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Alan Turing on Stage and Screen

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The Idea of a Play

While I was writing my book about Alan Turing I always thought that it had great potential for dramatisation. And how could Alan Turing himself have objected? He was a fan of Bernard Shaw's plays, who in many ways acted like a Shavian character in a play of ideas; he dramatised his now-famous Turing Test, and calculated a dramatic ending for his own life.

In about 1980 I said this out loud — it was during one of Roger Penrose's research meetings — and someone asked me who I thought could play Turing. Without much thought I said 'Derek Jacobi.' This was simply because I had seen him as Claudius in the 1970s television version of Robert Graves's books, and thought that he could carry a serious part while having a light touch. I wasn't thinking particularly of the stammer he developed for Claudius. And I was thinking of film rather than the stage.

After my book was published, the playwright Hugh Whitemore saw it reviewed by Stephen Toulmin in the New York Review of Books.  (This review can be read on-line). At once he approached me with a proposal to dramatise it as a stage play. It was in fact the story of the cyanide-poisoned apple which had attracted his attention. In the course of our first conversation, he mentioned to me that he happened to know that Derek Jacobi was looking for a new role in a modern play. (More here on Sir Derek Jacobi's work.)

I jumped!

The Play of Ideas

This coincidence of vision and opportunity was a wonderful opening, and Hugh Whitemore acquired the appropriate dramatic rights in my work through my literary agents (who are now the Zeno Literary Agency).

One of Hugh Whitemore's great strengths is that of being able to draw ideas and talents from many sources and to let them work together constructively. I was consulted by him quite frequently between 1984 and 1986 as he worked on a script. All the ideas for the form and style of the play were his, and the selection of the material was entirely his own, but I helped with suggestions, especially in the writing of the long monologues. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, he was busy pulling the strings together to ensure a brilliant success for it. In particular, he persuaded Derek Jacobi that this would be the play for him.

Derek Jacobi Stars

After a short trial run in Guildford, Breaking the Code opened at the Haymarket Theatre, in London's West End, in November 1986. It transferred to the Neil Simon Theater in New York in November 1987 and ran there until April 1988.

Alan Turing was played by Derek Jacobi in both London and New York.

Publication of the script

The script was originally published by Amber Lane Press, but is now only available in an Acting Edition from Samuel French, Inc., the major publisher of plays. Continue to the Samuel French website for direct ordering. Samuel French also manage the performance rights to the play.

The continuing life

Since 1987 it has been performed all over the world: Japan, Germany, South Africa, Canada, Australia, Turkey, Uruguay...

Derek Jacobi also returned for another major British run in 1992.

Review in The Guardian,  13 November 2003, of a production at Royal and Derngate Theatre, Northampton.

Local BBC review and audience reactions with pictures of the production.

Pictures from an excellent Leamington Spa production, April 2008.

Another amateur production in Banbury, April 2008.

A further production in North London, December 2008, with interesting first-hand witness page about Bletchley Park.

Frequently Asked Question: What do I think of it?

In a way I am the last person who should comment on Breaking the Code as drama, because I cannot see it with fresh eyes, and because the experience of living through the Alan Turing story myself is more vivid than anything I could see on the stage. But here are some points that I usually make when asked to speak about it.
  • In retrospect, it seems a miracle that it was ever done at all, because it so contradicts the stereotyped roles for people which, generally speaking, the Arts world busily works to reinforce.

    At the outset of the New York run, I heard Derek Jacobi interviewed by Russell Harty on the radio programme Start the Week. Discussing its success, Derek Jacobi said they had been nervous: 'homosexuality is box-office, but mathematics! —' This I thought was a naive remark: the producers were actually very worried about it being seen as 'a gay play,' something that would mean death on Broadway. Homosexuality was not 'box office' at all. But Derek Jacobi was certainly right in pointing to the unexpected success of Hugh Whitemore's brave treatment of the mathematics. Facing the audience with a full-frontal description of Gödel's theorem was probably breaking an even bigger taboo than claiming a gay man as a war hero.

    In the Independent  newspaper, 14 February 2002, Sir Derek Jacobi enlarged on his comment about mathematics on stage: see this on-line version of the interview.

  • It really does put across the story of Alan Turing as a man who saved the state and then was destroyed by the state. Communicating this tragedy was one of the original motivations behind my writing the book, and the play has brought it to many more people; in this way it is a fulfilment for me of an original vocation.

  • And more than this, it portrays Alan Turing truly when it shows his particular kind of innocence, the innocence of pure science, thrust into the epicentre of the world crisis.

  • But the plotting makes Turing's life less dramatic than it was. Reality is always stranger and more complex than fiction. In particular,

    • Breaking the Code misses out on explaining how the computer flowed from his logical ideas. 'You remember all my theorising about a universal machine?' asks Turing towards the end. No we don't; how could we? There was only half a line about it to give a faint clue.

    • Its pivotal claim of 'breaking the code' slips adrift. The U-boat Enigma cipher is built up by Knox as the crucial problem — and then what? Did Turing succeed in breaking it against the odds? When? How? We hear a secondary buzz but the clear claim is never made. I don't see how the audience is meant to gather what Turing did or what its importance was.

  • Turing is given a speech for his suicide which, taken literally, says he is doing it as an experiment to see if there is life after death. I think this is wrong and in fact ridiculous. But I'm sympathetic because I think Hugh Whitemore had a good sense that there should be something dramatic to say about uncomputability. Since 1986 I have seen better how the uncomputable fits into the development of Turing's ideas, as explained in my philosophy area, although not in a way that sheds light on his state of mind at death.

  • Now a positive note: many people who knew Alan Turing have seen the play, and felt it brought back something absolutely authentic about him. (See Robin Gandy, on another Scrapbook Page). I think this is one of the most powerful recommendations for the play that can be imagined.

Adapted for Television

Hugh Whitemore wrote a shortened version of the play for television. This was filmed in late 1995, as a production of THE DRAMA HOUSE and WGBH BOSTON for BBC NORTH

The first transmission, to my knowledge, was on 17 September 1996 in Canada, by Showcase Television.

It was shown in the United States as a Masterpiece Theater production on 2 February 1997.

The first British transmission was on BBC1, 5 February 1997.

Alan Turing as a youthWILLIAM MANNERING
Christopher Morcom BLAKE RITSON

Released as Video

Movie guide listing.

Order from here. (The page also has many reviews.)

I do not know of any release of a DVD.

Filmed for television in a naturalistic suburban setting, rather than on a timeless, expressionist stage set, Breaking the Code inevitably sacrificed many of the elements that made it grip theatre audiences. No stagecraft magic of Derek Jacobi's real-time changes of age: instead the teenage Turing was played by a young actor.

The adapted script also lost some of the more special moments of the play. For instance, on the stage, Turing reveals the logical secret of the Bombe on his last holiday on Corfu, but with the irony that it is revealed to someone who does not understand a word. On the television screen, his explanation is given to an Intelligence officer 'John Smith', all irony lost.

Hugh Whitemore also dropped the words at the death scene, and supplied an anticlimactic ending, a voiceover explaining the dubious honour done to Alan Turing by having part of the Manchester Ring Road being named after him. But this sudden shift into 1990s documentary mode holds the danger of dating very rapidly, and also prompts the awkward question of what Alan Turing is supposed 'really' to have done, which is even less clear in the television film than it was on the stage.

But the television version gained in ways I could not have foreseen. The direction made it less of a one-man show, and the supporting cast was very strong. The sheer bodily closeness, under the unflinching gaze of the camera, presented a wonderful image of 'the logical' confronting head-on 'the physical,' something I had wrestled with in my own writing.

Stranger than Fiction

Breaking the Code is a play, not a documentary. The dialogues and scenes are mostly invented, and in many ways differ from what actually happened.

Often people want to use it as if it were an educational documentary. This may be for the best of reasons, wanting to see science made alive through the concentrated attention of top-name artists. But everyone should be aware that it is not made to convey accurate fact.

I wasn't consulted at all about the television play, and in particular I have no responsibility whatever for various ludicrous assertions about Turing put out as publicity for its transmissions. I guess there is no business like show business, and to be honest, it has been good business for me.

There is an alternative. The television film The Strange Life and Death of Dr Turing was made for the BBC Horizon series in December 1991, and first shown on 9 March 1992. The film-maker was Christopher Sykes, who did an excellent job on a rather low budget; it shows many places and people in the Turing story as well as explaining the line of his work, and in fact the interviews were valuable additions to the record.

Plus, you can see me... freezing cold on Grantchester meadows, then against the background of Christopher Morcom's stained-glass window in Catshill, Worcestershire, then around Wilmslow and the scene in the Oxford Road, Manchester, exactly forty years after Alan Turing's fateful pick-up, where nothing seemed to have changed since 1951, as you can see from my picture on this Scrapbook Page.

Not About Alan Turing

The film Enigma,  based on Robert Harris's thriller novel of that name, is NOT about Alan Turing. See my review on another page.

The Film Question

The general expectation was that Hugh Whitemore would go on to write a film script, but this never came to pass.

One difficulty was perhaps that it meant completely rethinking a treatment. The stage play was entirely verbal. A film would use the resources of the visual: it could show, not talk about, secret scenes of the twentieth century that the stage could not possibly encompass.

But another underlying difficulty is brought out in Hugh Whitemore's own words. See this discussion by Hugh Whitemore of the play. It is part of a series of discussions aroused by the play Copenhagen  by Michael Frayn, and held in the Neils Bohr Archive. Whitemore ends:

Finally, as an epilogue, let me tell you what happened when the play was in Washington, at the Kennedy Center. It had been a great success. Leonard Bernstein had prostrated himself in homage before Derek Jacobi. I was in my hotel room, enjoying a brief moment of triumph. The phone rang. It was a leading Hollywood producer. "Your play is a masterpiece," he said, "get on a plane and we'll talk about making it into a motion picture." And he named a colossal sum as a potential fee. Riches, at last, seemed to beckon. "Just two things," he said. "What's that?" I asked. "I don't want this guy to be a faggot and for God's sake cut out all the mathematics."

Perhaps this story also tells us something about the background to another film, A Beautiful Mind.  Of course, these political and economic factors are not unique to Hollywood, nor to the world of the Arts. They affect anyone who tries to describe Alan Turing's life and work. Continue to see more about memorials to him.

Continue to the next Scrapbook page.

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Andrew Hodges


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