Until somewhat recently, secrecy has shrouded Bletchley Park, its activities, and its staff. Nestled in Buckinghamshire, Bletchley Park played host to the Code-breakers of WW2; heralding the birth of the information age with the industrialisation of code-breaking processes, and the development of the world’s first electronic computer. Even lesser noted, is that the women who worked at Bletchley during the War far outnumbered the men (on a ratio of almost 3:1).
At the closing of the war many of these women, who had played an integral part in intercepting and deciphering military messages, returned to their former domestic roles; bound by the Official Secrets Act to reveal nothing about their wartime occupations.
It is here that the story traced in the first series of ‘The Bletchley Circle’ (written by Guy Burt) began. A drama founded on the possible pursuits of female code-breakers frustrated in their silent return to ham-boiling and house-wifery. In this series, we watched them use their honed analytical skills collaboratively, to ensnare a serial killer. It was greeted with a positive reception, becoming ITV’s best performing drama series (from a share perspective) in 2012, picked up by American channel PBS, and trended on twitter as #ladynerds.
The commissioning of a second series, therefore, seemed natural. What seemed less natural was the progression in story-line; would these four former-Bletchley women become a super-sleuthing, crime-solving dream-team? Thankfully not. The series has avoided becoming a period-Midsomer Murders, and has instead made use of the wealth of plot-lines available in a 1950s, post-war setting. This is a thriller, not a murder mystery.
It’s now 1953, a year has passed, and the series opens with a former Bletchley worker (Olivier Award nominated Hattie Morahan), incarcerated in Holloway prison, waiting to be hanged. It is a shocking reminder of the barbarism that continued in England into the 60s and sets the tone for a series that examines the parallels and divergences of social issues at play, then and now. The woman, Alice, is to be hanged for the murder of an eminent Scientist; she offers no defence throughout her trial, and yet her Bletchley colleagues do not believe she is guilty, and set out to prove her innocence. Over the second series, the women encounter the British involvement in chemical weaponry, human trafficking and displacement. These themes transcend the period in which they are set.
Beyond the gravity of the content addressed, the predominant theme is the role of women in society. The four protagonists share the frustration and isolation as a result of their wartime work ending; significant as a period of being valued for their intelligence. Paradoxically, being women has played an important part in their investigatory success; they exploit prevailing prejudices to operate below the radar of people’s expectations. The series is not intended to confront a battle between sexes, but it presents an interesting role reversal to the usual gender placement; as Rachel Stirling (who plays Millie) proudly notes, the women are not there “to look pretty or ordinary”.
In the year that has passed between the first and second series, there are notable character developments. Lucy (Sophie Rundle) has left her marriage to an abusive man and is working in a clerical position in Scotland Yard, Millie as a translator, and Jean (Julie Graham) continues as a Librarian. Susan (Anna Maxwell Martin) demonstrates reluctance to reunite with her former colleagues and embark on another perilous adventure; still reeling in the aftermath of the danger posed to her young family previously. The relationship between these women is complex and nuanced, and provides much of the substance of the drama. As Julie Graham (Jean) put it: “the conflict between the women is rounded and real; it’s not Josie and the pussycats”.
The second series premieres on the 6th January, and will consist of two self-contained stories. It is a period-drama without being constrained to historical clichés. It is very well written, the characters are well developed and brilliantly portrayed, and the issues confronted are as pertinent today as they were in the 50s.