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Thursday, July 10, 2014

Review: The Bletchley Circle

For the sake of simplicity (and a change in my usual reviewing style), here are ten reasons to watch The Bletchley Circle.

1. GIRL POWER! This is a show about four women using their intelligence, wits and specialized analytical skills to hunt down a dangerous serial killer. And the best part is, they do it in ways only women could pull off. That is to say, if you were to gender-flip the four main characters into men, the story simply wouldn’t work. And I’m not just talking about the fact that they trot about in long coats and styled hair, clutching their handbags and balancing in their low-heeled shoes (though that’s awesome too).  It’s their motivation, their methods, their obstacles and their know-how that all revolves around the fact they are women.

2. Susan. Our protagonist. Do you remember that Emma Thompson quote/GIF set that was making the rounds a while ago, which had her talking about how proud she was that she rejected roles that had her (as the requisite female character) telling the male lead: “don’t go out and do that brave thing; you’re needed here with me and the children”? Well, this Susan gets to be that male lead, with her husband playing the role of the man who stands around crying “think of the children!”


Even better, Susan gets to play out a trope that’s rare in female characters: that of trying to recapture the Glory Days. During the war years she was thrilled by her ability to crack codes and save lives on a daily basis – now she feels stifled in the role of a housewife and mother. 

Yet in saying that, the writing is nuanced enough to a) portray her husband sympathetically (especially since she ends up in very real danger), and b) demonstrate that she’s a loving mother whose family certainly isn’t a “burden” in any way. It’s society’s expectations on her role in life that proves to be the obstacle, not her husband and kids.

3. Millie, Jean and Lucy. Susan’s team, who all come together at her behest after she convinces them that their experience as code-breakers could help them catch a killer who is systematically killing women all over London and unknowingly leaving a pattern behind him.


Millie is tall, confident and able to bluff her way in and out of difficult situations. Jean is small and dowdy, but able to get hold of various records through her former war contacts (and not afraid to use the threat of blackmail in order to get them). Lucy is small and vulnerable, and has a photographic memory which (as you can imagine) is incredibly useful, but also a burden when she’s made to memorize horrific scenes and information. Expect a lot of protectiveness from the other three.

They all have different strengths, different opinions and varying degrees of femininity, and all of them are treated as vitally important to each other and the narrative.

3. Historical backdrop. Set in the 1950s, the show has a keen eye for detail when it comes to things like fashion, transport, architecture, telephones and so on. Best of all is the depiction of pure, unadulterated grunt-work. These women don’t have access to computers or the internet. If they want the information they need, they have to sit down and trawl through acres of paperwork in order to find it. And they do. Throughout the series there’s a real sense of the methodical patience and intelligence that these women possessed, and how they utilized it in order to achieve their ends.


4. Social commentary. So I mentioned that the book was set in the 1950s, which naturally comes complete with Fifties mentality. Here’s the thing though – despite one Amazon.com reviewer complaining that the show was misanthropic (cue eye-roll), it’s actually very fair when it comes to depictions of male characters.

Susan’s husband grows frustrated with her long absences, and you can understand why. The police inspector is patient and polite to Susan, even going so far as to follow up on some of her theories and admit when he’s wrong. There is always thin veneer of condescension whenever the women have to reach out to a male character for help, but none of them are silly caricatures of misogyny – not even the killer. This is simply a society in which casual sexism is so deeply rooted that nobody even recognises it as sexism.

But on the whole (and this is crucial), the show frankly isn’t all that interested in the male characters. This show belongs to Susan, Millie, Jean and Lucy from start to finish. All the men are part of the supporting cast. It feels so great to type that.

5. Really scary mystery. Young women have been kidnapped and killed all over London. How is the killer targeting them? How does he get around unseen? What exactly is motivation in committing such awful crimes?

The women use their initiative to track him down, following leads and laying traps, extending their skill-set once they realize they have to understand him on a psychological level as well as a logical one. And the killer himself, by the time he shows up, has a unique backstory that sheds light on what he’s doing and why, one that makes you understand him without necessarily sympathising with him.


6. Time for another round of spot the British thespian! There’s a lot of great talent on display here, including Anna Maxwell Martin (Esther Summerson in the BBC’s latest Bleak House and Bessy Wiggins in North and South), Julie Graham (who is brilliant, though I’ve only ever seen her in Towards Zero, one of the Marple mysteries), Rachael Stirling (probably most recently recognisable as Ada in The Crimson Horror episode of Doctor Who, but she also had little roles in Snow White and the Huntsman and Young Victoria) and Sophie Rundle (Merlin fans will recognise her as Sefa, the serving girl who terrified fandom for all of three seconds when it appeared that she would be a new love interest for Merlin).

They’re all brilliant actresses, and they’re not afraid to appear rather dowdy instead of glamorous over the course of the series. It’s their intelligence that matters, not their appearance, and though there is a sequence in which Lucy is used as “bait” for the killer, these women never once use “feminine wiles” to get what they want. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, only that it’s a nice change to have that trope completely absent).

7. Bletchley itself. During the Second World War, Bletchley Park was headquarters for the UK's decryption organization, where various codes and cyphers were translated by a staff that was made up of 80% women. When the war came to a close they went back to their ordinary lives, keeping their activities during the war a secret even from their closest family members. They were extraordinary women, who not only saved lives with their diligence but were some of the world's first computer programmers.

It’s only recently that these women are getting recognition for their part in the war effort, and I’ll admit that I was disappointed when it became apparent that this miniseries didn’t actually focus on the war years. I was initially under the impression that it would revolve around the goings-on at Bletchley, which would be fascinating material for a drama series, though here the war itself is relegated to the prologue.


But in lieu of that, the show is crammed full of interesting details about the period, such as the on-going use of food stamps and war pamphlets that preyed on the morale of German soldiers (such as postcards of women getting seduced by English soldiers, with slogans suggesting that this is what’s happening while they’re away – I’d never heard about them before, but I’ve no doubt that they existed).

8. Female solidarity. As mentioned, the entire plot revolves around the fact that a serial killer is picking off young women around London. What’s unique is how conscious of this the women are. Though Susan is also motivated by her need for excitement and a sense of meaningfulness, she also tells her husband at the beginning of the show that one of the girls used to serve her in a shop. Whenever things get tense or frightening, the women remind themselves that they have a responsibility to make sure other women never feel the same terror that they do. In one scene, Jean amends the famous quote: “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing... or good women.”

And this trend continues into season two. It is comprised of two mysteries, the first involving the women trying to clear the name of another female comrade in the War, the second showing them trying to dismantle a crime syndicate, with particular emphasis (and outrage) over the fact that they’re bringing girls over to work as prostitutes. In short, this just isn’t about women fighting crime, it isn’t just about women banding together, it’s about women protecting other women.


9. Witticisms. Most of them come from sharp-tongued Jean, but there are plenty of zingers over the course of the series. Obviously I can’t share all of them, as they’re only going to lose their impact when you hear them for yourself, but... okay, here’s just one. When Susan is gathering the women together she decides to do so under the guise of a book club, and so heads to the library (where Jean works) to fetch four copies of Great Expectations:

Jean: (without noticing who’s given them to her): “Dear, you’ve picked up four copies of the same book. It’s not going to make it four times better, you know. (Looks up, spots Susan). Susan Avers? Isn’t this a coincidence? (Spots Millie behind her). Or maybe not.”

10. You know what really gets on my nerves? The constant chorus across the internet that bemoans the lack of female-lead films/books/television shows, coupled with the general sentiment that of course women would get more fan attention if only there were better mediums for them. You know the drill. “But female characters are just love interests! But there aren’t enough of them for me to write any meta or fan-fiction about them! But the men are just so much more intriguing!”


It’s really hard to believe in the sincerity of such claims when shows like The Bletchley Circle are summarily ignored (usually in favour of twelve-page dissertations analysing the blinking patterns of a white male actor). So if you ARE legitimately in search of a genuinely well-written show starring women with intelligence and agency and nary a love triangle in sight, then THIS IS THAT SHOW.

(Granted, the show stars four white women and has no significant POC throughout its duration. This is a shame, especially since it’s set in the 1950s and there’s no pressing reason why one of the leads couldn’t have been non-white. But in every other respect, this is the show that people seem to be constantly demanding: passing the Bechdel test with flying colours, central female characters who exist outside the role of love interest – the whole shebang).

6 comments:

  1. Nicely said! Will be sharing this on The Bletchley Circle Watchers -- the fan page for the series -- on Facebook @ https://www.facebook.com/TheBletchleyCircleWatchers

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    1. Thanks! It is a shame that there'll be no more episodes. There was still plenty to be mined from these characters.

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  2. Waaaaay disappointing that ITV in not doing a 3rd season. :(

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  3. Well, I have to say this sounds excellent! I'd only vaguely heard of this show before (I think it's on Netflix?), but now I will definitely make it a point to watch it.

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    2. That's what any reviewer wants to hear! I hope you enjoy it.

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