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Breaking the Code.

(Mobil Masterpiece Theatre PBS, premieres February 2, check local listings)

Nothing like finding a gay man in history who's not a wimp. What's even more delightful--and hence, unusual--is that this man's story is told not just compassionately but with nary a limp wrist in sight. The homosexual in question is Alan Turing. Never heard of him? Neither had I, until I took a look at Masterpiece Theatre's Breaking the Code. Adapted by Hugh Whitemore from his hit 1987 Broadway play, this is the wry story of the gay English mathematician who broke the Germans' supposedly unbreakable Enigma code during World War II, only to be confronted with his own personal battle against prissy English puritans.

You know who they are. Not only are they still around over in Great Britain, but they're also thriving in the Colonies--the Pat Robertsons, the Phyllis Schlaflys. The Intolerants, you might call them.

In Turing's England, these people were just as ungenerous, if not downright dangerous, since it was illegal for two men to masturbate each other, much less proceed to intercourse. Turing, bless his brilliant if somewhat dysfunctional mind, admits to the former when questioned by the police after he's been the victim of a burglary. As Turing spills his homo beans, the cruel gaze on the officer's face says more about persecution by society than any book Vito Russo ever wrote.

What's reflected in that copper's eyes is the same loathing that sent Oscar Wilde to prison, the same shunning that makes gay teenagers take their lives to this day. It's the look that says' "I'm better than you," "My rights take precedence over yours," and "You disgust me." This too is a code we're all familiar with.

In its presentation of Turing, Breaking the Code breaks yet another code: the Hollywood code that says a gay person's story must be told with pity or with guilt. Jonathan Demme felt so bad for his gay friends that he decided he must direct a movie such as Philadelphia to show how tragic gay lives have become. Mike Nichols has a heart too. In his guilt-relieving piece de resistance, The Birdcage, he had to show how we're one big family, even though our gay brothers like to wear dresses. The message is that we must love them in spite of their unsavory and kinky faults.

But we are not at fault, and that's what is so wonderfully captivating about Sir Derek Jacobi's take-me-or-leave-me performance as Turing. Neither he nor his story (a break-through in itself, being Masterpiece Theatre's first implicitly gay presentation) comes on from a pathetic point of view.

Turing is hired by the British government because of his brilliance. His homosexual dalliances are tolerated because the normally uptight powers that be want the bombs to stop falling on their country. But once Turing delivers the goods and the code is broken, his superior (played by playwright Harold Pinter) drops a bomb on him. Beneath the official doublespeak, Turing is ordered to live by a new code: "Be discreet; cut the gay stuff; watch it or get lost." Remarkably, considering the punishment that might have awaited him at the time, Turing has the courage to reply: "No deal." You might call him the Harvey Milk of his time.

Is Turing jailed, or does he triumph? You'll have to watch Breaking the Code to see. But this much I can tell you. Reprising his acclaimed Broadway star turn as Turing, Jacobi never apologizes for himself or for his character. That's why Jacobi's economical performance is so brilliant: He just is. Turing is gifted, messy, uncouth. Like the rest of us, he's simply a gay man.

This is a story we can't seem to tell in America. We can't just exist, according to Hollywood's homophobic thought police. We must be serial killers or be wild about lacy frocks. As Breaking the Code tells it, Turing's greatest fault is not that he prefers the company of men but that he's unlucky enough to be born into a society that hates him for it. How true, and how refreshing to see it said, undressed and unadorned, on film.
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Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Bibby, Bruce
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Television Program Review
Date:Feb 4, 1997
Words:690
Previous Article:Kizuna, vols. 1-2.
Next Article:Word of Mouth.
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