Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, Enigma – Baker St to Bletchley

Benedict Cumberbatch, whose transformative skills as an actor are revealed with elegance, glamour and wit, is now considered England’s ‘go to guy for poshness with pathos’.

He is building a sound career on a great body of work by playing historical figures or futuristic villains second to none.

Now he’s adding the role of gifted British mathematician, logician and ‘code breaker’ Alan Mathison Turing FRS OBE (1912-1954) to that impressive list with a new movie to be released later this year.

The Imitation Game has an impressive ensemble cast, including Keira Knightly, Matthew Good, Allen Leech and Rory Kinnear. The film was filmed in the UK last autumn.

The director of Graham Moore’s clever script film is Norwegian Morten Tyldum, who’s ‘Headhunters’ 2011 was the highest-grossing film of all time in his home country.

Now resident in New York, Tyldum is making his ‘English-language’ debut with this great story. Harvey Weinstein of the Weinstein Company paid a record $7 million for the US rights.

Weinstein recently complimented Benedict Cumberbatch on finding the right level of ‘vulnerability, genius and arrogance’ for Turing’s character.

During his short life time Alan Turing made major contributions to the development of mathematics, cryptanalysis, logic, philosophy, and biology as well as to new areas later named computer science, cognitive science, artificial intelligence, and artificial life.

Turing is especially renowned for playing a major role in deciphering the German Nazi’s ‘enigma code’. He and colleagues at the secret headquarters of Bletchley Park were charged with cracking a puzzling code the Germans were using to communicate by radio.

At Bletchley Turing became a well-known eccentric figure.

He had returned from attending Princeton University in America in 1938, just before the declaration of war and had begun to work part time, and in secret for the cryptanalytic department, the Government Code and Cypher School.

His full time role at Bletchley began when war was declared.

Turing had studied mathematics at Cambridge prior to going to America, where he developed at the age of 22, the proof that states ‘automatic computation cannot solve all mathematical problems’.

His calculations for his ‘Turing machine’ became the fundamental principle on which all subsequent stored-program digital computers were modeled.

German engineer Arthur Scherbius first developed his Enigma machine in 1923. It was capable of transcribing coded information and its methodology was adopted by the German navy, which produced its own version. This was followed by the German Army in 1928 and German Air Force in 1933.

The idea was the operator could type a message, then scramble it by using three to five notched wheels, or rotors, which displayed different letters of the alphabet.

The receiver had to know the exact settings of those rotors if they wanted to retrieve the coded text. The basic machine was made far more complicated over the years, as German code experts sought to further expand the security for their secrets.

French spymasters had photographed stolen Enigma operating manuals and sought assistance, but initially they and their British counterparts still couldn’t break the cipher.

Understandably breaking the code became a high priority when the invasion of Europe by the Germans was imminent in 1939.

The Polish Cipher Bureau had made some progress, and shared their secrets with the British when they knew that it was a fait accompli they may be invaded first.

Bletchley Park, a mansion with outbuildings near the town of Milton Keynes north west of London, became the centre of Allied efforts, with a bank of ‘early electro-mechanical machines’ known as ‘bombes’, built to work out Enigma’s vast number of settings.

Turing’s contribution to their design was crucial.

By early 1942 with the help of the bombes, the British were secretly decoding some 39,000 intercepted messages each month. This gradually rose to 84,000 messages a month – approximately two every minute.

Turing’s work became vital to the battle for supremacy in the North Atlantic. He also contributed to the attack on the cyphers known as ‘Fish’, which were used during the latter part of the war in preference to the morse-based Enigma.

The ‘Fish’ was all about the encryption of high-level signals; for example messages from Hitler and members of the German High Command.

It is estimated Turing and his colleagues at Bletchley Park shortened the war in Europe by at least two years.

It is no surprise then that Turing received the Order of the British Empire for the part he played when it was all over.

Following the war he also became a founding father of modern cognitive science and spent the rest of a very short career at Manchester University.

He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of London in March 1951, a high honour and then in 1952 with the war now becoming a memory, the authorities, for being homosexual, prosecuted Alan Turing.

Instead of going to gaol he avoided prison by being chemically castrated, which left him impotent.

At that time homosexuals were considered open to blackmail and a threat to national security.

His wartime security clearance was withdrawn, meaning he could no longer work for GCHQ, the post war successor to Bletchley Park.

It was a terrible insult and displayed a huge lack of respect for the man who contributed so much to the allied victory.

Despite being appointed to a specially created Readership in the Theory of Computing in May 1953, he died in 1954 in mysterious circumstances, from cyanide poisoning.

The British Prime Minister Gordon Brown offered Turing a posthumous apology in 2009 in the house, which finally became a ‘Royal Pardon in December 2013.

Justice secretary Chris Grayling said that ‘…a pardon from the Queen is a fitting tribute to an exceptional man.

Benedict Cumberbatch by Paola Kudacki for Time

’Co-incidentally it was on this day filmmakers released their first photograph of Cumberbatch standing next to Turing’s ‘bombe’ machine.

The Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch has been given a UK release date of 14 November 2014.

Time Magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2014, saying he is ‘alarmingly talented’.

He continues to receive nominations for awards for his work, which has grown existentially since coming to notice internationally as Sherlock in the fabulous hit TV Series.

English actor Colin Firth wrote a tribute to Cumberbatch for Time in which he said

“…it’s rare to the point of outlandish to find so many variables in one actor, including features which ought to be incompatible: vulnerability, a sense of danger, a clear intellect, honesty, courage — and a rather alarming energy. I take no pleasure in feeling humbled, but there’s no getting around it – he must be stopped!”

Don’t think there is any chance of that happening Mr Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch has that extraordinary ability to become the characters he plays, that he’s sure to be in demand for the foreseeable future.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014


Benedict Cumberbatch (Star Trek Into Darkness, TV’s Sherlock) as Alan Turing
Keira Knightley (Atonement) as close friend and fellow code-breaker Joan Clarke

Matthew Goode (A Single Man), Mark Strong (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), Rory Kinnear (Skyfall), Charles Dance (Gosford Park, TV’s Game of Thrones), Allen Leech (In Fear, TV’s Downton Abbey) and Matthew Beard (An Education)

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