Turing 100

Professor Jim Al Khalili, ERS Turing lecture 02

(Professor Jim Al-Khalili signing books after the Turing lecture)

On Thursday night I attended a special guest lecture at Edinburgh University’s George Square Theatre, organised by the Edinburgh Royal Society, with author, theoretical physicist and broadcaster (he’s presented some excellent science documentaries on the BBC and C4) Professor Jim Al-Khalili. It was part of a series of events going on this year to mark 100 years since one of the great minds of the 20th century, Alan Turing, was born. I’ve always been a huge admirer of Turing – the father of computing and Artificial Intelligence, working out systems on pencil and paper before he and his colleagues, along with the GPO’s hugely gifted electronic engineer Tommy Flowers, created the world’s first electronic computer, a device so secret it was classified for decades while publicly others took the glory for ‘first’ computers later. Because they used this to help break the Nazi Enigma codes, without which the Second World War might have taken many more years of hard struggle and countless thousands more lives. He and his Bletchley Park colleagues were, in a real sense, war heroes, just not the sort who carry a rifle into combat, but utterly essential to the defeat of the Axis and the safeguarding of free civilisation. Turing was also a gifted visionary who was able to conceive of using science and mathematics to model thought processes years before others, giving new pathways to exploring both computing technology then emerging as well as understanding more how the incredibly complex human brain works and how that could be applied to machines, if they too could be make to think, each step along that road revealing more about the astonishing complexity of our own minds than that of our complex technology.

Sadly in the 50s Turing, a homosexual man, was arrested, homosexuality being illegal at the time, stripped of his security clearance despite his wartime record and given a choice of chemical castration or prison. He took the former but was never the same; depressed he took his own life with an arsenic laced apple. So little appreciation from the government of the country he had helped save with his genius and dedication and a reminder today when we see some clergy and politicians making unsavoury remarks about gay people how such comments can lead to attitudes and actions which can take lives, to the detriment of all of society… Turing remains one of my scientific heroes, though, and I was pleased that a public campaign a couple of years ago resulted in the then Labour government of Gordon Brown publishing an official apology for the way Turing had been treated back in the Britain of the 50s.

Jer with Professor Jim Al Khalili
(my friend Jer with Jim after getting his copy of Jim’s latest book signed)

Lucky Luke rides into town

Lucky Luke

Directed by James Huth

Starring Jean Dujardin, Michael Youn, Sylvie Testud, Daniel Prevost, Alexandra Lamy

Lucky Luke, the lonesome cowboy who can drawn and shoot faster than his shadow has been around for a long time – 1946, in fact, since the great Morris first drew his Wild West hero. Over the decades he’s remained popular, being translated into many languages (including, now, a good array of BD albums from Cinebook in the UK) and into other media. Previous filmic outings have never proven as good as the long-running comic though – until now. I actually first saw this live action take on Lucky Luke a couple of years ago at my annual pilgrimage to the Edinburgh International Film Festival. I’d decided to go but didn’t have high expectations – to be honest I was thinking it was likely to be around the level of the live action Asterix films from France, that is to say passable but not especially good. I was pleasantly surprised – my friends and I at that Film Festival screening laughed continually throughout the film and spent a good while in the pub discussing it afterwards. All of us agreed it was so choc-full of details it demanded another viewing on DVD at home.

And then a couple of years passed and for some reason it simply never got a UK release, which infuriated me – terrible to see a great film at a festival, tell everyone about it but they can’t see it… I’m delighted to say that now that is being rectified with a DVD release at the end of this month. I was lucky enough to get an advance disc and re-watching the film I found it even funnier than the first time around. In fact it’s one of the funniest films I’ve seen in years (puns and jokes abound even in the closing credits although it might stretch your French a little to get them!). The film is loaded with humour, from jokey dialogue and characters through to more subtle jokes in the background or in the wonderfully detailed sets, which are as close as a live-action can get to re-creating the look of a comic, all the buildings looking like they have been sketched freehand without a ruler, giving Luke’s world an appropriately cartoony appearance while still remaining very Western. Visually it draws on the comics but also from a rich tradition of American Westerns, from the iconic landscapes of a John Ford flick to the Spaghetti Westerns of the great Sergio Leone (with, I think a tip of the hat to Mel Brook’s magnificent Blazing Saddles).

In fact the opening flashback of young Luke witnessing the murder of his parents by desperadoes is heavily indebted stylistically to Sergio Leone (no bad thing in my book). Flash forward again and we have our cowboy hero meeting the President in a special railroad car (comically wreathed in cigar smoke, a jokey nod to the fact our once smoking cowboy now just has a blade of grass in his lips instead of ciggies – better example for the kids!), in a scene that borrows from Leone’s operatic Once Upon a Time in the West. The railroad is coming to unite both side of the United States and make it into a full nation. But before he can drive in the golden rail spike to unite the lines to the coasts Luke’s old stomping ground of Daisy Town has to be sorted out. Once a peaceful haven it is now a riot of outlaws under the leadership of gambler and conjurer Poker; the President asks Luke to clean up the town and so our hero rides in alone to the viper’s nest. He may be outnumbered and out-gunned but Luke, with his trusty steed Jolly Jumper, is in a class of his own and the jail is soon full of villains. All seems well until Poker forces a proper, old school Western showdown in the street. Needless to say he can’t outdraw Luke, and as the shot rings out he falls dead… Luke is mortified, he uses his guns but never kills, and thinking he’s taken a life could destroy him faster than any gang of bandidos…

And I won’t tell you anymore of the plot because I don’t want to spoil it for you. But the story is only one half of the tremendous fun on offer here. The film is quickfire gags and some brilliant characters (Calamity Jane, toughest gal gun in the West, but with a girly crush on Luke under that hard as nails exterior, Jesse James constantly quoting Shakespeare like a true ham, James and Billy the Kid trying to light one of Luke’s blades of grass to smoke it and getting wasted), the cowering locals in Daisy Town will only venture outdoors in barrels for protection, the details in sets and even clothes are just perfect. It’s full of enough humour so that the younger readers the the comics are aimed at will be kept laughing, but it also has plenty of little asides aimed at the adult audiences, not to mention the plethora of references to other classic Western film that will reward the adult viewer. It’s pure, wonderfully played, wonderfully detailed fun throughout and Dujardin, here in a pre The Artist role, is perfect as a live action Luke, although of course when the French cast talk to him he sounds more like Looky Luke! But the French language in such an American genre as a Western actually adds to the good natured humour of the whole film. Unmissable fun and one of the funniest flicks I have seen in years.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog, where there is a competition currently running to win a DVD of the film.