Britain’s Greatest Codebreaker Review: The Original Enigma

BRITAIN’S GREATEST CODEBREAKER: Monday 21st November, C4, 9pm

Monday nights are rarely a source of inspiration for tired minds. The weekend’s heady mix of alcohol, gaiety and/or looking after the kids leave most of us in a grumbling stupor by the time we have accepted the fact that a new week has truly arrived. But tonight’s Channel 4 documentary about one of the greatest British minds to have lived and was a truly awe-inspiring viewing experience.

British mathematician and general genius, Alan Turing, was the subject of this 75 minute biography in which his formidable personal and academic achievements were sensitively portrayed. This was the man who broke the Nazi Enigma code at Bletchley Park and is credited with catapulting civilisation into the digital age.

But Turing’s academic and professional achievements were the secret success stories in a largely tragic public life. Most of us knew nothing of Turing’s achievements while he was alive and the honesty with which he spoke about his sexuality resulted in a chemical castration which lead to his suicide aged just 41. Back in 2009, Gordon Brown apologised on behalf of his governmental predecessors for their abhorrent treatment of the man know credited with shortening World War II; an apology was long overdue.

The intimate personal portrait of a man tortured by loss and isolation was carefully painted in this film, which featured interviews with his nephew, colleagues and the family of friend and psychiatrist, Franz Greenbaum. Dramatic reconstructions featuring Ed Stoppard (yes, son of ridiculously talented parents Miriam and Tom) anchored the story with heartfelt representations of the troubled man and his relationship with psychiatrist, Greenbaum.

At first the smoke-filled rooms and sincerity of the actors may be a tad off-putting and one does wonder how the great reams of script were generated. It is unclear as to whether these are word for word transcriptions or just pure invention and frankly, it would have been nice to know. Nevertheless, these reconstructions certainly help to bring life to the vivid accounts given by those close to Turing or affected by his work many decades later.

Impressive interviews with university professors from just about every reputable institution in the land, as well as co-founder of Apple, Steve Wozniak provide gravitas to the achievements reported. The documentary is evidently well-researched and the breadth of sources gained is a testament to the filmmakers as well as Turing’s enduring influence.

At over an hour long, this is no walk in the park and it does lose pace at times yet this is undoubtedly a long and complex story and it needs to be told. Too much delving into the science behind Turing’s discoveries may tire some viewers but even if Monday brain begins to bite, it’s well worth sticking it out. If nothing else, do it for Alan.