The history of women in wartime espionage is an interesting one. Women of extreme competence were brought into MI:5, British internal security and counterespionage department, for clerical positions or other areas of need that couldn’t be filled by men needed on the battlefield during the World Wars. This was true of Bletchley Park, the headquarters for British code-breaking of communication intercepts in World War II. After the war, men came back from the front looking for work and most women were quickly pushed out of service. What happens next? Motherhood, menial work, and a taste for service and relevance. The Bletchley Circle (2012), a series from iTV (competitor to the BBC), takes a fictitious look at a group of these women who use their skills to solve a crime. [Also, you may like to take a look at this Daily Telegraph article that takes a deeper look at these women.]
Susan (Anna Maxwell Martin) was a wiz of a code-breaker at Bletchley Park. She could see the patterns. One day, she notices a name “Dietrich”. She talks to her best friend Millie (Rachael Stirling) who is good with maps and then turns to Lucy (Sophie Rundle) a savant who can recall information better than Google to put together a theory that “Dietrich” is a code for troop movements. They go to their boss Jean (Julie Graham) who tells them to take it up the ladder. And thus, the Allies know the German troop movements in North Africa three days before they’re set to happen. They were useful. Nine years later, they’re less useful. Susan spends her days doing cryptic crosswords and performing motherly duties and has lost touch with the girls. That is, until she notices that a string of murders follow a particular pattern. She goes to the police with her initial theory, but that turns out to be erroneous, losing some of the faith of Dept. Commissioner Wainwright (Michael Gould) of Scotland Yard. Unable to let it go, Susan rounds up the girls to use their varied skills to track down the killer.
The Bletchley Circle is a mystery in three parts dealing with a group of skilled, intelligent women trying to operate in a patronizing, patriarchal world. But it is first a mystery. Their style of solving this mystery is to use mathematical analyses to draw out and narrow down possibilities to virtual certainties. And yet, they must have data. “I cannot make bricks without clay,” said the great detective. To provide this clay and provide it well, you must have a great writer. The Bletchley Circle doesn’t have a great writer, but they have a good one in Guy Burt. Yes, there are relatively frequent lapses of “…Oh, here’s something…” whereby a dramatic clue is dropped in our laps. But there are some excellent devices, especially Lucy and her amazing brain which Burt will use to recall unspoken data in a way that cleverly avoids the contrived feeling of the conspicuous clue. Still, brilliance is out of reach such that mystery and process becomes adventure and action.
Having this series on Blu-Ray is very strange. First of all, nothing is really enhanced by the image which looks choppy because the normal motion blur can’t blend with (relatively) low resolution. Otherwise, director Andy De Emmony presents a decent little mystery series. This is an urban drama, so artistic choices are rather limited. No open skies for Andy. Rather it’s mostly mundanery, or perhaps conventionality, that presents events as they are always done. It is a relatively small-scale project and strictly for television. This is only a complaint in light of the new wave of mysteries, often of Scandinavian descent, that present each mystery in the style of a moody, broody film. This ain’t that. The cast is a strong troop of TV regulars who are called upon to do regular TV work.
Essentially, The Bletchley Circle justifiably relies upon its interesting concept to drive the series. It provides numerous themes to contemplate and enjoy if you like to contemplate murder, espionage, code-breaking, 1950’s Britain, stubborn women against a stubborn patriarchy, and good, old fashioned thrills. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the very good film Enigma (2002), which is the only other film/series that concerns Bletchley Park. If you like wartime espionage and code-breaking especially, with a backdrop of a mystery, that’s a very good film to seek out.