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Monday 24 September 2012

The Bletchley Circle

This may seem like an idiotic complaint coming from someone so obsessed with costuming and appearances, but one of the reasons why I'm so judgemental about historical dramas is that they're often so much more concerned with style than with substance. Not that style's necessarily a bad thing, since if historical dramas were actually "accurate" then it'd be damn near impossible to write them for a modern audience. A tremendous amount of research and effort goes into making things like Downton Abbey and Titanic into glittering caricatures of a particular time-period, but it's less common to see that same effort go into the non-visual aspects of the setting, mostly because very few people want to watch a movie that directly reflects the culture of actual real-life humans in the 17th century. You know, back when everyone was stunningly racist, people had wooden teeth, and public executions were the popular equivalent of Keeping Up With The Kardashians.
The Bletchley Circle is one of those rare historical dramas that combines modern writing styles (in this case, a murder mystery) with real emotional and psychological fidelity to the time-period. British television is unwaveringly obsessed with the two World Wars (as evidenced by the simultaneous popularity of Downton Abbey, Upstairs/Downstairs and War Horse, not to mention Doctor Who's unerring ability to end up in 1940s England at least once per season), but I can't remember having seen anything that illustrates the post-war period as well as this show does. The protagonists are four women who worked as codebreakers at Bletchley Park during WWII, but following the War found themselves falling into dull and disappointing routines either as housewives or in jobs that failed to measure up to the excitement of foiling Nazi spies. When we first meet these women they're in their element, working diligently to break German codes and help the men stationed overseas, but the moment the show skips forwards to 1952 it's immediately obvious that things have changed for the worse.

Susan Gray, your new role-model.
It's common knowledge that after the War many women failed to regain the kind of power and freedom they'd been allowed during wartime, but The Bletchley Circle goes beyond that. In almost every scene, there's this palpable awareness that this is a story about an entire generation of people who have been emotionally obliterated by the War. On top of the main characters' frustration with being reduced to "women's work", it's glaringly obvious that no one talks about anything of importance -- that not only are these women legally forbidden to discuss their wartime work due to the Official Secrets Act, but no one wants to talk about anything that disturbs the banal veneer of peacetime Britain. It's incredibly 1950s. I could go on for hours about how brilliant this show is when it comes to the grim, low-level, everyday details of emotional trauma while still managing to be an uplifting story about friendship and a straightforward crime procedural.
At its heart, this was a "getting the gang together" story like Ocean's 11 or The Avengers, with the atypical detail that all the conflict was external rather than coming from clashes between the main characters. There's no macho posturing or shouty arguments with unwilling police chiefs here -- more like a quiet acceptance from the get-go that very few people are going to take them seriously, so they may as well just get down to business. With no practical knowledge of how to track down a serial-killer, the four women reverse-engineer their deductive methods from the way they used to track Nazi troop movements and spies during the War. It's the ultimate Make Do And Mend -- working out new ways to do old jobs, and finding out that they're actually better at it than the experienced professionals who ignore them.
The main focus was on Susan, a housewife whose ongoing fascination with solving the Strangler mystery is impossible to explain to her husband, a war veteren whose main desire is to live as safe and conventional life as possible. Susan has a head for mathematics and is fuelled by a secret streak of indomitable self-confidence, but unlike most maverick TV detectives is is far from a loner wolf. She's the one who brings the rest of the gang together, exhibiting a perversely enthusiastic attitude towards the "puzzle" until she encounters the horrifying reality of the crime for the first time. The rest of the Circle is made up of Jean, a matronly who used to be their supervisor at Bletchley; Lucy, a timid newlywed with a photographic memory; and Millie, a down-on-her-luck "free spirit" (by 1950s standards, at least) who went traveling after the War but had her adventures cut short by lack of funds. While some shows would have emphasised the differences between these women, The Bletchley Circle focuses what brings them together: boredom, loneliness, and a sense of frustrated determination that only needs a spark to explode into its Wartime mood of bustling efficiency.
My only criticism is that although The Bletchley Circle is thoroughly female-oriented in way one rarely sees in mainstream crime TV, it includes some surprisingly cliched forays into torture-porn whenever another young woman is murdered. These kids of scenes have become so run-of-the-mill that I'd barely remark on them showing up BBC Sherlock or The Killing, but since The Bletchley Circle is otherwise so thoughtful and subtle in tone, I found they really stood out. To audiences already familiar with crime TV and serial-killer fiction, this show supplies nothing new in the way of murder and mayhem. In fact, the idea of a mysterious killer strangling young women on the streets of London seems almost prosaic when compared to your CSIs and your Hannibal Lecters. But not only are our detectives from an era before the influences of procedural crime dramas, they exist in a society that is still tentatively easing back into peacetime and is unwilling to acknowledge any kind of upset to normalcy. Even though these women are undoubtedly on the side of the angels, there's no question that they will keep their work a secret from everyone they know, even when it begins to endanger their lives.

Next: The costumes of The Bletchley Circle.


  1. My brain: "Oh, I know that woman who plays Susan! Where was it I saw her? Definitely not Downton Abbey. Was it North & South? Doctor Who?" Turns out it was both. She's awesome! Clearly this should go on the to be watched list, but sadly, not on Netflix yet.

    1. She was Elizabeth Darcy in "Death Comes to Pemberley"

  2. All that and Bleak House! She really is the most wonderful actress.

  3. One of the things I enjoy about Bletchley Circle is how Susan wears no eye-makeup. It's a very strikingly unattractive, in a way few shows dare be.

  4. She was also in the National Theatre's stage version of 'His Dark Materials', which was wonderful and much better than the lame film (retitled 'The Golden Compass'). If you didn't see it, you'll just have to take my word for it on that one...

  5. The Bletchley Circle is a great piece of TV, riveting. But why were there so many errors in the choice of railway locomotives, a bus & the car? Why did no one pick this up in production? IT DOES MATTER. To many people it means that there was a lack of attention to detail and this impacts upon the credibility of those responsible for research & production. Check my blog

  6. Please tell me there's femslash. Totally going to watch this now!

  7. Love this show, The Bletchley Circle. Great comments Hello Tailor. Awaiting next series!

  8. second class postage -season 2 first story - was not introduced until 1968

  9. What an immense read, post more often please! 
    Is there any further reading you would recommend on this?

    Bletchley seo company

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