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Brilliant Turing still an Enigma

BRITAIN'S Greatest Codebreaker was an inadequate title for an inadequate programme that demonstrated why it's rarely a good idea to merge documentary and drama.

The subject was Alan Turing, to whom the world, not just Britain, owes a massive debt. Turing, who committed suicide in 1954 at the age of 41, was a genius: a brilliant mathematician who led the Bletchley Park codebreaking team that did much to defeat the Nazis in the Second World War.

Turing succeeded in cracking the German navy's Enigma code, which could be scrambled in 15 million different ways. Without him, D-Day would never have happened in the way it did. The war would certainly have lasted beyond 1945 and would most probably have been lost to Hitler.

Without Turing we wouldn't have computers, either -- or at least we wouldn't have had them as soon as we did, and most likely not in the form we know now.

Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs are regarded as the twin fathers of the computer revolution, but as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak pointed out here, Turing was "the top of everything that developed".

People who know about these things claim that Turing's premature death (by self-administered cyanide, most likely from a poisoned apple) set the development of mathematics back by decades.

But being a brilliant mathematician was no cooler back in the 1930s and 40s than it is now, and Turing, who used to turn up for work wearing his pyjamas, was looked upon by the military brass as something of an eccentric: a necessary evil that had to be indulged.

Though regarded as something of a celebrity by the newspapers in the years prior to the war, the Official Secrets Act meant that Turing never received his full due for his remarkable feats during his short lifetime. He could never be publicly hailed as a hero.

Being a homosexual, however, and an open one at that, he could all too easily be vilified, demonised and hounded, and that's exactly what happened in a post-war Britain that happened to be on an especially virulent anti-gay kick.

Turing, who married but was honest with his wife about his sexual preferences, was prosecuted for gross indecency -- the same charge that landed Oscar Wilde in Reading Gaol.

The court offered Turing a harsh choice: prison or chemical castration. Turing opted for the latter, which constituted injecting him with oestrogen in order to curb his libido. The physical effects were that his genitals shrank and he started to grow breasts. We can only guess at what the psychological effects must have been like.

The problem with Britain's Greatest Codebreaker was that, try as it might to dig into Turing's psyche, it never really succeeded. The straightforward documentary element was its strongest point. Less successful were the dramatised sequences, featuring Ed Stoppard as Turing and Henry Goodman as psychiatrist Franz Greenbaum.

At the end of it all, Turing the man remained as impenetrable to the viewer as advanced maths. Still, even an imperfect tribute to a great and wronged hero is better than none at all.

An interview with Alice Cooper usually means one thing: a rehashing of the infamous chicken incident (for those not in the know, Cooper, being a Detroit boy and unaware that chickens couldn't fly, once threw a live bird into the audience, who promptly ripped it to pieces, thereby cementing his infamy).

I imagine Alice, real name Vincent Furnier, is sick and tired of recounting the story. Mercifully for him (and us) Mark Lawson didn't bother with the chicken in Mark Lawson Meets Alice Cooper; instead, he concentrated on the important stuff: the man and the music, both of which are fascinating.

The type of programme Lawson makes -- two people talking to one another for an hour -- is supposed to be old-fashioned. But when it's done well, as it was here, it's fascinating.

britain's greatest codebreaker HHHII mark lawson talks to alice cooper HHHHI