One of the best things I’ve watched in recent months is the British mini-series THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE airing on PBS. This engrossing post-war drama focuses on the lives of a handful of women who served together during WW2 as codebreakers at Bletchley Park, which housed the Government Code and Cypher School. This British intelligence agency was responsible for collecting, deciphering, analyzing, and utilizing top secret war-related communications shared between the enemy Axis nations (Germany, Japan, and Italy). At the height of WWII, more than 10,000 people were employed at Bletchley Park and women outnumbered men three to one but their work was highly classified and they were sworn to secrecy. As a result, the women’s friends and families thought that they were merely clerical workers performing mundane office jobs or mechanical tasks. For decades their real work was unknown until 2009 when the women and men who labored at Bletchley Park during WWII were officially recognized by the British government for their service.
With Memorial Day fast approaching it seems like a good time to share my enthusiasm for this fascinating mystery series that borrows generously from classic melodramas made in the late 1940s and gives voice to some of the unsung heroes of World War II – the extraordinary women codebreakers and amateur detectives who make up THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE.
Top: The real women codebreakers of Bletchley Park.
Bottom: The cast of THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE.
The original mini-series consisted of three intertwining episodes subtitled “Cracking the Killer’s Code” that introduced us to the four women who originally form ‘The Bletchley Circle.’ They include Susan (Anna Maxwell Martin), a clever mathematician; Millie (Rachael Stirling), a sassy language expert; Jean (Julie Graham), a skilled researcher; and Lucy (Sophie Rundle) who possesses a photographic memory. The women are all capable codebreakers who worked together at Bletchley Park together and became adept at recognizing patterns and deciphering them.
When we first meet the women after the war they’re struggling to find challenging and fulfilling jobs that make use of their bright minds and satisfy their desire for adventure. They’re expected to leave their war experiences behind, get married, have children, and settle into a comfortable life of domesticity but they share a mutual desire to “Never Be Ordinary.” Unfortunately, the opportunities for women in post-war Britain were extremely limited so the ladies are hamstrung by their inability to share their wartime experiences and make use of their unique skill set. Due to their top-secret work, they were forced to sign the Official Secrets Act so they’re not allowed to discuss their war activities with anyone outside of their circle of trust. In turn, their husbands, boyfriends, and potential bosses must be kept in the dark.
When a series of murders catch Susan’s attention she decides to contact her old war buddies and together this feisty female foursome form a makeshift detective force to decipher the mounting clues that they hope will lead them to the killer. Naturally, their investigative work must be done in secret and undercover, which allows for all kinds of mishaps and misunderstandings. And although the women eventually catch up with the murderer, they don’t walk away from their adventure unscarred. The experience brings them all closer together but it also leaves Susan, the only mother in the bunch, feeling neglectful of her children while her cohorts are much more eager to continue their dangerous detective work.
The cast is uniformly terrific but I’m particularly fond of Rachel Stirling who plays the vivacious slacks wearing, Millie. Stirling happens to be the daughter of actress Diana Rigg and in some ways she seems to be following in her mother’s footsteps by playing a smart, independent and ass-kicking woman on TV. Although not exactly a spy like Rigg’s Emma Peel of THE AVENGERS (1965-1968), Millie is a codebreaker who worked on top-secret assignments for the British government so they share some similarities. And as an avid AVENGERS enthusiast, I must confess that I just flat out enjoy seeing Rigg’s daughter continuing to make clever and entertaining television programs featuring strong female characters that appeal to viewers like yours truly.
The series of mini-movies that fall under the banner of THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE seem to have run their course and there’s currently no plans to continue making more but fans are rallying around the show and hope to revive it. In the meantime, you can currently catch it streaming on Netflix as well as Amazon.
It’s a shame that so many women who took on incredibly difficult and challenging jobs during WWII such as flying planes, driving tanks, nursing the wounded, spying for their governments and breaking complicated codes shared by enemy nations, have been overshadowed by their male counterparts. Rosie the Riveter has become a symbol of female ingenuity during wartime but women did much more in WWII besides working in ammunition factories. THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE shines a welcome light on a group of heroic women that have all too often been forgotten by history and brings them to vivid life.
by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally written in 2014 for TCM.com