UK Teleplay Retro: The Imitation Game
Before Benedict Cumberbatch’s nervy interpretation of Alan Turing in Morten Tyldum's 2014 thriller, screenwriter Ian McEwan and director Richard Eyre sought to bring Turing’s story to the small screen through BBC2’s “Echoes of War” Strand in 1980. The main difference between these two interpretations (given the immediacy of the 2014 film, some comparative analysis is inescapable) is that Eyre and McEwan’s The Imitation Game has little to do with Alan Turing.
Why? Well, as if the relative invisibility of Alan Turing (before the 2014 film of the same name) wasn’t already discouraging, there was so little information available for this production that Eyre and McEwan practically abandoned the notion of basing the teleplay on Alan Turing. Instead, the pair examined gender inequalities due to the war effort through the creation of the protagonist Catherine Raine. In the hopes of breaking away from her overbearing father and stuffy fiancee, she decides to join the Auxiliary Territorial Services, hoping to help the war aid (Auxiliary units were part of the Home Guard in the UK during WWII).
However, in an attempt to liberate herself from the drudgery of her home life, her aspirations are quickly dashed as the closest she gets to any military intelligence is cleaning and making tea for the male soldiers. Military brass figured women to be emotionally incapable and weren’t to be trusted with secrets involving the ultra programme, and their duties were on a “need to know basis.” Screenwriter McEwan saw this establishment of inequality and realized The Imitation Game as a societal allegory that explores the exclusionary attitude of the times extending from civilian life to military.
Since there was so little information about Turing’s accomplishments, his presence in the show is relegated to a thinly veiled mathematician called Turner. Not too clever, but an intentionally similar moniker to at least acknowledge his role in the story. His persona is not too sympathetic, after his failure to sexually perform (in a flailing of misappropriated sexually frustrated rage), he chastises Cathy, believing the turn of events to be a cruel prank to humiliate himself. Shortly afterward Cathy is incarcerated in military prison for the duration of the war, after she is discovered casually leafing through some of Turner's documents - so much for making a difference, and serving one's country.
This iteration of the story is very much less to do with Enigma, Turing, and Bletchley Park as it does with the oppression of women and sexuality. I admire McEwan and Eyre’s active role in addressing the culture of intolerance and the placement of these themes as a means to explore a particular period in history; at times the points hit too hard and doesn’t service the material as well as it should. However, The Imitation Game has a sustained punch to it that resounds (sadly) today. The added context of how it was initially conceived as an account of Turing's story but ended up as a side story, makes us wonder what could have been if it were held up to the 2014 version.
One element to ponder is the treatment of Turing (or Turner) and the unflattering character he becomes in the story; since he was the inspiration for the project, perhaps the scene with he and Cathy bed was something from the original script. His berating Cathy is an indication of the character struggling with his repressed homosexuality, without the supplementary context or development of the character he's left to look like a jerk. While McEwan and director Eyre tackle topical issues such as sexism, and oppression the result is a bit too dour as Cathy’s fate doesn’t leave us with much hope.