Friday, May 31, 2013

The Power of Four: Musings on The Bletchley Circle

As I think I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog I have been a long time devotee of Sunday's Masterpiece Theatre and Masterpiece Mystery, formerly known as Mystery, which once upon a time ran on PBS on Thursday nights. I watched Upstairs Downstairs (ITV, 1971-1975) when it was first broadcast nationally on PBS in the mid-1970s and have, save for a period in the 1980s and 1990s when I didn't have a television, watched PBS on Sunday quite regularly.

I have been heartened to see that the recent success Masterpiece has had with the ok if addictive Downton Abbey (ITV) and the excellent Sherlock (BBC, 2010-) has led the network to branch out into further British fictional programming by showing Call the Midwife (BBC, 2012-) before Masterpiece on Sunday and The Bletchley Circle (ITV, 2012-) after Masterpiece's Mr. Selfridge (ITV, 2013) recently. Of the superb Call the Midwife, the very good Mr. Selfridge, and The Bletchley Circle it has been Bletchley which has been my recent favourite among PBS's wonderful British Sunday night lineup.

There are a number of reasons why Bletchley has been my favourite though some of these reasons also apply equally to Call the Midwife, Mr. Selfridge, and to other shows like Foyle's War (ITV, 2002-), the most recent series of which will appear on Masterpiece Mystery this fall. I am a history nut and Bletchley nicely captures the ambiance and atmosphere of its time. Bletchley's historical costumes are magnificent. Bletchley is superbly and intelligently written. Bletchley is superbly filmed. I loved the circle motifs that ran throughout the show including in the show's music. Bletchley's actors are superb including Upstairs Downstairs alumnus Simon Williams who plays the head of Bletchley's psychological warfare unit who does take the circle seriously.

What, for me, made Bletchley particularly appealing beyond its fine writing, outstanding cinematography, and superb mise en scène, was its girl power, something which, as one reviewer of Call the Midwife, notes, can also be said of Call the Midwife, "that", as she writes, "mythical unicorn of a show, the one that has a mainly female cast, with diverse characters, women who aren’t defined by their relationships with men, and a high quality of production". Bletchley's circle of women are four, Susan (Anna Maxwell Martin), Millie (Rachael Stirling, Diana Riggs's daughter), Lucy (Sophie Rundle), and Jeanall (Julie Graham), all of whom served in secret at the famed Bletchley Park deciphering World War II German secret messages. Now that the war is over and Britain has returned to domestic bliss, for some, and domestic hell for others, a serial killer has stirred the intellectual passions of our Bletchley circle from, in two cases, their not so domestic bliss, in another, a monastic like library retreat, and, in still another, a life on the bohemian margins of polite society, to life, in order to track him down using their skills of doing puzzles, mapping, memorisation, and leadership. Along the way they encounter husbands who don't understand them, husbands who abuse them, male employers who want to manipulate them, men who don't take them seriously or only partly seriously, and a serial killer who is as intelligent as they are.

There is so much to love about The Bletchley Circle. I loved that the women are nerds but are not the stereotyped and caricatured nerds of so many American television shows these days including that dreadful mediocrity The Big Bang Theory (CBS, 2007), a show the innovative and smart nerd sitcom Spaced (Channel 4, 1999-2001) is vastly superior to. I loved the nicely built up roller coaster ride to the end. When I saw the first episode on PBS I couldn't wait for the next so went directly to Youtube and watched the remaining two ITV episodes. I loved the portrayal of the research the circle did and their skills at doing research, a positive portrayal of the power of research and analysis that reminded me so much of the positive portrayal of research and nerdy research skills in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (WB, 1997-2001, UPN, 2001-2003), a show I much loved for many of the same reasons I loved The Bletchley Circle. But most of all, I think I loved the feminist girl power aspect of the Bletchley circle, the girl power of four intellectually powerful and deeply humane women working together who would not let anything stand in their way of stopping a serial killer from murdering woman after woman and setting up patsies to take the fall, patsies the police were sure were the murderers despite the protestations of Susan. Finally, I love that Bletchley has been commissioned for a second series by ITV.

And now for something slightly different, I have been trying to ascertain whether the PBS DVD release of The Bletchley Circle is the original UK edition or the PBS broadcast version. I want an answer to this question because I have heard that PBS may have made a few cuts to the original British version because of the supposedly "sordid" nature of a few of the scenes. American over the air television even at the 10 pm hour Sunday slot still has to operate within certain puritanical bounds in the 21st century. I say may have cuts because though I watched both the ITV original and the PBS broadcast versions I didn't recall the ITV version well enough to compare and contrast the two. I wrote PBS but while they answered my initial inquiry, as they did when I inquired about archival materials they might have on a BBC show Masterpiece Theatre broadcast in the 1970's, the superb Shoulder to Shoulder (1974), a show about the history of the suffragist movement in the UK, and they promised aid, they never wrote back. So I still have no answer to my question. This question matters to me because it will determine whether I buy the Acorn UK The Bletchley Circle or the PBS release. I have, you see, an all region DVD player as should every cinephile worth his or her filmhead salt should.


  1. Great points, Ronald. Enjoyed. See you soon @
    I hope!

  2. Did you figure out the Acorn vs PBS DVD issue? Please advise. And brief me on all region DVD players -- briefly. Or else I'll get bogged in tech talk. :)

  3. BTW, I admin if you haven't gathered that yet. Enjoyed the comments and posts you've done.
    There is so much about TBC to think/discuss about that it's hard to know what to pick sometimes, so I try to mix it up topic-wise -- reviews, fashion, profiles etc.

  4. Lara,

    I still haven't figured out the DVD issue. I have still had no response from PBS. I am going to get the Acorn DVD from the UK. I have long been a fan of Acorn and the job they do with their UK and US DVD's

    1. Ron, if you do ever do get the PBS thing figured out, make a post on The Bletchley Circle Watchers, please. .. And re "all region DVD player"?

  5. You can get an all region DVD player from in the US. Put in all region DVD player in the search box. I got a Philips that I had to reprogramme--the instructions for doing it were in the Amazon comments box--for around $50 dollars. I love having it because sometimes it is much less expensive to buy British shows from Amazon.UK than Amazon.US.

  6. Ron, today I posted a link 'Huffington Post's TV critic Maureen Ryan counts The Bletchley Circle among "Subversive Genre Fare" 'which I think you'd enjoy.


  7. Thanks Lara, I did enjoy reading it...