In early February, BBC 2 screened the final instalment in their series ‘Icons: The Greatest Person of the 20th Century’. In previous instalments, viewers had been asked to vote for the greatest within seven different categories: arts, sport, politics, science, etc. In the final show, the winners in each category were pitted against each other, giving viewers the challenge of judging, say, Ernest Shackleton against David Bowie and Alan Turing.
In the event, Alan Turing won (or perhaps I should say that Chris Packham, who made the case for Turing, won). However, a real confusion arises from the inclusion in the series’ title of two distinct ideas: ‘greatness’ and ‘icon’. To assess greatness, we need an expert to recount the achievements of a particular man or woman, and explain why these are outstanding or groundbreaking, and thus worthy of the title ‘great’.
Being an icon does not require demonstrable greatness; it must rest upon a person’s having been widely enough known, and inspirational enough, to excite widespread admiration. It is hard to see how Shackleton, admirable though his achievements undoubtedly were, could possibly now be regarded as an icon – he just isn’t well enough known.
Turing scores well as both great and iconic. His achievements can be said to rest upon a few overly simple labels: ‘Codebreaker’, ‘Helped to win World War 2’, and ‘Father of the Computer’. Imperfectly understood by most, these labels are enough to convince us of his greatness. In addition, his determination to overcome personal difficulties and challenges, culminating in disgrace and criminal conviction, are truly inspirational and the last fifteen years or so have undoubtedly seen Turing develop the aura of an icon. An apology by the Prime Minister in 2009, worldwide celebrations in 2012 to mark the centenary of his birth, and a Royal Pardon in 2013, are all indicative of the evolution of his iconic status.
He won the contest – a fitting tribute to a clearly great man who continues to provide inspiration to many who do not fit easily into the slots society would force them into, but who battle on. A Great British Icon.