The Bletchley Circle

22 November 2012

I watch very little television all things considered and tend to limit my viewing to films on DVD or BLu-ray, old crime series on Netflix and the occasional drama. It’s very rare that I will watch something at the same time as everyone else (honourable exceptions to this rule appear to be Downton Abbey, Whitechapel, Marple and Sherlock) so if I make the effort to seek something out then it’s usually because it a. has had glowing reviews from friends whose taste I trust and b. I am sufficiently intrigued to cast my books aside and give it a whirl.

So it was with The Bletchley Circle, which was recently shown on ITV. True to form, I read everyone’s admiring tweets while it was being shown but waited until it came out on DVD before buying a copy for myself and catching up. How I wish now that I had not waited and it will definitely be on my Watch Straight Away list from now on!

The Bletchley Circle. Photo: ITV.

In a nutshell, The Bletchley Circle is about a group of four women formerly employed doing TOP SECRET work cracking codes at Bletchley Park in WWII. At the start of the series, we see them at work in front of their special cypher cracking machines while around them is the buzz of brilliant female minds deconstructing German codes and saving lives in the process. It’s made abundantly clear that these four women at Bletchley are capable, highly logical and resourceful and as a woman with Aspergers, I felt a particular resonance with Lucy (Sophie Rundle) with her amazing ability to memorise reams of data.

We leave Bletchley on a high after Susan (Anna Maxwell Martin) sees a pattern in the encrypted messages that will predict the future movement of the Germany forces and save countless lives. However, after the starting credits roll, we are nine years in the future and she is a bored and silently frustrated housewife, sitting alone at home knitting while her husband is out at work and her children are at school. The contrast is very clear – during the war she was valued, useful and able to use her intellectual gifts for the greater good but now that the war is over, she is shunted into domesticity.

This is a theme that is repeated over and over again in the (short – there are only three episodes) series. Lucy, with her fantastic memory, is miserably married to a horrible, abusive husband; brilliant Millie (the beauteous Rachael Stirling, who seems to be in EVERYTHING I watch right now) works as a waitress and worries about making ends meet and capable, sharp as a knife Jean (Julie Graham) who once oversaw their operations at Bletchley now works in a library. It’s a really depressing reminder of the way that women were able to step up to the plate and do their bit during the war but then expected to retreat once again into their housewifely ‘duties’ and tiresome domesticity once it was all over.

Sophie Rundle in The Bletchley Circle. Photo: ITV.

It’s made especially depressing because virtually every man in The Bletchley Circle is either dismissive, patronising or just down right murderous. I cringed when Susan took her theories about a series of really unpleasant murders to the police commissioner despite the clear embarrassment of her husband, who had no idea that her war work had been anything more complex than a clerical position and whose solution to her continuing interest in code breaking and clear desperation for some form of intellectual stimulation (it’s hinted later in the series that she is a graduate of St Hilda’s at Oxford) is to buy her a book of puzzles. I felt a furious sisterly rage for Susan to be so patronised by someone who claims to care for her, swiftly followed by immense relief that in my country at least, such attitudes are firmly relegated to the past – at least for most.

Overall though this was a really gripping and often grimly suspenseful drama. I was expecting a cosy mystery along the lines of Rosemary and Thyme perhaps or Marple at its most floridly and decadently 1950s retro, however The Bletchley Circle turned out to be a very different kettle of fish in the way that it depicted British post war society with its bomb sites, casual sexism, rationing and muddy colour palette. On the other hand, there was something extremely cheering about its depiction of a group of rather disparate women coming together and giving each other support, understanding and friendship.

Rachael Stirling in The Bletchley Circle. Photo: ITV.

I really REALLY hope that there will be at least a second series of this wonderful crime drama as I’d really like to know how the characters develop and grow over time. Will Susan murder her husband with a puzzle book? Who are Millie’s mysterious friends? Will Lucy find the true love she deserves? Can Jean escape the confines of her library? I NEED TO KNOW.

Did you see The Bletchley Circle? What did you think?