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Thoughts on the Turing Documentary

 

This post is a general whine about an excellent documentary shown on Channel 4 earlier this week – ‘Britain’s Greatest Codebreaker’ on the life of Alan Turing. If you would like to see it (hopefully with less adverts) have a look at http://www.channel4.com/programmes/tags/documentaries/4od .

 

Before I get into this, let’s set the bar in an appropriate place. I thought it was a brilliant idea, a brilliant thing to commission and wholly right that this programme be shown and at a pretty decent slot too. So, well done Channel 4 for a great gesture that will greatly benefit those who seek to preserve the story of Turing and his amazing works.

 

Ok. We clear? Good. Let’s proceed.

 

Sadly, although on the the whole a good and informative programme, it was not without it’s shortcomings. Of course I am going to show bias towards Bletchley Park as a whole, it’s kinda my job, but I do feel that some things went unsaid (and some things were just plain misspoken) that could use addressing in some dark grimy corner of the Internet; like this one in fact.

 

I very much enjoyed the telling of Turing’s life story. Being more interested in the technical side of things, I don’t focus as much on the personal stories as some do. Learning about his earlier relationships at school was a fascinating insight into what may have driven him to such acts of genius. I watched as his childhood unfolded, explained through the usual ‘talking heads’, intersected with a dramatisation of Turing’s psychotherapy sessions.

 

It was these sessions that started to jar. Unfortunately, two very fine actors were given such a flat script that I started to wonder if I could edit together a decent thirty-minute story by simply editing them out. It was a great opportunity to dramatise Turing’s inner conflict but it never materialised. He went from seeming a perfectly happy person to looking a bit sad in the last ten minutes. It didn’t work for me.

 

Can I now address the title? It seemed a strange choice. “Britain’s Greatest Codebreaker”. Why “Codebreaker”? He achieved so much more on a wider scope, like, you know, conceiving the fundamental principles of the entire digital world and his amazing work on morphogenesis. It’s more concerning for me that it overshadows and diminishes the work of other code breakers at Bletchley Park. Now I’m sure that many hours would be lost and pints drank as BP enthusiasts and experts debated who was the greatest and like most things of this nature a consensus would never be reached, but I would be surprised if Turing was in the running. Some would say Knox, some Welchman and I would personally opt for John Tiltman, who made the first break into Lorenz. Turing certainly achieved the most over his short life and he had one of the most tragic endings which is maybe why he receives so much focus. Still, we at BP try to see that those who deserve it get recognition and sometimes I feel it’s hard for them to be seen.

 

On a very minor and pedantic note, it’s not Station X. Never has been. I help perpetuate this myth via the name of this blog but Bletchley Park was never called Station X. In fact, the MI6 radio station hidden away in the mansion’s water tower was the titular station. Bletchley Park was know as Room 47, GC&CS (Government Code & Cipher School) or simply ‘Ultra’. Those based there simply knew it as ‘BP’.

 

I get that the programme’s purpose was to focus on the personal traumas of Turing. However, a lot of effort went into to explaining the impact of the ‘Universal Machine’ (i.e. the digital computer), morphogenesis and the ‘Turing Test’. Yet no mention was made of ACE, his fully working computer, or the modern impact of Turing’s work. You know when you have to copy in a slightly-scrambled word when registering on a web site? That’s called a CAPTCHA test. Google it. Yep, the T is for Turing.

 

Finally, I’ve now edited my recording and was astonished to find that 22 minutes of adverts were broadcast and the entire show was actually just a blip over one hour long. That’s a terrible ratio. It reminded me of watching television in the USA, which is no pleasant experience.

 

I was going to say that it was great to hear to Gordon Welchman being mentioned. As co-developer of the Bombe he often gets a horrible lack of credit. His work on the ‘diagonal board’ section of the machine sped it up fivefold over Turing’s original design. However, yet again the man actually built the darn things, Harold ‘Doc’ Keen, gets left out. The Bombe was the work of three men and I believe they all deserve credit.

 

Right, I’ve had a good moan and thank you for bearing with me. Let me repeat again that it was on the whole a good programme and I’m glad it’s there. I just feel some opportunities were wasted.
Published inBletchley Park

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