The Bletchley Circle, ITV

by | Sep 6, 2012 | All, Reviews

                                                           Contributed by Matt Donnelly 

At the moment ITV are falling over themselves to debut their new dramas with A Mother’s Son and Mrs Biggs already airing this week they are now giving us The Bletchley Circle. Unusually for a British drama this is a completely female-centric with a quartet of actresses dominating the action while the male characters are pushed to the side-lines. While Hermoine Norris and Sheridan Smith’s characters were central to the action in their respective dramas a lot of their motivation came from what their husbands or sons had done while The Bletchley Circle’s female foursome are presented as strong, smart individuals.

The drama starts in 1943 at The Bletchley Park Code-Breaking Office where Susan (Anna Maxwell Martin) believes she has found a pattern in the way one German officer is working. She relays her suspicions to her map expert friend Millie (Rachel Stirling) and colleague Lucy (Sophie Rundle), a young woman with a magnificent memory, who tell her to take the information to their purse-lipped boss Jean (Julie Graham). Jean instructs Susan to take the information to the officers in charge and when she comes back she reveals that they have in fact revealed where the Germans will be striking in three days’ time which these women see as a mini-victory. After this Susan bemoans the fact that once the war ends they will go back to being ordinary women however Millie tells her that she’ll never let her be ordinary. Though nine years later she finds those  suspicions were warranted as she has settled into married life with war-wounded husband Harry (Ed Birch) and two bratty kids who complain about constantly having to eat spam. When a number of girls go missing and then later are later found dead Susan believes she has discovered a pattern between where the girls were found and badgers Harry into letting her pass on her theories to the Deputy Commissioner of Police (Michael Could). DC Wainwright works out that Susan did in fact work as a code-breaker during the war, something Harry doesn’t know, so takes her information seriously however when her theory proves unsuccessful the police laugh her off as just being a silly woman. Determined to prove all the doubting men wrong Susan decides there’s only one thing for it and attempts to get the band back together again.

None of the women have gone on to have successful careers after the war with flirty Millie out of money following a trip to South Africa now working in a bar with a sleazy boss, Lucy confined to married life where she irons the same shirt and makes an endless amount of casseroles while Jean is doing what any good spinster would namely work in a library. After an initial meeting the group are at odds with what to do and decide not to go through with Susan’s wishes. However, when another girl goes missing they agree to try to help her decipher the pattern. As Jean is good at getting official documents she rustles up the medical records for the four girls while Millie gets to looking at the maps,  Our intrepid foursome discover that  all the girls go on the same train route. The group then abuse Lucy’s powers by having her memorise the entire London train timetable but this pays off as they are able to track the potential killer’s trail and vow to hunt him down themselves as the police refuse to listen to a group of women. 

If you’re looking for an accurate portrayal of what life was like for women in post-war London then it’s probably best not to take The Bletchley Circle too seriously but if you like a good mystery than I think this programme might be for you.  It’s described as a thriller but it won’t have you hiding behind sofa cushions or sleeping with the lights on. The series is essentially a detective story only in this case our investigators are former code breakers who are finding that their skills are useless now the war is over. Guy Burt’s script is expertly paced as I felt it gave you time to get to know the characters  both during and after the war but at the same time kept enough intrigue as regards the central mystery plot. While the characters themselves aren’t exactly original Burt tries to give you something to care about in each woman so that you emotionally invest in their separate stories as well as the overall plot.

It seems there’s no escaping Anna Maxwell Martin this week after her superb turn in Tuesday’s Accused, here we see her play a more chipper if still troubled character. Martin portrays Susan as an intelligent woman who is being crushed by her new domestic life and while she loves family she’d rather be out doing something useful than listening to the radio all day. Sophie Rundle plays the timid Lucy well while Julie Graham completely inhabits the uptight and straightforward Jean. For me though the standout cast member is Rachel Stirling playing Millie as sort of an outrageous lush but one who has a good heart as right from the start she is the one convincing Susan to push herself forward. Though a little stereotypical, the post war design is still well-executed with ration books out in full force and train carriages suitably stuffed I did feel that the production team had done their best to make the setting as accurate as they could.

At the end of the day The Bletchley Circle is a good old-fashioned tale, albeit one with a couple of gruesome twists along the way, which is all about teamwork and not hiding your light under a bushel. Though there’s another two episodes to go before our intrepid quartet catch the killer I can already see that there’s potential for ITV to bring these ladies back to crack more cases providing the ratings are good.  Though I didn’t quite buy the overall authenticity of the story I don’t really think that was the point so overall this was an entertaining yarn with an intriguing central mystery and one that I think highlights how good ITV drama can be. 

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles


Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!


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