only further enhance the much deserved high status of Turing, but also prompt renewed pressure for a similar pardon and apology for the other 50,000-plus gay men who were also convicted under the same law,” says Tatchell.
While Dermot never met his now-famous uncle, he thinks The Imitation Game’s characterisation is apt, if a tad prickly.
The real Alan Turing
“Judging from what those that have worked with Alan have told me, there was more of a sense of warmth to him than the film suggests,” he says. “Provided you were on the same wavelength, he could be very easy to talk to and quite helpful, apparently.”
Alan Turing’s late mother once said her son had a “whimsical sense of humour”. He was also said to be great with children. You can see Turing’s teddy bear, Porgy, at Bletchley Park. He reputedly practised his university lectures in front of Porgy and once dressed the bear in an outfit which matched his niece’s – much to her delight.
Dermot suspects that his uncle, who never courted prestige or recognition, would have been rather embarrassed by the spotlight.
Portraying the life of a man so extraordinary is always going to be a challenge in 120 minutes. As the tagline, The real enigma was the man, suggests, The Imitation Game is very much Alan Turing’s story. Other big players at Bletchley Park have taken a back seat in the narrative as a result.
Dr Joel Greenberg, a historian at Bletchley Park, is forgiving of this. “I like the film. It gives a good flavour of Bletchley Park, Turing’s brilliance and the pressure they were under – of course the details in between had to get conflated,” he says.
Greenberg is the author of a biography of Gordon Welchman, one of the early recruits to Bletchley, together with Turing, Hugh Alexander (played by Matthew Goode in the film), and Stuart Milner-Barry (who doesn’t feature).
Welchman also doesn’t appear in the film – he would be too much of a big distraction, Greenberg suggests – but in reality, he and Turing co-built the code-breaking BOMBE machine that finally cracked Enigma’s 159 million million million possible settings.
The only other major figure portrayed at any length is Commander Alastair Dennison, the film’s chief antagonist, played by Game of Thrones’ Charles Dance.
“Contrary to the film, the real Dennison was 5′ 2”, would never have worn a naval uniform at Bletchley Park, was loved by all and allowed innovation to flourish,” says Greenberg, who is currently writing a biography of the man.
The women of Bletchley Park
While the Imitation Game gives airtime to Knightley’s Joan Clarke, other female code-breakers played a big part in the war efforts, notably Mavis Batey and Margaret Rock. In fact, the Bletchley code-breaking operation was made up of nearly 10,000 people, around 75 per cent of whom were women.
From recognising past pioneers and unsung heroes to confronting contemporary failings, Turing’s is a legacy as influential and unassuming as its subject.
The Imitation Game is in cinemas nationwide from 14 November