Truth and Deception

Commuting days until retirement: 94

My very first post on this blog, nearly two years ago, was about Alan Turing, and in the intervening time his public profile has continued to grow. That post still appears to be one of my most frequently read ones (which isn’t saying much) – probably because there are so many searches for his name now.  You may be aware that a dramatised film of his life was recently released – The Imitation Game – so of course I went to see it.

Warning: some spoilers follow. If you don’t want to read on, then I recommend seeing the film, but also taking a monster pinch of salt with you.

Cumberbatch as Turing

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing (still from film)

My expectations weren’t too high after seeing the trailer, and the words splashed across the screen: ‘It took a man with secrets to break the biggest one.’  This suggests elements of the Hollywood-style schlocky mindset that we are all familiar with. However it looked as if Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Turing had some studied integrity, as indeed I found it did when I saw the film. But I suspect the celluloid Turing had far more exaggerated autistic traits than the real one: there’s no doubt that he was shy and socially awkward, but hardly quite as indifferent to the emotions of others as he was made to appear.

As I wrote in that earlier post, his impulses were more often generous and considerate; perhaps an example of this was his breaking off of his engagement with Joan Clarke, his fellow cryptographer at Bletchley, feeling that as a gay man he wouldn’t be able to maintain an adequate marriage. What private conversation took place we will of course never know,  but the film version made it more abrupt and brutal than I would have imagined it to be.

Knightley as Clarke

Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke (still from film)

The real Joan Clarke

Joan Clarke from a contemporary photo

Turing’s biographer,  Andrew Hodges, has criticised the film on the portrayal of Joan – played sweetly and demurely by the willowy Keira Knightley. I thought it was a good performance, given her brief (but should someone have told her that a double-first Cambridge maths graduate is not likely to pronounce the name of the great Swiss mathematician Euler as “Yooler” rather than “Oiler”?) I’m getting pedantic – but one of Hodges’ points was that Joan Clarke was stocky and bespectacled – not the ideal of femininity, but as such someone whom Turing would have found a congenial and comfortable companion, as he undoubtedly did. There’s some insight into their relationship in an interview she gave to BBC Horizon in 1992, four years before her death (see video clip at the bottom of this post).

I did enjoy the film, although the beautifully realised period settings were marred – as so often – by a cloth ear for the language and idioms of the time. Would a fairly patrician Englishman in the 1940s (Commander Denniston/Charles Dance) have said “You’re fired” rather than something like “I’m sacking you”? And would Joan Clarke have talked about “fixing” Turing’s lamb in an imagined future marriage, rather than “cooking” it?

I seem to be turning into one of those people who get their biggest kicks from looking for mistakes in movies; but what the hell – it’s fun, and these are the sorts of things that irritate me. And indeed I became increasingly impatient with the more serious departures from reality. For a start, there’s no evidence at all that anyone attempted to fire Turing – this was just a ladle of dramatic tension clumsily poured in to spice things up. And so it went on.

“Based on a true story”, we were told at the start. So there’s an expectation of some invented scenes and dialogue, and minor deviations from fact to help the story work as a film. If I had known nothing about Turing or his Bletchley work before seeing film I would now believe that:

  • Apart from some clerical help by the Wrens, the entire wartime decryption operation was down to four men,  one woman and a single machine which Turing built almost single-handed as well as designing it.
  • He named the machine ‘Christopher’ after his close school friend who had died, and that the machine was a sort of emotional substitute after this loss (as was a computer he later designed in Manchester).
  • Turing was effectively blackmailed by the Soviet spy John Cairncross into keeping quiet about Cairncross’s activities.
  • At the time of his arrest for gross indecency in 1951 he threw the Official Secrets Act to the wind and told the interrogating officer all about his wartime work. (This is used in the narrative as a framing device.)

These range from the absurd, through the highly improbable, to the patently false; and I have only picked out a few of the most egregious examples. Just to examine one of them: it’s true that the spy Cairncross was at Bletchley and passed details of decrypts to Stalin’s Russia. But these were not Enigma decrypts, but those of the later, more complex naval code known as ‘Tunny’, broken by Bill Tutte and decrypted by the ‘Colossus’ computer designed by Tommy Flowers – an operation which of course owed much to Turing. It’s unlikely that Cairncross would have met Turing or had any significant contact with him; but how the thought of livening up the dull old truth with a bonus spy gets those film writers’ pulses racing! According to the film, the good old Brits of course know what Cairncross is up to, and only let him release the material that suits their purposes. (How on earth they manage this without his knowledge, given that the character in the film has full access to the Enigma decrypts, is never explained.) In reality, Cairncross’s activities were not discovered until the 1950s.

Rebuilt Turing Bombe

The replica bombe in the Bletchley museum (Ted Coles / Wikimedia)

And of course there wasn’t just one machine (they were actually known as ‘bombes’) but eventually some 200 of them were installed, at Bletchley and elsewhere, to get through all the work. I don’t think any of them was called ‘Christopher’.

As is customary with fictionalised true stories,  we get the ‘what happened afterwards’  follow-up facts on the screen before the credits – but even these are sloppily inaccurate: the Bletchley code breaking activities, we are told, were kept secret for more than 50 years. The makers have apparently failed to notice that the Hodges biography on which they claim to base the film, and which describes Enigma in great detail, was published in 1983, less than 40 years after the war. And the existence of the Bletchley code breaking operation was in fact made public in the 1970s, nearly a decade before that.

There I go again; but the point at issue is whether all the distortions of the truth can be justified. The film’s producer Teddy Schwartzman has been quoted as saying that, while the makers did not want to fabricate events, there are some ‘creative liberties’. Well, that’s one way of putting it. More, I would say, that many important truths were distorted in the hope of pushing up box office receipts. I haven’t attempted to count the fabricated events,  but I doubt whether the fingers of both hands would be sufficient.

I don’t imagine that Turing himself, with his mathematician’s love of detail, would have been very happy with this portrayal. The truth of Turing’s life contained drama enough – it was unnecessary to daub the picture with splotches of gaudy dramatic invention and make such clumsy attempts to drag in a spurious emotional subtext. In a different way,  the film was as disobliging to his memory as the account by his prejudiced brother John which I described in my first blog post.

The Bletchley operation was one of the greatest examples in history of overcoming barriers to discovering the truth, as well as in helping to deceive an enemy. Unfortunately what we were given here was too little truth, and a generous helping of deception

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