Icons, BBC – review: Alan Turing crowned greatest figure of 20th century

It was bit of a surprise. After all, Nelson Mandela was in there and always wins everything

Sean O'Grady
Wednesday 06 February 2019 00:48 GMT
Moment Alan Turing is announced as greatest figure of the 20th century

Alan Turing is the most “iconic” global figure of the 20th century, according to BBC2 viewers. Well, he is trendy. There’s no point arguing. The whole enterprise is an over-elaborate balloon debate. Just a bit of fun, as Peter Snow used to say. Still, it was bit of a surprise. After all, Nelson Mandela was in there and always wins everything, like Barcelona in football, or Novak Djokovic in the tennis. Turing being voted greatest 20th century icon was like Leicester City winning the premiership, a real upset for Mandela. And he even had Sir Trevor McDonald movingly making the case, with a personal testimony from Doreen Lawrence about Mandela’s personal role in bringing some justice for her family. The producers probably went a bit too far there, using her dignity for the purposes of a parlour game.

It was in vain, anyhow. Chris Packham, Turing’s advocate, went off on one about global warming, and it was game over. He asked the audience to get their Samsungs and iPhones out and said something incomprehensible about the screens “glistening in our darkest hour”, like Winston Churchill doing a spot on the BBC News channel’s dreadful Click.

It was a weird scrap. For a start, there were no women. None. On the BBC. In 2019. Not a single female. Hosts Nick Robinson and Claudia Winkleman, sub-icons in in their own chosen fields (arguing with Michael Gove/promoting Head and Shoulders shampoo respectively) got the BBC’s rebuttal/apologies in early. It’s all the fault of the wicked patriarchal twentieth century, you see. Wouldn’t happen now. The fact that Maggie Thatcher, Billie Holiday and Marie Curie had been knocked out in the earlier rounds was rather glossed over.

The various preliminary rounds gave us the following contenders: Alan Turing (the winning scientist, championed by Chris Packham); Sir Ernest Shackleton (explorers round, Dermot O’Leary); David Bowie (entertainers, Kathleen Turner); Pablo Picasso (artists, Lily Cole); Nelson Mandela (leaders, Trevor McDonald); Martin Luther King (activists, Sanjeev Bhaskar) and Muhammad Ali (sports, Clare Balding).

Thus, the viewers voting were given some potted histories and the strangest of asymmetrical achievements to weigh up. Cracking the enigma code versus Guernica. The Rumble in the Jungle versus I Have a Dream. Life on Mars versus Robben Island versus conquering the Antarctic versus Cubism versus civil rights versus Ziggy Stardust versus the Rivonia Trial.

The celebs chosen to put the cases seemed to have been culled from the standard rota of affordable personalities and were, generally, wooden, lifeless and disconnected from their candidates. Kathleen Turner, whose voice is now so earthy it sounds like you could grow onions in it, just let Bowie sing for himself, more or less and made uncorroborated claims for the impact of his androgyny on British society: Major Tom and all that. Lily Cole just looked bored, and god knows how he did it, Sanjeev Bhaskar managed to make Dr King smaller than life by smothering him in platitudes. Clare Balding, did sound like she respected her guy, but wouldn’t have really relished a meal out with Ali in his heyday. Packham and McDonald were by far the strongest advocates.

The main problem with Icons, though, was that they were all so goody goody. There was no grit in the oyster. There were no feet of clay (not even Cassius’). That, I think, as well as the burden of administration and an overlong shortlist, which slowed proceedings badly, was why it was all a bit dull. Obviously proper evil bastards such as Hitler don’t get a look-in, though his place in shaping twentieth century history, like it or not, is embarrassingly secure; nor, for obvious reasons, did Wacko Jacko make the list, but then neither does Mao, or Lenin, or Sid Vicious or Nkrumah, or others that, maybe, could, and add some novelty.

An “icon” doesn’t have to be saintly, unless you take this badly abused word literally, for a change. It would give us a bit more to think about if a few of the contenders were a bit more morally compromised, a bit unpredictable, and a bit controversial.

I’d have rather seen them ditch the heroic figures and watched Balding, Robinson, McDonald, Winkleman, Turner, Bhaskar, O’Leary, Packham and Cole defend themselves on their own behalf in a televised balloon debate in which the only the winner is spared doing nightshifts on QVC for a month. That really would be iconic TV.

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