Breaking the Code: Biography of Alan Turing (Derek Jacobi, BBC, 1996)

A biography of the English mathematician Alan Turing, who was one of the inventors of the digital computer and one of the key figures in the breaking of the Enigma code, used by the Germans to send secret orders to their U-boats in World War II. Turing was also a homosexual in Britain at a time when this was illegal, besides being a security risk.
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.
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.

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