Have you seen The Imitation Game starring Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch? Have you wondered what is historically accurate in the film, what is true and what false? Is Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Alan Turing accurate? Does Keira Knightley’s portrayal of Joan Clarke get over her true character?
This blog post is a collection of links to information that is related to The Imitation Game and will hopefully go some way towards answering questions that you may have about Turing, The Imitation Game and Bletchley Park.
I have been involved with Bletchley Park and known about Alan Turing for over 10 years. I spearheaded a campaign to save Bletchley Park in 2008 which I write about in detail in my forthcoming book Saving Bletchley Park: the story of Bletchley Park and the campaigns to save it. Bletchley Park is now a museum open to the public, do visit if you can and don’t forget The National Museum of Computing next door.
REVIEWS OF THE IMITATION GAME
I wrote a review of The Imitation Game that @pubstrat on Twitter said is
“One of the most thought provoking film reviews I have ever read.”
Here’s my review written after seeing the film and being on a panel afterwards at the Phoenix Cinema in London: The Imitation Game: Art Imitating Real Life?
There are many other reviews including:
“Broken codes, both strategic and social” The New York Times
“An engrossing and poignant thriller” The Guardian
What’s the best review that you have read and why? Do post a comment below and I’ll add it to the list 🙂
BOOKS ABOUT ALAN TURING + JOAN CLARKE
The book that inspired the film is Andrew Hodges Alan Turing: The Enigma a definitive biography of Turing. Very few of us would have heard of Alan Turing if it were not for Andrew.
Alan M. Turing written by Turing’s mother Sara Turing.
There’s also Alan Turing e l’intelligenza delle macchine by Teresa Numerico in Italian.
I’m eagerly awaiting a book by Kerry Howard “Women Codebreakers at Bletchley Park” the story of three female codebreakers: Mavis Batey, Joan Clarke and Margaret Rock. Kerry has recently had contact with Joan Clarke’s relatives which is very exciting news. The book will be out later this month (January 2015). There’s also lots of info on Kerry’s “Bletchley Park Research” website.
FACT OR FICTION? WHAT IS TRUE AND WHAT IS FALSE?
Steve Colgan and I put together
“10 things you need to know about The Imitation Game“, which looks at what was true and false in the film.
We also did a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) session which is a public Q and A about The Imitation Game and Bletchley Park: “IamA Dr Sue Black, I started a campaign to save Bletchley Park as featured in The Imitation Game. I am joined by co-author of my book Saving Bletchley Park and QI Elf Steve Colgan and we are experts on the history of Bletchley Park and Alan Turning AMA!”
FIRST HAND STORIES ABOUT ALAN TURING
I, of course, have not met Alan Turing, but have met several people who did over the years of my involvement with Bletchley Park. Turing’s mentor at Bletchley was the codebreaker Max Newman. Newman also testified for Turing when he was sentenced and prosecuted. I’ve spoken several times to William Newman, Max Newman’s son about Alan Turing and what he remembers of him. William told me stories of when he was a child and Turing used to visit. I relate two of these in Robert Lewellyn’s Carpool interview with me from a few years ago about Turing and Bletchley Park and it’s significance.
CAN YOU HELP? WHAT’S THE BEST LINK YOU HAVE FOUND?
I will be updating this page regularly, this is just a start with information that I know of. Please do add useful links in the comments below and I’ll add them to the page as we go.
Having spearheaded the most recent campaign to save Bletchley Park and being part of the campaign to get Alan Turing on a banknote I was very apprehensive about seeing the new film “The Imitation Game” starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley. The Imitation Game is based on Andrew Hodges biography of Alan Turing and his codebreaking work at Bletchley Park during WW2.
I spent several years of my life trying to raise public awareness of Bletchley Park and the contribution of the more than ten thousand people who worked there and have learnt a lot along the way. I’ve had conversations with several people who knew Turing, including his nephew and nieces and have spoken to many Bletchley Park veterans over the years.
I was apprehensive about seeing the film because I really didn’t want to see a film like “Enigma” again, a film which I’ve never actually managed to stay awake through despite being intensely interested in its subject matter. Apart from the fact that “Enigma” is not a particularly engaging film, I also found it preposterous that the character who is quite obviously supposed to be Turing is heterosexual in the film.
I was delighted to be invited to sit on a Q+A panel after the showing of “The Imitation Game” at the Phoenix Cinema in Finchley, North London. I was even more delighted when I found out that the other members of the panel were Bletchley Park veteran and Bombe operator Ruth Bourne and Bletchley Park experts John Gallehawk and John Alexander who had brought along his three Enigma machines. What a treat 🙂
It was my first trip to the Phoenix Cinema, the oldest purpose built cinema in London. I will definitely be going back, what a lovely place. Adam Gee who I think I met on Twitter in around 2009 when I started using it to raise the game in the save Bletchley Park campaign is a trustee of the Phoenix and asked me to be part of the panel. It was great to meet up with him again after not seeing each other in person for several years.
So, now to the film. My expectations were low, so I suppose it was quite easy to meet them. The film started and I settled down apprehensively, what sort of a shambles would it be?
The film starts with the setting up of Bletchley Park at the beginning of the war and Alan Turing amongst others arriving there. I have to say that the recreation of Bletchley Park was pretty good, though it was obvious that it was not filmed at Bletchley as the mansion house was much larger and looked different. The huts were well done and the feeling that you get as you walk onto the grounds of Bletchley Park did come through to me as I watched the film.
As a film The Imitation Game is reasonably watchable. The acting is good and the script OK, but unfortunately pretty poor in parts. As I watched the story unfold all I could think of was bubblegum. The film is a clichéd bubblegum version of the story of Bletchley Park and Alan Turing with many scenes that really made me cringe with their gross over simplifications. Turing’s character is so much a stereotypical English eccentric that I found it insulting to his memory. Cumberbatch’s acting is excellent, especially considering the sometimes ham-fisted script. I got the feeling that the scriptwriter had sat down with a list of the key scenes that need to be in any blockbuster film and then crowbarred them into the story and script. The English eccentric that doesn’t get on with anyone in his team is hounded by his boss to produce a solution to a problem, everyone has a go at him for not producing the goods, he nearly loses the right to continue working on solving the problem, but then at the last minute his team start to realize that he is on to something and then defend him from his boss blah blah blah blah blah. Eugh! The scenes in the script like this were disappointing in the extreme, my heart sank as I watched them.
The story of Turing physically building the Bombe machine, or “Christopher” as it was called in the film, formed a large part of the central story of the film. This is, to my knowledge, completely inaccurate.
Turing produced the design for the Bombe, building on the design of the original Polish Bomba which had been produced by Marian Rejewski in 1938. The Bletchley Park Bombe designed by Turing, was refined by another Bletchley Park codebreaker Gordon Welchman and actually built by engineer Harold Keen who was based at the British Tabulating Company, not at Bletchley Park.
The story running through the film of one main codebreaker, Turing, with a team of four or five, producing a machine that won the war, is a ridiculous oversimplification of what actually happened. More than ten thousand people worked at Bletchley Park, more than eight thousand of them were women. We didn’t really get a flavor of that coming through at all from the film. There were many teams of codebreakers working on different areas of codebreaking.
The German High Command used an encryption machine called Lorenz which was broken by Bletchley Park codebreaker Bill Tutte. Captain Jerry Roberts often told the story before he unfortunately died earlier this year of sharing an office with Bill Tutte who for three months just sat there every day with a pencil and paper staring into space before finally writing down the exact workings of the Lorenz without ever having seen one. It was this breakthrough and the subsequent invention and building of the world’s first programmable digital computer Colossus by Post Office engineer Tommy Flowers which mechanized the breaking of the messages sent using Lorenz that has been said to have shortened the war by approximately two years. A wonderful memorial to Bill Tutte was unveiled earlier this year in his home town of Newmarket, he didn’t receive any recognition of his fundamental work in his lifetime, and died in Canada his adopted homeland in 2002.
At the end of the film the war being shortened by two years was completely attributed to Turing and his work on Enigma, which is not true. The shortening of the war by two to four years was attributed to “Ultra” by historian Harry Hinsley, Ultra was the codename for all of the top secret codebreaking work carried out at Bletchley Park by the ten thousand people that worked there.
As you can tell, there are many things that I didn’t like about the film. Gross over simplification of stories, people and facts, focusing on Turing’s one (platonic) heterosexual relationship and not giving any time to his homosexual relationships, attributing work carried out by several people who still have had almost no recognition for their enormous contribution to Turing, I could go on, and on, the film has many faults.
But, I have to say that overall I loved it. Thinking about The Imitation Game from the point of view of how it presents such an important part of our history in a user friendly and easily digestible way to the average person in the street gets me very excited. I, and many others, have campaigned long and hard to get Bletchley Park and the codebreakers greater recognition for the amazing work carried out there. The work that those ten thousand people did, day in, day out, around the clock, in complete secrecy, some of them as young as sixteen when they arrived there, is an incredible story that needs to be told over and over in many, many ways. Unfortunately most veterans from Bletchley Park are no longer with us, but that doesn’t mean that it’s too late for everyone to appreciate the amazing contribution that they made to the peace that we enjoy today.
The Imitation Game is probably the most fundamental contribution we have so far to the public understanding of the importance of Bletchley Park. I hope that it wins Oscars, breaks box office records and brings the story of our wonderful British hero Alan Turing into the public consciousness. It’s never too late to celebrate our national successes, lest we forget…
You can see a working rebuild of the Bombe machine at Bletchley Park and a working replica of Colossus at the National Museum of Computing next door. Please go and visit, you will not be disappointed.
If I have made any errors in this post please let me know.
Yesterday was busy, and a lot of fun. The morning was spent travelling up to Bletchley Park and being interviewed outside by the BBC’s Adam Fleming and Simon about crowdfunding, the future of publishing and my book Saving Bletchley Park. It was a really fun interview that ended up with Simon recording close up audio of me knitting. Why knitting? Well one of the perks of my crowdfunded book, the one that sold out first included a pair of socks handknitted by me. Here are Adam, Simon and my daughter Leah, and the socks that I’ve just started knitting.
When the interview was over we went up to The National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park to say hi and to see their new exhibitions. There are so many!
I saw the locked gates and fence that have been put up by Bletchley Park for the first time. I have to admit it was very upsetting to see them.
I was amazed by all the work that has been carried out at TNMOC. Lots of new exhibitions since I was last there including the women in computing exhibition featuring some real female tech heroes like Steve Shirley, Grace Hopper and Barbara Liskov. I was a bit disappointed that Turing Award winner and friend Fran Allen was not included, and that Steve was the only UK hero but, that aside it was really great to see so many women represented at Bletchley.
My daughter Leah had a go on several of the very cool vintage games and on the new Oculus Rift virtual Bletchley Park. An awesome project led by Chris Monk at TNMOC to create 1940s Bletchley Park for anyone to interact with. The project has only just started, but is looking great already with a virtual Colossus and the maze, complete with hidden Easter Eggs, that used to exist at Bletchley. Very cool and exciting, and needing funding.
It was fun to see Rory Cellan-Jones at TNMOC too, there to record BBC TechTent, taking pics of virtual Bletchley too. Chaperoning Rory was Helen Armfield who it was really great to meet IRL after knowing each other on Twitter for ages.
Helen told me that @documentally’s awesome social media meetup Station X is now running from TNMOC which is great news. If you live in the Bletchley area and want to meet up with likeminded geeks I highly recommend it.
I also had a great chat with Lin Jones, another of the very knowledgeable and dedicated people at TNMOC.
After the interview we made our way down to my son and daughter in law’s place in south London for dinner. I wish I’d taken a photo of that, it was so delicious, dahl and rice, my absolute all time favourite meal.
We walked through Bunhill Fields Cemetery dating from 1665 as a cut through to the bus stop, I was amazed to find several famous people buried there including William Blake and Daniel Defoe. Incredible to find that just over the road from Google Campus in London’s Tech City.
All in all it was a great day. You will be able to hear the BBC interview “Publishing Wars” on “The report” next Thursday at 8pm on BBC Radio 4.
I had a fabulous night out last night at the New Diorama Theatre near Warren Street. We were there to watch a new musical The Universal Machine all about Alan Turing, his life and work. Although at first skeptical about what a musical about Turing would be like we decided to go.
Here I am with my friend Professor Dame Wendy Hall and Richard Delaney who did a fabulous job as Alan Turing in the production.
We all throughly enjoyed the show. In the audience were quite a few notable people. Prof Barry Cooper from Leeds who chaired and ran the Turing Centenary campaign last year. He did such a fabulous job and was there last night with his daughter. Prof Simon Lavington, Bletchley Park veteran Ruth Bourne, two of Alan Turing’s nieces.
Some of these great people are in the photo below along with the cast. If you are even slightly interested in Bletchley Park and/or Alan Turing please do go along and see The Universal Machine. You will be glad that you did.