bookgazing: (feministponies)
[personal profile] bookgazing posting in [community profile] ladybusiness
Picture of The Bletchley Circle main cast from series one and two

I know, I know - it seems like only yesterday I was trying to convince you to get your heart broken by investing in a kick-ass TV program that was cancelled far too early. And here I am poking you to watch another cancelled series that has absolutely no hope of being revived. Quit it, Jodie, you say, just quit it.

I think I can win you round though. Yes, even though there are only seven episodes to watch. Yes, even though the actress playing the protagonist left half way through the second series. Yes, even though – look, are we going to have a problem here?!

Anyway, here are five good reasons why I you think I should latch on to "The Bletchley Circle".

1. You’ve Always Wanted This Program

"The Bletchley Circle" is a television mystery drama miniseries, set in 1952, about four women who used to work as codebreakers at Bletchley Park.

"The Bletchley Circle" could easily have been created as an answer to that typical Tumblr cry: “Where is my show about female best friends solving mysteries and cracking codes and shit?” Here it is, right here. Bonus – the women working on the mysteries know each other because they worked together at Bletchley Park, during WWII. Millie, Susan and Lucy used to crack Nazi codes, while Jean ran their division. Alice Merren, who joins in the second series, worked on maintaining the first computers, which were used to break these codes.

Hell. Yeah.

In series one (which is really an extended pilot, consisting of three hour long episodes) Susan, played by Anna Maxwell Martin, goddess of the period drama, reassembles her colleagues to try and bring a murderer to justice. Bored in her civilian life, and forced to hide her government work from her husband because she signed the official secrets act, Susan has been treating the murder case as a huge private mental exercise. Her murder puzzle board is almost as cool as Carrie Mathison’s wall of secrets. When Susan believes she’s cracked the murderer’s pattern shit gets real and, after a bad lead which damages her credibility with the police, she needs to call on the expertise of other Bletchley women.

Sounds cool right? Wait, we’ve only just begun.

2. Friendships and Shipping Potential

One of the women that Susan contacts is Millie, her best friend from another life time. Long, long ago Millie and Susan were planning to go and see the world together. That is, until Susan, like, totally ditched her for a boy!

Even though the two rebuild their relationship over the course of this series, the spectre of Susan’s abandonment hangs over them. Their friendship was important and Susan treated her best friend badly – you can’t sort that out in a few days. This is what I want to see more of; all kinds of female friendships complete with problems and joys. Even though fandom can add its own stories now that the program is over, I’m still upset about how short lived Bletchley Park was because there won’t be any more new visual material of Susan and Millie just being around each other. These two actresses totally played off each other and sold their friendship.

It’s not until Susan is preparing to leave in the second series that she properly apologises for leaving Millie to go off and see the world on her own. The script gives Susan the most unbearably gorgeous, emotive apology line and their exchange totally rings the ship’s bell:

“Part of me has always felt that I’m running after you, trying to catch the train.”

Although Susan and Millie are friends not lovers in canon, I predictably ended up responding to this admission as a lover’s terrible romantic comment. I wished so hard that her husband would die before she left for Europe with him, but alas, actors dictate story sometimes and Anna Maxwell Martin left for other jobs.

However, even though Susan leaves the show has other female friendships, for example Alice and Millie start hanging out. And this show had so much potential for even moar great friendship play. Jean is revealing her stern protective side, and Lizzie would make a great friend for Lucy. So unfairly cut down in its prime *sobs* Ah well, fandom will just have to get busy making more stories.

3. Women (Plural) At the Top of Their Game

Of course, I’m not here to dwell on the sad cancellation of this series. I’m explaining why you might love this show just as much as I do. Let me get started on that third reason!

"The Bletchley Circle" is a historical drama all about smart women using their smarts. The main cast contains women who are analysts, technicians, mathematicians, linguists and one woman who has an eidetic memory (tropes are cool). All of them have worked in high pressure situations preserving their country’s security. All of them get to use their particular skills to good advantage in this drama when they start investigating crimes. And, importantly, there’s a them; a team of several women who like each other. It’s a multitude of smart women. Oh, my heart.

I am fascinated by super skilled academic women. There’s something very alluring about the idea of a woman in a library working away at a problem and enjoying the thrill of solving it. "The Bletchley Circle" is a drama that never tires of practically throwing smart women at you and having them delight in their skill and knowledge, but it’s also a drama that acknowledges the potential disconnect between theory and practise. In order to deepen the emotional side of the program there are often realistic consequences when its cast go chasing down a puzzle.

Bletchley never quite tips into chastising its women for following their curiosity, even though it comes close in the second series - Millie is attacked before she manages to catch a sex trafficker and save another women. However, it does remind viewers that crime isn’t just a big entertaining puzzle and that following a thread or failing to unravel it in time has real consequences. The way it treats crime puzzles stands in contrast to programs like "Sherlock" and "The Mentalist".

4. Just a Little Bit of History

It’s always encouraging to see historical drama focus on female lives, but I have a particular soft spot for drama which concentrate on dispelling stories about ‘llamas’. Dramas which show that women were closely involved in WWII always give me a thrill because the female contribution to this war is so often ignored.

There are fantastic stories like "The Night Watch" and non-fiction books like "Spitfire Women of WWII" that are trying to push people to see the different ways women have contributed to war efforts, but it still feels as if these stories are too easily batted aside by the majority of people. I was so excited to see a TV drama acknowledge the real life work women did at Bletchley Park and add another piece of storytelling to the valuable collection of stories about what women did in the war.

Every time we saw a flashback to Bletchley days I desperately wanted more detail about that time in their lives. I wanted work days and midnight sessions and team leader discussions. A prequel film would have been so great.

5. These People’s Faces!

Anna Maxwell Martin quickly became one of my favourite actresses during her magnificent performance in "South Riding". And for the brief time that she and Hattie Morahan shared the screen in "The Bletchley Circle" I was floating on air. Both actresses have such expressive faces and they craft specific body language which adds to the way they create characterisation. Maxwell holds a lot of tension in her jaw and her shoulders when she plays Susan. Morahan uses those amazing wide eyes to convey horror, sorrow and fear, and she also uses her hands to transmit Alice’s feelings.

Really though, all the actresses are wonderful. Of course, Rachel Stirling is my joint third favourite as she oozes sass and confidence as Millie. Who doesn’t love fierce, brave, daring Millie who went out and saw the world without her best friend beside her? There need to be all the stories about her adventuring and fighting to get the best job she can after Bletchley.

Sophie Rundle, Julie Graham, Faye Marsay (who is doing so well for herself with roles now) and Brana Bajic, who joins as a female mob boss in the second series, have all brought very different, particular women to life in this series. I’m sad there won’t be more of these wonderful female characters doing things on my screen. Tangent note - I’m also kind of sad I won’t get to see their signature coats anymore. It was such a lovely touch giving each woman her own stand out style and having their clothes make a pop of dusky colour that both fit in with the subdued colours of the series and stood out.

There you go – five solid reasons to try this short lived period drama. And if my words weren’t enough to tempt you then I’ll let the bonus supplementary materials the internet has created for this show reel you in.


The AV Club
Hello Tailor
Pop Matters

Supplementary Materials

Hello Tailor - The Bltchley Circle, Part 2: Costume Design
Morsecode - A Fanmix for The Bletchley Circle
Archive of Our Own - The Bletchley Circle Fanworks Tag
Turn to Stone - A Fanvid for The Bletchley Circle

Date: 2014-06-06 06:45 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
So much love for this series and these characters. Agree so much with everything you say.

And yet there's a thing that haunts me - even more so now that the series has been cancelled and has officially ended on that note. I really, really wish there hadn't been such blatant xenophobic undertones to the second plot arc in season two. The way they handled it put me in mind of Sherlock EP2S1, which just... argh. I just can't help but scream internally when I see yet another story about evil gangs of immigrant criminals, especially in the current political climate; when I see another scene where a language other than English is used to signal a sense of threat and unease; when I watch another set of characters who are primarily defined in terms of their otherness, and whose otherness is lazily used as shorthand for their evil (every time Millie referred to them as "the Maltese" I wanted to cry).

I guess in the end it comes down to representation yet again. Some people might say "oh, but immigrants do form criminal gangs sometimes" - which yes, just like I know that fake rape allegations are not a thing that's never ever happened in the history of the universe, that there have been child abusers who are gay, and so on and so on. But to me it doesn't matter that these things have (rarely) happened - just that they've become the predominant narratives we tell about certain groups of people, and that they're harmful ones that are overused to justify horrifying politics. It makes me so exhausted and sad to think of my beloved Bletchley going there.

Date: 2014-06-06 09:59 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
Well yes, race is a real issue and white privilege is a thing and this is not something I'm ever going to try to deny. Racial inequality in the criminal justice system is staggering and of course that the media amplifies narratives that feed into that. Criminals who are not white are always going to be demonized to a much greater extent than white ones. I acknowledge all of this, but having said that, I've seen plenty of media references to "gangs" of Eastern Europeans, and headlines containing the words "Migrant Killer" that turn out to refer to Polish or Latvian or other white men. White immigrants have way more privilege than non-white immigrants, but you can have privilege over another group and still stand outside the sphere of cultural legitimacy, and this is something I'm always going to want to talk about because it's important to me. I've always been silent, even within our safe feminist space, about the kind of tensions people like me or my partner experience because I worry terribly about being appropriative; but I don't think reminding myself constantly that a lot of people have it a lot worse than us and shutting up is particularly useful. I mean, that's also true of all my experiences of sexism because I'm a cis woman and a white woman, and yet it's important for me to be able to have conversations about my experiences and struggles and frustrations with media representation, even though I know I'm pretty high up the privilege scale as far as women go.

tl;dr yes, racism is worse than xenophobia, but xenophobia is part of my experience and it's important to me to talk about it. I guess I'm just still figuring how to do it.

Date: 2014-06-06 10:36 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
Oh god, no, I don't mean that *you* want me to shut up! *hugs* I mean that I have in the past because of the aforementioned worries about appropriation. Sorry, that comment sounded way more ranty than I meant it to, but it's not ranty at you, promise - it's just all the pent up frustration about how difficult it's been for me to find the right words to voice these experiences because they're so liminal. Does that make sense? Anyway, you have nothing whatsoever to be sorry about. It just happened that talking about this caused a lot of buried stuff to surface and suddenly I had a words explosion.

xenophobic undertones

Date: 2014-06-07 07:53 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)

Regarding your thoughts about xenophobic content, such as references to "the Maltese":

I think you need to bear in mind that the show is set in the 1950s. If the writers made things politically correct or more evolved by today's standards it would've been odd. And I say that as a member of a group who sometimes get referred to in similar stereotypical fashion over the decades and into today.

Re: xenophobic undertones

Date: 2014-06-08 10:03 am (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
Jodie put it perfectly.

And just to be completely clear, I didn't resent Millie as a character at all for referring to the villains as "the Maltese", and I do understand how that designation would crop up within the context the writers have established (though why they felt the need to tell this particular story is, as Jodie says, really the main question). But if I take a step back and look at it from a wider cultural criticism angle, what I see is a designation that reinforces the characters' foreignness, that makes it their primary trait (or even really the only trait that's given any emphasis), and that remains completely unchallenged.

You could argue that there are sympathetic foreign characters too, like the girls being trafficked, but a) although stories about sex trafficking are really important and need telling, there's something to be said about dividing immigrant women into two fields only: evil criminal masterminds or girls who were tricked into leaving their country and then became victims of horrible crimes. We need more stories and better representation than this. And b) I don't recall the girls ever being referred to as "the [insert nationality here]", even though they were also being discussed by characters from the 1950s who might have had prejudices that were more prevalent then. They were called by their name and humanised - as they should be, but that's another thing that goes to show how the series lets the link it establishes between "otherness" and villainy go unchallenged.

time warp

Date: 2014-06-06 07:22 pm (UTC)
egret: egret in Harlem Meer (Default)
From: [personal profile] egret
I only watched the first season because the 2nd season didn't grab me the same way. But what I loved about the first season was how they showed a pre-feminist culture: the evident frustration of brilliant women with no professional outlets for their work, the condescension and dismissal when they try to present their ideas or fears to officials, they way they use their subaltern status to work undetected. It had great cultural commentary in its small social details.
From: (Anonymous)
Lady Business, you now have a new follower (me).

This made me smile, and think. Also enjoyed the comments. Have shared this blog post at The Bletchley Circle Watchers fan-run fanpage

Also, fans please note:

If you are unhappy that ITV has announced that it will not continue The Bletchley Circle, you can contact that channel, and sign an online petition. Info and links here:
Share it, tweet it, pass it on, spread the word!

#TBCW ‪#‎SaveLadynerds‬

~ The Bletchley Circle Watchers - a fan-run fanpage @

Date: 2016-01-10 06:10 pm (UTC)
jadelennox: Girlyman, Doris and Ty as little girls: "girly" (girlyman: girly)
From: [personal profile] jadelennox
I found this old post of yours while I was looking for a link to the Turn to stone vid and it is such a great description of everything that is wonderful about the show!


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