Enigma Variations

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TV plays always seemed a bit joyless to me as a kid — they were clearly for adults, but lots of adult stuff was fun. The Wednesday Play and Play for Today were never fun.

Maybe the form is at fault. You have something the length of a film, or a B-movie anyway, but made at a fraction of the cost. While B-movies got around the low-budget problem with simple, expressive lighting, cheap actors and stock sets, BBC plays did all of the above and threw in static filming and talkie scenes.

But the problem is that on top of that, they were drama, which meant they mustn’t be funny. Dennis Potter managed to smuggle in a few titters, but he saved the real comedy for his long-running shows. (A conversation I overheard when The Singing Detective first aired is like dialogue from a play: one girl trying to explain to another this incomprehensible but amazing thing she’d seen. “It was just this guy in a hospital bed with a really bad skin disease.” “Eurgh. Poor thing.” “No, but he kept saying stuff, it was the things he said, it was really good.”)

Maybe my avoidance was simply down to the fact that, inconceivably for us now, these plays made no attempt to be ingratiating or accessible, they were starkly concentrated on the job of alienating anybody who wouldn’t want to follow them where they were headed. Children were not welcome. I suppose some kids would have seen this as forbidden fruit and would be all the more interested, but as I viewed the adult world with a certain amount of terror anyway, I don’t think I was keen on anything that would open a door into it for me.

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Still, The Imitation Game, written by Ian McEwen and directed by Richard Eyre, is really good. It does have points of connection with the recent film of the same name. McEwen started out wanting to do the life of Alan Turing but got sidetracked by his researches into the women at Bletchley Park, and the role of women in Britain’s war generally. Harriet Walter, with her long bone china face and hushed, trepidatious voice, plays a young woman determined to play her part in the war, but despite her skills she is steadily demoted instead of promoted, due to her very eagerness to do work at the level she’s qualified for.

Rather appallingly, Turing, here called Turner, is used as a villain, the penultimate in a long line of men who patronize or exploit or betray Walter’s character. McEwen found a great subject when he focused on this aspect of the “war effort” (curious phrase), but it seems a shame he had to further traduce a national hero who’d already been roundly trashed by the establishment. For all the recent dramatic attention Turing has received, the one great drama capturing the totality of his tragedy seems elusive.

Eyre achieves some very nice shots, most of them admittedly static — an austere style in keeping with the period. Locked-off frame after locked-off frame, and the only way out is a cut. This kind of feminist drama, where the men are all bastards of one stripe or another, and each sequence is another mask dropping to reveal this, is out of style now, and it does have a sad, predictable quality, perhaps because drama tied to an ideology tends that way, but it’s at least gutsier than girl power.

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Penda’s Fen, written by David Rudkin and directed by Alan Clarke, the most celebrated of the TV play directors, is altogether more cinematic. It sets out its stall with an intro by the author invoking the landscape of “Visionary England.” A teenage boy experiences his homosexual awakening at public school, has mystical visions including angels, demons, and a conversation with Sir Edward Elgar in an abandoned cow shed. Imagery evokes Ken Russell and Lindsay Anderson.

Rudkin seems determined to throw every idea in his head at the page/screen, even creating a TV playwright character who can pontificate on his behalf. Given the play’s urgency to communicate, its baffling detours and mysticism, and the lack of anything else quite like it, I rather assumed he was a frustrated genius who rarely got to write anything that got made, but he was quite busy until the end of the eighties. His science fiction mindfuck …Artemis..8..1…. (you have to get the number of dots right) is fondly remembered, with a bit of head-scratching.

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The whole thing’s on YouTube.

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17 Responses to “Enigma Variations”

  1. henryholland666 Says:

    “For all the recent dramatic attention Turing has received, the one great drama capturing the totality of his tragedy seems elusive”

    I’m a big history buff, with a special interest in gay history. I first heard about Alan Turing in the mid-80’s in a book called “Gay Book of Days” and I devoured Hodges’ “The Enigma” when it was released. I take “The Imitation Game” for what it is, a glossy bit of Oscar bait that has just a glancing acquaintance with historical fact.

    “Breaking the Code” is better in that regard, but as much as I like him as an actor, Derek Jacobi was woefully miscast. I’ll quote a comment from IMDb:

    “In 1940, Alan Turing was 28 years old; in 1996, when the film was made, Derek Jacobi was 58! In the ‘1940’ scenes, Alan looked older than his mother — a situation not helped by casting (the marvelous) Prunella Scales in that part, when in real life she is only six years older than Jacobi. (Turing’s own mother was already 31 when he was born)”

    Maybe at some point we’ll get a Turing biopic that’s as historically accurate as movies can be (i.e. he didn’t crack the Enigma code by himself for just one example) but doesn’t veer towards hagiography and the cliched “gay man hounded to death by The Establishment” trope.

    The man was a genius in his chosen field, but he could also be an arsehole to those he considered his intellectual inferiors (i.e. a lot of people), a bit of a trial as a friend & relative, his taste in rough trade brings up class-based issues and his arrest/trial/sentencing is more complicated than it’s usually portrayed in films and the media. In other words, it’s not really suitable for dramatization in a movie! :-)

    For the record, I think his death was an accident, not suicide, he had appalling cleanliness habits and likely got the cyanide on his hands from an experiment he was doing.

    Thanks for the Youtube link to “Penda’s Fen”, looks interesting.

  2. I think you’ll find Penda’s Fen fascinating.

    Isn’t there something about Turing being obsessed with Snow White? That would make the idea of poisoning himself with an apple more likely as a suicide method…

    But I’m not expert in the story: Fiona has read quite a lot about it, though.

  3. Fiona W Says:

    He was obsessed with Disney’s Snow White and he also had very poor personal cleanliness. It could have gone either way. I’m interested in your theory though henryholland666, because many people are convinced that Michael Reeves, director of Witchfinder General committed suicide, but I’m firmly convinced his death was caused by an accidental drug overdose, despite the fact he had bipolar disorder, as did his father. He wasn’t displaying any symptoms of depression at the time of his death and was preparing other projects.

    After his arrest, Turing took his ‘treatment’ with remarkable good humour and was still busily working away, apparently in high spirits. The inquest after his death was very poorly handled and most people don’t know that he habitually eat an apple before bedtime and usually left it unfinished. The apple found at the scene wasn’t even tested for cyanide so it’s possible he may have inhaled it inadvertently earlier in the day during an experiment.

    A few years ago there was a rather good dramatisation of his relationship with his psychiatrist, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Codebreaker_%28film%29 but it still goes with the suicide theory. It’s a fact that he spoke about a method once, but that doesn’t mean he actually did it.

    I think in both these cases, people want to believe they took their own lives because it’s more dramatic and secures their ‘outsider’ status. They will both remain an ‘enigma’.

  4. The folks at Radiolab devoted an episode to Turing and faced his personal life head on. It insinuates that the apple/cyanide narrative is the correct one, however. But it’s a nice tribute all the same, and under 30 minutes. Here’s the link where you can listen to it:

    http://www.radiolab.org/story/193037-turing-problem/

  5. I’m catching up with some Alan Clarke telefilms as well, coincidentally.

    – “The Last Train through Harecastle Tunnel” – an early work that doesn’t seem to provide Clarke with many footholds. A tough sit: loud and affected.

    – “Beloved Enemy” – this appeared at a time when Clarke was entering his prime. Deceptively opaque, what begins as an unfeeling delineation of transnational boardroom deals and negotiations comes alive though Clarke’s nimble blocking and camerawork, building to a cynical sucker punch of an ending. Graham Crowden is the MVP in a sterling cast.

    Next up for me is “Stars of the Roller State Disco”. I’ve sampled the first few minutes and it looks quite intriguing, less for its high concept premise than Clarke’s low-key, nimble handling of the material.

  6. henryholland666 Says:

    Thanks for your post Fiona. We’ll probably never know 100% what the truth about how he died is, but the suicide angle just doesn’t seem to fit with how he was living his life at the time he died.

    He was full of plans, had been in good spirits in the days leading up to his death, had a list of things to do the following week etc. Pro-suicide people say “Of course! He was misleading people as to how he really felt!”. Um…..

    I know certain people like the “gay martyr” thing, but it’s just stupefying how DUMB Turing was about his arrest given the social climate in England after that piece of human excrement Guy Burgess had defected to Russia.

    It’s this unreal combination of arrogance (“I’m Alan Turing dammit! They won’t prosecute me!”), stupidity (telling the cops without prompting that his “roommate” was in fact a guy he was having sex with) and not taking the whole court proceeding seriously. He’d been going to Norway for sexual liaisons, one of the guys wanted to visit him in England but MI5 were convinced that the man was a Russian spy and tried to find him, that’s how farcical it got.

    One problem with sorting it all out is that until maybe the last five or so years, Andrew Hodge’s book was about the only source on Turing that was widely available or went beyond “Invented computers, saved the Allies in the war, killed himself” shorthand. He takes a strident “he offed himself” tone, dismisses anything that doesn’t support that. It reminds me a lot of Tchaikovsky’s death, the basic information never changes but the prism one sees it through has a lot to do with where one falls on the suicide or murder side of the aisle.

    Jaime, thanks for the link. I’ll give it a listen after I’m done watching some of TCM’s Film Noir Friday stuff such as my lust object Van Johnson in “Scene of the Crime” and non-lust object Charles Laughton in “The Big Clock”.

  7. Ooh, The Big Clock!

    Graham Crowden told me he used to run into Alan Clarke in the corridors of the BBC. “He didn’t like to use the same actors again, but I would always ask him what he was working on. He would tell me, and then, with a grin, say ‘Nothing in it for YOU!'”

  8. Alan Turing is now what Roland Barthes would call “an exhausted signifier.”

  9. A shame, since there isn’t yet a film worthy of his story.

  10. henryholland666 Says:

    Yes, really liked “The Big Clock”, excellent cast and script, it was amusing to see Harry Morgan as a henchman. “Scene of the Crime” is a routine cops v. robbers thing, but a good cast, some interesting direction and most importantly for me, a scene with Van Johnson shirtless. Woof!

    It was movie night for me, watched “The Bribe” (1949) with Robert Taylor wearing an absurd pencil mustache, Ava Gardner, Vincent Price and Charles Laughton. About 15 minutes too long, and of course Taylor and Gardner’s characters will end up together at the end, but the fishing scenes are well done and finale in the fireworks display was terrific. Plus, they really did a good job of conveying a hot, sweaty atmosphere on the MGM lot in Culver City.

    I capped it all off with “The Threat” (1949) which I liked a lot. It was apparently made on a $1.25 (1949 dollars) budget, but it’s still very effective. Charles McGraw is excellent as the very nasty Folsom prison escapee, the supporting cast is very good too and it was nice that McGraw’s character gets filled full of lead by who he got filled full of lead by.

  11. “The Bribe” BTW was the movie primarily “sampled” in “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid”

  12. Yes, it gave up a few scenes, didn’t it?

    Never seen The Threat, but I enjoy Charles McGraw. His face would make a great bottle opener.

  13. henryholland666 Says:

    Woo hoo! Woo hoo! I’ve seen a movie that David Cairns hasn’t, WOO HOO! :-P

    My TCM film noir series continued after I wrote the above, starting with the superb “High Wall” with Robert Taylor, Audrey Totter and Herbert Marshall. A bit of cheat in terms of plot –dosing people with truth serum, how convenient– but really well acted, some incredible camera/lighting work and some smart dialogue.

    “They Live By Night” is another one in this series that I’m not sure why exactly it’s considered a noir, but I enjoyed it. Farley Granger does a really good job here as Bowie, the low man on a thieving/killing totem pole, Howard de Silva is a very good slimeball and Cathy O’Donnell does a good job as Bowie’s gal. This was Nicholas Ray’s first movie, amazing as it’s a very well done and assured job.

    I wanted to like “Shadow on the Wall” more than I did, it’s got a good cast of Zachary Scott, Ann Sothern (excellent) and Nancy “Future Reagan” Davis (very good). However, Scott disappears for large chunks of the movie, there’s waaaaay too much psychobabble involved and the ending kind of falls flat. Oh well.

  14. David, thank you, in imbedding the video of Penda’s Fen, for helping solve a mystery of childhood memory. The image of that bird under the wheel and the petrified helplessness of the boy as he watched has echoed inside my head for decades. I never knew where it came from other than a partial memory of a strange, impressionistic television play. Seeing it again so unexpectedly after all these years has left me quite shaken. What a remarkable piece of work. No wonder it haunted me.

  15. Mike, I love it when that happens! Plus, it ties in with Artemis, which you were the first person to mention here.

    Henry, I find Curtis Bernhardt intermittently excellent, so I’ll be checking The High Wall ASAP.

    I love They Live By Night. I guess it’s a doom-laden crime picture so qualifies as noir. And it has the saddest wedding ever put on film.

  16. henryholland666 Says:

    Yikes, that wedding! The way the “pastor” haggles with them over extra things for money, the male witness being too sick to kiss the bride etc.

  17. It’s desperate. I think Neil Jordan quotes a shot from in in Mona Lisa, though it’s been too long to be sure.

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