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Alan Turing Voted Greatest Icon of 20th Century on British TV

Alan Turing

The gay codebreaker won the title after an American Idol-esque vote of finalists that included no women.  

After nearly two months airing mini-documentaries about 20th-century movers and shakers, the BBC Two series Icons: The Greatest Person of the 20th Century picked a winner along with seven finalists in a vote on February 5, according to the show's site.

The good news is that the gay scientist and World War II codebreaker Alan Turing was named the "greatest" person of the 20th Century. Meanwhile, queer icon David Bowie was named among the finalists. The bad news is that in the hands of the public, who were given the opportunity to vote after being cursorily introduced to 20th-century leaders across various fields, not a single woman made the finals.

Other finalists included artist Pablo Picasso, boxer Muhammad Ali, activist Martin Luther King. Jr., adventurer and explorer Ernest Shackleton, and the former South African President and human rights leader Nelson Mandela.

The format for the series as described on the Icons site went as follows:

"Seven well-known faces will each front an hour-long documentary arguing the case for four people from a different field of human excellence; fields our celebrity advocates are passionate about. At the end of each documentary, viewers will be able to vote for their favorite."

"The icon who wins the public vote in each category will then go through to a live final on the 5th of February 2019. All the celebrity advocates will return to fight their icon's case, and that of the field they triumphed in. Viewers will be able to vote once again to decide who is ultimately the greatest figure of the 20th century."

Those weighing in on the achievements of 20th-century figures included the actress Kathleen Turner, scientist Chris Packham, actress and writer Lily Cole, sportscaster Clare Balding, writer/broadcaster Sanjeev Bhaskar, broadcaster Sir Trevor McDonald, and TV personality Dermot O'Leary.

While women including Billie Jean King, Margaret Thatcher, Gertrude Bell, Jane Goodall, Marie Curie, Billie Holiday, Marilyn Monroe, Helen Keller, Virginia Woolf, and Emmeline Pankhurst made it to the semi-finals, not one of them was voted in as a finalist in their field.

The reviews for the series weren't kind overall. In a headline for The Telegraph, reviewer Michael Hogan called the series, "a dumbed-down disaster."

Still another Telegraph writer, Ed Power, gave the series and those who voted some kudos for picking Turing as the winner.

"It was derided as X Factor razzmatazz masquerading as factual television and criticized for minimizing the achievements of great women in history," wrote Ed Power wrote. "But the BBC's controversial Icons series (BBC Two) closed on a relatively uncontentious note as logic trumped celebrity and persecuted computer pioneer Alan Turing was named "greatest" person of the 20th century."

As listed in his Icons bio, Turing's contributions to the 20th-century include inventing the Turing Test to help determine if a machine was "intelligent" or not and for creating the machine that assisted in breaking enemy codes that helped win World War II. He's also credited with helping to change attitudes around homosexuality in Britain.

Turing was arrested and sentenced to "chemical castration" in 1952 for the crime of "gross indecency," a nasty euphemism used to describe homosexuality. His story was chronicled in the 2014 film The Imitation Game, which starred Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley.

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