The Imitation Game, based on the life of bona fide genius Alan Turing, opens in cinemas today. His story reveals not just a personal triumph, says Alice Hutton, but a national shame.
Alan Turing. ©King’s College Archive at Cambridge University.
THE writer of the Oscar-tipped Alan Turing biopic, The Imitation Game, recently told the Gay Times he was repeatedly “begged” not to make the film. A movie about Graham Moore’s childhood hero, the Second World War codebreaker and father of modern computing, was unsellable, experts said.
“The worst idea I ever heard” because “no one will ever want to act in that movie.”
The fact the film, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley, opened today to rave reviews is not just a victory for the 32-year-old over a short-sighted industry. It is also a crucial step in the rehabilitation of a British hero whose top secret work saved thousands of lives, as well as a mathematical genius working decades ahead of his time.
But, more importantly, it highlights the injustice and prejudice behind Turing’s tragic and unnecessary death aged 41 in 1954, viewed by some as an unforgivable black mark on British history and the conscience of the intelligence services.
Two years ago I interviewed one of Turing’s last living employees, Hilary Bedford. She was 17 when she started working for the former Cambridge University student at Bletchley Park, the Government’s top secret code breaking centre just outside of London, in 1943.
Along with a team of other bright young women, they worked on England’s weapon against the seemingly unbreakable Enigma codes of Nazi Germany – Turing’s Bombe. An electro-mechanical “thinking machine” in Hut 8 was the precursor of the first modern computer Turing would later help to build at Manchester University in 1948.
The Bombe helped pinpoint the German U-boats which were sinking Britain’s food and arms supply ships, attempting to starve the country into surrender. Historians estimate this breakthrough shortened the war by several years.
I admit, I had been hoping, starry-eyed, for some longed-for insight into the mind of the individual who Winston Churchill once claimed made the single biggest contribution to Allied victory. A glimpse of the long-dead man behind the curtain.
Casting her mind back seven decades, the now 86-year-old couldn’t help me. Instead she painted a picture of a lonely man, isolated by his own brilliance.
Too bright, too sharp, too finely tuned to connect with anyone – even Britain’s elite intelligensia who had been plucked from their university halls and civil service jobs for their rare gifts couldn’t keep up.
“It is a hell of a business being a genius,” Bedford remarked dryly.
“The government used him to fight the Germans, emptied his brain of everything they needed and then threw him away.”
What certainly didn’t bother the teenager was what would later become regarded as ‘the elephant in the room’. She shrugged, bored by the suggestion that Turing’s homosexuality caused titillation or scandal among his colleagues.
It was openly known in the office, she claimed. But then again, there were more important things to talk about, things that would remain classified under the Official Secrets Act until the 1970s.
So, in 1952 when Turing was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ with another man, 16 years before the law against homosexual acts was lifted, he wasn’t treated as the “saviour of England”.
Government officials, who would have been well aware of his background following the vetting process for Bletchley Park, responded to his public outing by washing their hands of their former ‘golden goose.’
Forced to remain silent about his work, he was stripped of his clearance for GCHQ by the very people who had granted it and forced to accept chemical castration in return for avoiding a prison sentence.
Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in the Imitation Game.
The consequences of the oestrogen injections, designed to lower the libido, were terrible. He died two years later, after allegedly biting into an apple laced with cyanide.
Bedford was outraged. “The government used him through the war to fight the Germans, emptied his brain of everything they needed and then threw him away,” she seethed. “As far as they were concerned he no longer existed. He was like a whisper in and out of history.”
But the whispers are getting louder now. In 1983 Andrew Hodges published Alan Turing: The Enigma, the biography on which The Imitation Game is based, arguably bringing Turing to the wider attention of the general public for the first time.
In the 1990s, with the growth of the computer industry, his reputation began to spread. At the same time that the campaign to save Bletchley Park began.
Visiting the site in Milton Keynes in 2011, it was a shock to see the nerve-centre of British intelligence in the Second World War crumbling in parts into disrepair. Tours can be taken through the central manor with valiant attempts made to secure it for the future. The famous ‘huts’ which housed the code-breakers are mostly off-limits, save a few which have been painstakingly and lovingly restored on a shoe-string budget.
Codebreakers like Hilary Bedford at work on The Bombe machine in Hut 8. © Bletchley Park Trust
Here, the room where Turing could have cracked the Enigma code, saving the future of the unsuspecting British public as they queued for rations. The one next door has broken windows and moss growing out the cracks in the flat-pack walls.
By 2009, more than 40-years after homosexual acts were decriminalised, then Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown had seen fit to squeeze out an apology- but stopped short of a pardon. Three years later a motion for a Parliamentary Pardon was rejected because Turing had been “properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence.”
But momentum was still gathering, with additional focus being thrown on other Bletchley code-breakers, including Bill Tutt and Tommy Flowers, whose contributions some argued had been outshone by putting the spotlight on Turing.
In 2012, the centenary of Turing’s birth, a worldwide campaign, Alan Turing Year, saw 41 countries host ‘festivals of ideas’ inspired by the mathematician. Finally, in December last year, months after the Equal Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 was approved, the Queen granted an official pardon, following a campaign supported by tens of thousands of people, including Professor Stephen Hawking.
Meanwhile, in a parallel campaign, Turing was becoming an icon of the gay equality movement. James Grime, a former Cambridge University mathematician who toured the country’s school’s teaching children about Turing as part of the the Millennium Mathematics Project (MMP), claims there are two sides to the story.
“There is his work in mathematics, computer science and mathematical biology,” he told Standard Issue Magazine. “And then there is the personal side of his life, being a gay man in the 1940s, 1950s and his arrest and suicide.
“In mathematical, computing and biology circles he was well known and well respected. Although his own modesty prevented him from taking all the credit he deserved. His papers in those subject were groundbreaking.
“But, like many other scientists, his story was not known to the general public. The fact he was arrested, ending in suicide, shows how short-sighted the law can be. Turing’s story began to represent the injustices all gay men have suffered due to homophobia and inequality. The recent campaign for a pardon was symbolic and represented all gay men who had suffered under those laws.”
For Dani Prinz, a spokeswoman for Alan Turing Year – which was consulted by producers of the movie – she hopes he is remembered as “a scientist who happened to be gay, not a gay scientist.”
Prinz, whose father Dietrich met Turing at Cambridge University in 1941 and later worked with him at Manchester University, said: “For years I have had people saying ‘Alan who?’ to me, nobody had a clue. So this is really gratifying.
“He is an incredibly inspirational figure in so many fields other than code-breaking, including artificial intelligence, robotics and cryptography. And what happened to him was so shameful, but I hope it doesn’t outweigh the significance of his work.
“The film is just the beginning really, it will help to open people’s eyes to see what we lost.”
Alan Turing (lower left) with members of the Ratio Club (an interdisciplinary group of leading young researchers, started in 1948). © King’s College Archive at Cambridge University
Director of the Imitation Game Morten Tyldum with an Engima machine at the Science Museum. Picture by Alice Hutton.
At a screening of the Imitation Game at the Science Museum in London on Wednesday, director Morten Tyldum walked around an exhibition featuring the first modern computer, Pilot ACE (Automatic Computer Engine), built by Turing in 1950.
The Norwegian filmmaker stopped to examine an original Enigma released for the night by GCHQ.
He grinned cheekily and said: “I had two of these in my movie. We were allowed to use the original Enigma machines. I told the actors, ‘hit the keys harder’. They looked at me, scared they were gonna break it.”
Among the exhibits in the museum’s new Codebreaker exhibition is a bottle of the female sex hormone oestrogen and a copy of the pathologist’s post-mortem report. Detailing the circumstances of his death at his home on June 7, 1954, in Wilmslow, Cheshire, the autopsy found enough cyanide poison in his system to fill a wine glass.
Later, Tyldum told the audience his film, named after an academic paper written by Turing, nearly wasn’t made.
“Warner [Bros], when they realised it was about a gay man, they didn’t want to do the movie anymore,” he said. “So the only way to do it was to get it funded independently.
“Alan Turing was a gay man who was being crucified for it. He wasn’t just a mathematician, he was a philosopher. It’s a tragedy he couldn’t stay with us longer. The only person who should be pardoned is us, by Turing.”
Alice Hutton is an award-winning reporter and feature writer working for the independent London newspaper, The Camden New Journal. Follow her on Twitter at @alice_hutton