sun 21/07/2024

Britain's Greatest Codebreaker, Channel 4 | reviews, news & interviews

Britain's Greatest Codebreaker, Channel 4

Britain's Greatest Codebreaker, Channel 4

Documentary and drama can't crack Turing

A statue of Alan Turing made from slate at Bletchley ParkJon Callas

I had misgivings before watching Britain's Greatest Codebreaker last night on Channel 4: the advertised mix of drama and documentary tends to send a signal that neither half is sufficiently well done. And within a minute, it was clear that this was such a chimera: over-dramatic voiceovers for the documentary part, Ed Stoppard acting to the back row in the drama part.

From a documentary, I want an understanding of the man's context, his career, his thought, his achievements. None of these were present in any meaningful way. There was no clear explanation of what his genius was - his idea of the "universal machine" (what we now call the computer) was praised to the skies, with talking heads pointing to disassembled iPhones and saying Turing started it all. How? No answer. The documentary part of this programme was not made for an intelligent audience since they clearly felt no one would be able to understand Turing's work.

The same went for the Engima machine, which is clearly a topic comprehensible to the layperson, as witnessed by Robert Harris's novel and the countless books on cryptography and Bletchley Park. Tell me if this enlightens you: "He realised that you could apply maths to the cyphers and codes to reduce the spaces to search through." Maths! That great inexplicable black hole! I felt sorry for the interviewee from the National Museum of Computing who had clearly been told to speak as if addressing primary school students. And, please, tell me how appropriate it is to play Marlene Dietrich singing "Lili Marlene" over the clips of the D-Day landings.

This Alan Turing was written by Mills and Boon

From a drama, I want to feel like I have understood the man himself a little more. Ed Stoppard, however, did a weak and sentimental audition for the role of AE Housman in his father's The Invention of Love, another gay and exiled scholar. He stared off into the distance. He hesitated. He chewed his fingertips. Alan Turing appeared to be a collection of acting-workshop manifestations of thought, but not a man possessed of thought himself.

And then it finally slipped the boundaries of decency: why did Turing want to develop computers? Because, Ed Stoppard told his therapist, it would ease his grief over his dead teenage love. Not for intellectual challenge or social good or curiosity. This Alan Turing was written by Mills and Boon.

The moment I shouted at the TV came a little later, when to try and help us understand artificial intelligence, we got a clip from Blade Runner. I believe this was also the moment I tweeted "BLADE RUNNER! FUCKING BLADE RUNNER!" I have never been so infuriated by the contempt a programme-maker has had for its audience, presuming stupidity on the level of a failed lobotomy. The fake machinations of The X Factor, the pretentious idiocy of Made in Chelsea are nothing compared to this.

What kind of respect was this to give a man who saved countless lives and set the path we still walk today? Neither substantial documentary nor convincing drama, Britain's Greatest Codebreaker did not just fail its subject - it embarrassed him (and its audience) in the process.

I have never been so infuriated by the contempt a programme-maker has had for its audience

Share this article


Does someone actually pay you to spout drivel like this? Fools. You arrogantly presume intelligence in yourself which you clearly don't possess.

June 2012 will be the centenary of Alan Turing's birth and there will be many opportunities for Intellectual delving into the mathematical aspects of his life, including seminars at Oxford University and Bletchley Park itself for example. Yesterday's programme was surely to introduce to people who perhaps had never heard of Turing, the possible human conditions in which he existed as an individual, (through the childhood separation from his parents to a few people who did impact his life) which drove him to push his intellect to such achievement. If this programme awakes an interest in viewers to understand the social boundaries in this country only 50 years or so ago, as well as something of the man himself and the scientific pioneer he was, then it should be applauded for this at least.

I thought this documentary did a good job. We'll never be able to get inside Turing's mind but the public knows more now about the 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. You can read my complete review on my blog:

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters