By Ian McEwan. In late 1940, 19-year-old Cathy Raine (Harriet Walter), lives a dull, stifling lower middle class existence in Frinton with an oppressive father and an only slightly more considerate boyfriend. Her only consolation is the family piano, on which she repeatedly tries to play Mozart’s Fantasia. As the war effort steps up, she turns down the usual route for local girls working at the munitions factory, and, wanting to ’make a difference’, joins the ATS, mush to her dad’s consternation. After basic training, during which she befriends working class Mary (Brenda Blethyn) she’s inducted into a wireless listening station, taking down Nazi Morse transmissions of the Enigma code.
She becomes quickly disenchanted by this mind-numbing work. Seeking brief respite in a pub, Cathy and Mary share a drink, oblivious of the atmosphere-killing effect they’re having on this men’s realm. The publican approaches them to force them to leave, and gets a swift knee in the bollocks for his trouble. Such behaviour is, in the (male) major’s view, “more serious than rape, wouldn’t you say?” and she’s moved to Bletchley Park, the code-breaking centre of operations, to do menial mopping and tea making. There, some Cambridge mathematics dons, among them Turner (Nicholas Le Provost) discuss ’thinking machines’ and a test called The Imitation Game – a man and a woman sending messages to a third party, both of them trying to convince him/her they are the woman.
Hearing her playing Fantasia in an empty mess room, Turner later approaches Cathy and, for the first time since moving to Bletchley, she’s engaged in conversation, an of an unexpectedly kind variety. Eventually, they go to bed together, but for Turner (who, it’s been implied, is a deeply repressed homosexual) it all comes to nought, and he reverts to male type with a paranoid harangue (‘You wanted to humiliate me and you’ve succeeded. You hate your own job and you’re jealous of me for mine.’) Shortly after, Cathy is caught in Turner’s room perusing Top Secret documents and is incarcerated in military prison for the rest of the war. Lastly, she’s given a package from Turner – the Fantasia sheet music from the mess.
It’s perhaps surprising that two Play for Today entries (Licking Hitler in ‘78 being the other) should cover what seems superficially the same topic – young girl goes to war and finds the glass ceiling is still very much in place – but they’re very different in tone and temperament. Hare’s play hooked into class obsessions as a root cause of sexual abuse, but here there’s more a feeling of intense repression – of secrets, women, and homosexuality (Turner is based loosely on Alan Turing, about whose life this play was originally going to be, until McEwan’s research moved into other areas).
Cathy’s home life, with a Moseley-sympathising father ruling the front room from his armchair, is something she’s desperate to get away from, but the war is not the liberating adventure she naively hoped for. It’s just the same. As she rises, haphazardly, through the code breaking Project ultra, from the peripheral wireless station to the centre of all things, the brilliant Turner, the isolation and feeling she doesn’t belong grows only deeper, until the ultimate isolation is forced upon her. Some of the personal touches are wonderful here – the rough and ready ATS girls forcing a ‘slag’ amongst their number (Belinda Lang) into a bath, the hilarious (and no doubt pretty spot on) lecture to male NCOs on how to deal with women in the army (ignore their crying, don’t let them stand up for too long etc.) delivered by – who else? – Officer Patricia Routeledge, and Cathy’s last contact with Mary via a telephone – an instrument neither of them have much experience of, giving their final goodbyes a halting, shouty quality that’s all the more poignant.
Finely played by all the cast, and sensitively shot entirely on location by Richard Eyre, The Imitation Game, alongside Licking Hitler, is a great example of how Play for Today could return to the same subject and extract an entirely different world from it, where other channels would have just said ‘that’s been done’.