Given the success of Morton Tyldum’s film The Imitation Game, which tells the story of Alan Turing, The Bletchley Circle should find an audience of viewers who are interested in the story of the code crackers of WWII. Many of the people responsible for deciphering cryptic messages and codes from the Axis were women who were sworn to secrecy after the war, becoming clandestine war heroes. For some, this meant blending into domestic life and becoming one among many faceless housewives trying to manage households in the restrictive, lean post war years of rationing. And for many of these women, the secrecy of their work meant that they couldn’t share their bravery with their spouses, children, friends, or family. I imagine that this kind of heavy secret could be difficult and alienating for some.
And it is for Susan Gray (Anna Maxwell Martin), the wife of a mid-level civil servant. The years after the war found Susan becoming a mother of two, and keeping a hope, but feeling twisted and constricted by the mundanity of her life. Her husband, a mildly ambitious bureaucrat, has no idea of his wife’s brilliance with codes, and believes she’s simply good at puzzles and riddles. When the police fail to solve a series of murders, Susan thinks she’s noticing a pattern, and wants to help. In old-fashioned amateur sleuth style, she pushes her way into a police station, but proves to be inarticulate and confused. The police humor Susan, but come up empty, but she still is convinced there’s something there.
That’s when her former colleagues of Bletchley Park come into play. Like members of a superhero team, each of Susan’s friends brings something unique and important to the table: Mille (Rachael Stirlling) is great at geography and maps; Lucy (Sophie Rundle) has an Eidetic memory; and Jean (Julie Graham), the eldest of the group, was the supervisor at Bletchley Park, and has a wealth of connections and organization skills. When Susan tries to convince the women to join her in solving the crime, the woman initially refuse, insisting their work is over, and it’s the police who should be working on a solution. But when another woman goes missing, just as Susan predicted, the women feel guilty enough to jump in. And so starts The Bletchley Circle as a taut and frightening thriller about four extraordinary women who are trying to outwit a killer who is as wily as they.
The show’s two series covers three mysteries. The first mystery is a gruesome one of misogyny, rape, murder, and necrophilia. The other two are equally grim and violent. As with many contemporary British thrillers, the scripts don’t shy away from harsh and often explicit violence and gore. Also, like most British thrillers, the production values are incredible – the sets capture the hobbled England of the 1950s, still trying to recover from the ruin of WWII.
While there are feminist elements to The Bletchley Circle, feminism isn’t necessarily an important theme. In the first series, Susan’s meddling in police affairs is dismissed because she’s a housewife. Though she proves to be correct, little changes in how people perceive her and her friends. The second and third episode shift away from that theme, though, and though Susan suffers from feminine mystique, the other women (all with jobs) don’t.
The second season has two episodes that mine history a bit more, and feel more topical. The first mystery relates to Porton Down, and the chemical experiments carried out on soldiers. The second intrigue takes on human trafficking. Both feel a touch far-fetched, as compared to the more immediate murder of the first season, though the scripts and the direction overcome any questions of plot holes to produce satisfying and suspenseful thrillers.
The cast is uniformly excellent, with special kudos to Anna Maxwell Martin who plays the deeply-conflicted Susan wonderfully. What is so great about Susan is that though she’s brilliant and brave, she’s not a superwoman. She and her friends make ridiculous and often-juvenile mistakes in their work, and at times, Susan is woefully inarticulate when trying to suss out what she’s trying to say. Martin imbues Susan with the melancholy of a woman who is a war hero like her husband (who was injured), but who cannot share or talk about her experiences with anyone. She’s twitchy, neurotic, and moody, and is given to bouts of self-pity. In the second series, it’s she who must be convinced to join her friends on their next adventure, as she’s traumatized by the violence of their first case.
Because the mysteries are stretched over two episodes, they have time to develop. The screenwriter, Guy Burt, knows how to craft a tense and scary story. His script is gratefully free of red herrings, as these aren’t cozy whodunits. Instead, he writes stories that are challenging, yet honest and straight forward. Though there are some twists, they don’t feel like cheats or cheap gotcha moments like the kinds in Agatha Christie mysteries. Though the violence is disturbing, it does reflect a stark reality that women are often victimized brutally – and the setting of the 1950s undoes much of the nostalgia and false narrative that things were better in the good old days.
When Martin’s character is written out for the last mystery, she’s replaced by another Bletchley colleague, Alice (Hattie Morahan). With Susan gone, the poignancy of her situation is removed, and though Burt tries to make the other women’s lives sadder, it doesn’t match the tone of the earlier episodes, and the final episodes are less compelling. That doesn’t mean that they’re still not interesting, but Martin’s character was key in the show’s success.
Unfortunately, ITV decided against a third series. It’s a shame, really, because a few more episodes would establish an interesting rhythm for the characters. For the most part, mysteries featuring amateur detectives tend toward being cozy or cutesy – the incongruity of an ordinary housewife, grandmother, or chef jumping in to solve a mystery lends itself to light entertainment. That Guy Burt has managed to take the trope and create such an at-times, devastating show, proves that there is a niche for more shows like this. The Bletchley Park setting is an interesting, though oft-ignored part of history, that deserves more attention. As do the women who worked there, providing invaluable and life-saving assistance to the war effort. If nothing else, Burt’s The Bletchley Circle is strong, historical fiction, that highlights the bravery of these women who remain undervalued.