An Engaging Crime Thriller Set in Postwar Britain: ‘The Bletchley Circle’

Britain’s top-secret deciphering program, set up during WWII to crack Germany’s coded messages, is well-known, not least because of films like Enigma starring Kate Winslet. The code-braking efforts, which were located in Bletchley Park and relied largely on the services of civilian men and women working round the clock, played a huge part in the Allies’ eventual success in the war, as German messages could be decoded and plans known ahead of time. It would be an overstatement to say that these efforts won the war—it was the Soviet Army and people who did that—but certainly the efforts of Britain’s unheralded code-breakers played a huge role in shortening the conflict.

What is much less well known, to me at least, is what happened to these people, especially the women, after the war ended. With the official secrets act still in place many years after Germany’s capitulation, even spouses and family members were unaware of their contributions. Required to return to ordinary lives as wives and mums must have been difficult for some of them.

Such at least is the impression one gets from watching The Bletchley Circle, a fine three-episode BBC series which details the unexpected and rather gruesome coda to the war for one quartet of women. With excellent performances from the entire cast, particularly Anna Maxwell Martin as pattern-seeker Susan, The Bletchley Circle is simultaneously a riveting whodunit and an enlightening window into a period of recent history.

The viewer first meets Susan and her comrades Millie, Jean and Lucy during the war, in a brief scene that shows off their particular talents: Susan with her nose for spotting patterns, Lucy with her photographic memory, the slightly older Jean who acts as their supervisor and so forth. Within minutes, the quartet has used the reams of raw intelligence gathered by the British spy services to interpret information that betrays German troop movements on the Continent. The message is clear: these women are talented at what they do, and the military trusts them enough to act on their conclusions.

The story then jumps nine years into the future, to the early ’50s, when normalcy has returned and the women are living stolid but not particularly exciting lives. When a serial killer begins targeting young women in the area, it is Susan who recognizes the pattern of where the bodies are located. Turning to the police, she finds her expertise rebuffed—she can’t reveal her military training, after all. She does her best to put the matter from her mind, and fails: young women are being murdered, and she feels she can help understand the killer’s movements and methods better than anyone charged with protecting the public. Being the woman that she is, Susan can’t shrug her shoulders and ignore what’s going on.

Perhaps rather predictably, Susan turns for help to her former comrades from the Bletchley program, and overcoming some initial reluctance, they soon join forces. This is easily the most engaging part of the series, as each woman brings her unique talents to bear on a conundrum that continues to baffle police and rack up more victims. Sometimes the methods are a little confusing, as is the logic that leads the women to one conclusion or another, but for the most part, this is an intelligent, cerebral thriller that makes few concessions to a distracted or inattentive audience. The viewer must pay attention in order to keep up.

In the final act, the storyline devolves somewhat into conventional thriller-movie cliché, but until those final moments, the program will keep the viewer hooked. The ending isn’t such a terrible letdown, it’s just terribly familiar, which is a shame, because so much else in the series is quite original.

The program looks terrific on blu-ray, with its period costumes and dull, washed-out color palette. (Boy, postwar Europe sure was grim, wasn’t it?) As mentioned, the performances are consistently outstanding, with Martin doing most of the heavy lifting, capably supported by Sophie Rundle as the kindhearted Lucy and BBC stalwart Julie Graham as Jean.

Bonus features consist of a number of cast and crew interviews, which are engaging enough but don’t shed any great light on the project or the period. There seems to have been a missed opportunity here for a brief documentary about the Bletchley project, but this is no huge flaw. The series itself is the focus here. With three episodes of 40-plus minutes apiece, the entire story can be consumed in just a little over two hours, although patient viewers might want to spread it out over three nights to let the suspense build—particularly between the second episode and the third. In any event, The Bletchley Circle is a series well worth watching, especially for fans of crime drama, period drama, or just solid, suspenseful storytelling.

RATING 7 / 10