Tag Archives: Bletchley Park

The Bletchley Circle

The Bletchley CircleThe Bletchley Circle aired on PBS during April & May, though it aired in the UK in 2012.  Just a few weeks ago, iTV announced that they would be making a second series of the show.

Like Sherlock, this series (season) consists of only 3 episodes, 1 hour each.  Really, it’s more of a miniseries, and I was entirely prepared to describe it that way until I learned about a second season.  Miniseries don’t have further seasons, so I guess it is a drama series.

The show follows 4 women in 1950s London.  All four worked at Bletchley Park, the center of code breaking intelligence for the Brits during WWII.  Due to the Official Secrets Act, everyone had to hide their involvement in wartime divisions, etc., until something like the 1970s.  So these characters lead normal, horribly dull lives. No one knows that they’re code-breaking savants and were very important to wartime efforts.  They don’t get any recognition, even from family and friends.

It’s no wonder that Susan GraySusan Gray, the main character, is desperately in need of something to do. She has a dull husband and 2 kids, and is chained to the stove like any good ’50s housewife. After hearing reports on the news about a string of unsolved homicides, she can’t help but see some patterns in the details.  At first, she tries to go directly to the police, but she can’t work out all of the specifics of the crime without enlisting her 3 friends–whom she hasn’t seen since the war ended–to help her read the patterns. Gray would, if born today, end up an engineer, a statistician, a math professor. She’s exacting, efficient, a little too meticulous, a little boring.  She’s played by Anna Maxwell Martin, who I recognized from her roles in Bleak House (Esther Summerson) and North & South (Bessy Higgins).  I think AMM does a great job of portraying someone totally trapped by gender norms, who allows her life to be decided by feelings of what she should be doing.

In her determination to solve the puzzle and find the murderer, she enlists her three wartime compatriots:

Bletchley Circle MillieMillie, the free-spirited, world traveling, modern woman. She lives on her own, she’s tough, she takes care of herself.  You can tell how modern and independent she is because she is the only one who wears pants.  She is my favorite, obviously.

Bletchley Circle LucyLucy is the youngest and most naive.  She is very useful, though, because she has an eidetic memory.  Unfortunately, she also has an abusive, douchebag husband.  Lucy is maybe the most reluctant of the four. The violence they encounter during this investigation is probably worse than anything she’s ever imagined.  After all, they didn’t even have CSI back then–not even the original CSI.  They weren’t used to seeing dead bodies dissected and splashed about.  She explains that it’s also worse for her because her memory allows her to see bad things over and over again in perfect and horrible recollection.  That would not be my superpower of choice.

Lastly, there’s Jean.

Bletchley Circle JeanShe is the bossy older one, and she’s a librarian.  She looks and seems everything dowdy and unattractive at first.  There’s a quiet, assiduous power about her, though.  She is integral to the group because she has contacts in other libraries and with other intelligence workers that they use to dig up info on their killer. Jean is more reserved and less emotional, but she’s competent and hard-working.  She’s a Hufflepuff, in essence.

The ladies use their code-cracking skills to see other patterns in the killings–the girls were all on a journey, which they eventually narrow down to one specific train from St. Pancras.  He must be on the train too, then.

They discover over the three episodes that the man is a necrophiliac (they don’t use this word, but it’s made clear that each of the victims is raped after she’s killed).  They realize he has struck before, in other areas of England, and always pins the crime on someone else.  Shortly afterward, he does the same thing with his victims in London, but the girls (especially Susan) are adamant that the police have the wrong man.

It all comes back to the war. They discover the real killer is a man who was trapped underground during the blitz–trapped underground with a dead woman.  God only knows what he did with her body while he was down there, but it’s clear he’s trying to relive that with his victims.

As with any good mystery (as opposed to a police procedural), the authorities refuse to listen/believe what is truly going on.  The girls are on their own.  Susan, in particular, ventures too far in her search for the killer.  All the girls end up in peril, but Susan is alone with the man twice. He follows her home, threatens her family. I won’t say more about what happens next.

Primarily, I think this was a show about women.  In some ways it reminded me of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which was originally titled Men Who Hate Women. You have these horrible murders, all perpetrated against young women by a man.  You have strong female character(s) determined to stop them.

Of course, they’re radically different in setting and style, but the theme of misogyny and violence toward women is a commonality.  The Bletchley Circle shows the lives of very smart, capable women.  In their best circumstances, they are under-utilized and bored as housewives/waitresses/librarians.  More often, they are ridiculed by other men, criticized or hit by their husbands.  Even Susan’s husband, who is the most empathetic man in the show, doesn’t understand why Susan can’t just stay home with the children like a good wife would do.  Everywhere they look, they’re told to conform to what society believes they should be and do.

At the same time, these four women work together remarkably well, care about each other, and are deeply committed to solving this crime.  To saving other girls from this horrendous fate.  Not to sound totally ridiculous, but it is about women protecting women.

The people who worked on this show did a great job recreating a particularly bleak time in English modern history.  While America was having a huge economic boom in the late ’40s and early ’50s, the Brits were still whipping out their ration books and dealing with economic crises left and right.  It was a really austere place and time, even when you don’t consider the losses of the war (people, but also entire buildings and neighborhoods destroyed in the blitz).  The show captures the dull lives, the last lingering period of tradition before the upheaval of the ’60s.  The director even said they avoided sunlight when filming. They wanted to capture the lack of saturation, the lack of bright color that seemed to pervade the national consciousness during that time.

This wasn’t the greatest show in the world.  There were parts of the plot that were thrown in and then cast aside without much explanation.  The resolution didn’t make things precisely clear.  The bad guy ends up dead, but it’s not clear to the audience that the women have enough evidence to prove he was the one who killed those other girls.  I found myself wondering if they would be believed when they told their side of the story.  And what happened to the man falsely accused of the crime? Last we heard, he was scheduled to hang for it.  Now what? I suppose I’m supposed to have good faith and just assume it all worked out, but the justice system isn’t like that and I worried that despite the killer being dead, the nightmare was far from over.

On the other hand, I think it was a unique and interesting story.  I like period dramas as a rule, I like women protagonists as a rule.  If this had stretched for 10 episodes, I might not be as fond of it, but I’m definitely up for another 3-4 episode season (series).

Upcoming TV highlights

There are a whole score of new and returning shows on TV this month and next. I thought it might be a good time to discuss them.

First of all, the end of March marked the return of Doctor Who!

The Doctor and OswinAnd there’s a new outfit, a new TARDIS, and a new companion.  If you watched season 7, you already know Oswin.  Can I say already that I love her?  I love her.  She is super smart, she is a conundrum, and she is simultaneously friendly, playful, and not afraid to stand up to the Doctor.  Add to the wonderfulness of her character, she is a real enigma.  The Doctor doesn’t understand her, and he finds anything he doesn’t understand really mesmerizing.  It’s a totally different dynamic than the big brother relationship he had with Amy and Rory.  And I really like his new coat.  I feel like maybe I’m getting my expectations up too high.  Last season was a little disappointing for me, and I don’t want to get too excited and then be disappointed again. But…it’s probably too late.  I’ve seen the first episode and I really liked it, and I love their dynamic, and I’m really excited for what’s coming next.  Dr. Who is on BBC America on Saturday nights at 8 Eastern.

Orphan Black bannerPremiering that same night was the new series,  Orphan Black. Although this is on BBC America, it doesn’t actually seem to be a British show. It is set in Canada, I believe, though it is never explicitly stated.  The ‘main’ character, Sarah, is British, as is her best friend Paul.  Only the actors aren’t actually British, but whatever.  The show seems interesting; I haven’t made my mind up about it yet.  It begins with Sarah (a woman with questionable morals and a shady background) seeing a woman, Beth, who looks exactly like her, jump in front of a train.  She takes over Beth’s seemingly swanky life (wasn’t this the plot to that Sarah Michelle Gellar show, Ringer?), mostly based on the fact that the woman had money and nice clothes.  Remind me to never take over my dead clone’s life based on her clothing quality, because it just doesn’t turn out well.  She has to get to know Beth’s boyfriend (including possibly the most graphic sex scene I’ve ever seen on a non-premium channel), deal with a police inquest over a shooting in the line of duty (oh, Beth was a cop?) and a mysterious safety deposit box full of birth certificates.  Sarah proves herself to be pretty stupid in this first episode.  Her goal is to get her daughter back from whomever is caring for her, and to start a new life.  Her first plan is to steal heroin from her ex and sell it for $20k.  Her next plan is to have her best friend identify Beth’s mangled body as Sarah, and steal all of Beth’s savings.  It never occurs to her that her daughter might find out that Sarah has been declared dead, but of course that is what happens.  She seems to really lack the ability to think about consequences, but we know very little about her back story, except that she is an orphan.

This show is iffy.  Could turn out well, could be implausible and ridiculous.  I’m going to give it a few more episodes before I make a verdict.  It’s on after Doctor Who, Saturdays on BBC America at 9 Eastern.

Mr. SelfridgeThe last weekend in March was a big one for me! Also premiering, on PBS this time, was Mr. Selfridge, a proper British period drama about Harry Gordon Selfridge, the founder of the eponymous store on Oxford Street.  I had no idea he was American, but apparently he emigrated from Chicago to open the world’s best department store in London.  It just finished airing in England, so kudos to PBS for getting it over here in less than 6 months.  They’re getting better!

Jeremy Piven plays a non-douchebag, which I didn’t approve of at first.  Have they seen Entourage?  I haven’t, I’ll admit, but his suits were too shiny for me to see him as a non-douche.  Right? Look at this picture and then argue with me:

Ari Gold

So, I’ll reiterate that I wasn’t sure about all this, but Jeremy Piven is really good!  It helps that the character is bombastic and grandiose. He needs to act that way because, as we learn in the very first episode, he is in deep trouble with money.  He needs a lot of money, press, and publicity to make his store a hit, so he has to be more confident than he is.

The show follows Mr. Selfridge, obviously, but it is also a Downton-esque ensemble cast of high- and low-class characters. There are: his wife, who meets a (very) handsome artist at the National Gallery; the shopgirl Agnes Towler who works in the accessories department and her struggles with her brother, her father, and her suitor; other employees in the store both friendly and not; Miss Love, the actress and potential mistress for Mr. Selfridge; ruthless investors in the store; and I’m sure there will be more in later episodes.

There were a lot of interesting dynamics between classes, like any British drama worth its name.  Add to that, the genuinely interesting concept of the first true department store.  Most shops prior to this time period, especially in England, did not have displays as we do now.  There were counters, and you would go up and ask to see a specific type of glove or hat, etc.  Or, if you were wealthy, you would have a dressmaker, milliner, etc., come to your house for a fitting in your own home.  The art and hobby of shopping wasn’t the same.  Ready-to-wear clothing wasn’t the same, either.  So seeing this revolution happen in the show is intriguing.  I found the first episode really entertaining and cannot wait for the next episode.  Hopefully the quality stays the same throughout.  My only complaint is that in the intro on PBS, Laura Linney was talking about the show and described it using the following words about Mr. Selfridge: “He was the first person to know what women really want.  They want to go shopping.”

Oh, Laura Linney.  Why?  Why would you say that? Who wrote that?  Blech.

The Spies of WarsawAttention all Doctor Who fans! David Tennant is returning to our TV screens!  For a limited time only!  This is a two-part mini-series on BBC America, about a WWII era spy.  It begins in 1937, in Poland, France, and Germany.  David Tennant stars as Col. Mercier, a French ‘military attaché stationed in Poland. He alone sees the war coming, where his comrades don’t want to admit what is happening in Europe.  I don’t know much about the plot yet, but the NY Times called describes it almost as a whodunnit, more like a Christie novel than Casablanca, which it seems to want to be.  There is a love triangle, but the upcoming War is the real story of the mini-series.  Also according to the Times, despite the weaknesses in Spies of Warsaw, “there is nothing more satisfying than a prewar espionage story that shows, up close and told-you-so, how most of Europe slept through Hitler’s rise.”

It’s playing on BBC America on April 3rd and 10th, but I’m quite certain they will replay it several times over the next month or two.

Although I didn’t watch it, I should mention that the second season of Call the Midwife also premiered at the end of March. It airs every Sunday night on PBS, and is also available on their website.

Also coming soon on PBS is something I’m really excited to see: The Bletchley Circle

The Bletchley CircleThis aired last year in the UK.  Set in 1952, it follows four women who worked as code breakers at Bletchley Park (the main center for decryption/codebreaking in the UK during WWII).  If that wasn’t bad ass enough, it’s also a murder mystery. Police are overlooking a pattern in the killings, but these code-breaking badass ladies in their cardigans are smart enough to see it. It’s only a 3 part mini-series, but it sounds awesome. I love to see women in period pieces that have more to do than just swoon and get married.  The Bletchley Circle premieres on PBS on April 21st.

Looks like it’s going to be a great spring for us anglophiles!