Anna Maxwell Martin as Susan
Julie Graham as Jean
Rachel Stirling as Millie
Sophie Rundle as Lucy
Hattie Morahan as Alice Merren
Faye Marsay, Lizzie, Alice’s daughter
Dear friends and readers,
After I watched this two season mini-series, The Bletchley Circle, and its features through twice, I felt cut off to discover there had been no third season. I just loved the lighting, color, the dark quiet costumes by Anna Robbins
and in the second feature we met a woman director, whose mother had worked in Bletchley Park, Sarah Harding:
I heard Guy Burt, the writer for all the episodes, say how he looked forward to exploring the changes in the women from their surrounding world over the next decade, with Jake Lushington (executive director, both seasons), talking of further plans for development of these womens’ lives. I wonder what had happened. Had the ratings not been sufficiently high, really? The history of these women who had worked heroically during WW2, been kept silent for years after, had been respected, talked about, watched — above all by women. From reading about the chequered history of even a tremendously successful series, Poldark, I know mini-series costume dramas can be cancelled by individuals out of personal tastes or a sense of their own power: they prefer something else.
Perhaps that was it: someone who couldn’t believe there was an audience for, or disliked a woman-centered detective show which was built out of the lives of five women, all of whom had been a team during World War Two, had come together to solve crimes that hurt women. I loved its recreation of the feel of England in the 1950s, and its depiction of these relatively powerless women seeking justice for one another, safety, space for themselves to fulfill their identities.
Allow a friend, herself a blogger at Jane Austen and women writers, who recommended it to me first, explain:
Last night, my husband and daughter and I watched the first season (three episodes) of a BBC series called Bletchley Circle, I would highly recommend for its woman-centered pov, and its decency, empathy and compassion. It stars the same woman who played Elizabeth Bennett in the televised version of the murder mystery sequel to P&P by PD James: Anna Maxwell Martin.
Martin as Susan in closing moments of first story, coming home
It is about (for those who haven’t seen it) four women who worked together at Bletchley Park doing decoding during WWII–each has a particular skill she brings to bear. Since the end of the war, they have been sworn to secrecy and have taken on ordinary lives–two are married, one with children, one oppressively with an abusive man,
Rundle as Lucy ironing his shirts
one is a waitress
Stirling as Millie, a waitress renewing her friendship for the first time in years with Susan
and one is a librarian.
Graham as Julie stamping books
They come together to try to find a serial killer. I found the three episodes extraordinary–the women show real compassion for and identification with the murdered women–they are not “hardboiled,” they don’t turn away with a veneer of hardness from these victims. We see sexism completely through a woman’s lens–it is an obstacle the four women constantly have to work around–and they do. Ritual humiliation is always a threat, but it doesn’t define them–in other words, unlike heroines from Catherine Morland to Emma to the female protag in I’ve Got Mail they don’t have to undergo a “purification” of humiliation at the hands of a male into to be made properly fit up (abject) for marriage or other entree into the male world. The humiliation–and it is there, for example, in the suggestion of the waitress’s boss that he will give her time off (to pursue the murders) if she has sex with him–but the woman sidestep it adroitly, competently–it becomes something like a traffic jam, something you navigate.
Susan seen sewing — also cooking, playing with children, shopping, at the dinner she provides
There is real pain in this series too–the pain of the lead character’s good (but not good enough) marriage to a “kind” man, the pain of these women having to hide their talents, an undercurrent of loss and lost possibilities–I kept thinking Virginia Woolf would have appreciated this series. It’s set in the early 1950s, and although I wasn’t born yet, the ambience felt right to me. I don’t know if women were involved in producing this series–I will look that up–but I wouldn’t be at all surprised.
A typical shot of the group in first season
In the first season’s story, “Breaking the Killer Code,” what stung me in Susan’s case is how again and again her help to officials is dismissed unless she fits into what they are thinking, and in one case her help is being used to find the wrong man (set up by the murderer). Each time any of them take time off to do her own thing — this project — they are missed, complained to, where have you been? hemmed in, punished, beaten, Millie fired. Susan’s husband trivializes her gifts by offering to keep her well supplied with cross-word puzzles. Lucy has been beaten by her husband many times, is frightened of him,
but with these friends who use her gifts rightly who give her a task worth doing, she escapes him.
As the program ended, we have seen the murderer see the four women trying to capture him and so when Susan (our true central heroine, Anna Maxwell Martin) does make her way to the right place, a mental hospital and the door opens and we see that face and he lets her in and the doors closes, it is a shock. She does manage to flee him but it is her first real evidence who the killer is.
Lucy goes to live with Millie who we see has traveled, had adventures, and now supports herself partly by quiet prostitution and black market dealing — and dresses colorfully yet not overdone at all.
Jean is someone the world identifies as a spinster type, she was the office manager in the war; now she is liberated into independence, a quiet life alone, implicitly a lesbian. We see her blackmail another woman now in charge of a group which supervises secret papers for the gov’t in order to help her friends stop the serial killer. The way the woman at first lies and then is forced to tell the truth is riveting because she’s being bullied by Jean; their friendship we are to feel was never more than surface connection:
We see how the atmosphere of demanding keeping secrets is so pernicious to human relationships but keeping secrets itself is not impugned. Later Susan visits a man at the head of another group who has secrets to keep — good old Simon Williams still going, still an aristocratic type (he was James Bellamy in Upstairs Downstairs)
and in his dialogue with Susan the doctrine of keeping secrets is held up as a way of protecting people from the point of view of you don’t inform on people.
Lucy is recognized by the writers as the victim type: the woman dress her up as decoy or the murderer and I felt intense anxiety over her — they were forced to risk her safety.
In the US this kind of nuanced presentation is not possible. We have impoverished art and films because the reactionaries rule what is presented and for the most part women are presented super-sexed up, or over masculinized. Housewives are presented as hostile to their husbands.
I was drawn to the many quiet shots of these women at work together or in a reading group:
Lucy’s hand turning pages as she memorizes
A repeated group scene from the second season
There was a falling away in the second year. First Anna Maxwell Martin left half-way through. As a type Martin appeals deeply to me. In watching Death Comes to Pemberley frankness compels me to admit that I love especially Martin; I love seeing her inhabit Elizabeth and thus change the contours of the character. I thought she was all that Esther Summerson in Davies’s Bleak House could be. When she left something important was lost for me. She is celebrated in this pastoral shot of her contemplative:
In second season’s first story, “Blood on Their Hands,” Susan has become unnerved by the first experience, and has stayed away from her friends, and she is dragged in, intensely reluctantly because a new old friend, Hattie Morahan, as Alice Merran, has allowed herself to be found guilty of a murder she didn’t do in order to prevent the police from inditing her daughter, Lizzie. In the first season we learned that Susan had gotten pregnant before marriage, and opted for her conventional life rather than travel with Millie as they had dreamed; now we see that Susan’s choice of retreat and living through quiet strength with others whom she loves and love her is part of her nature.
Millie and Susan bid adieu
Mother-and-daughter and female friendship strains are a central woman’s theme, so too family life. So Alice and Lizzy as a family replace the bourgeois group of Susan, her husband, and their two children, when he takes a better job in Bombay, and she finds that she can find a real job there alongside him, and can avoid sending her children to boarding school if they take the children with them. Hattie Morahan is one of my favorite actresses, and she was brilliant as the shattered isolated woman who actually had an illegitimate child she was not able to bring up, but now is desperately working to save, and then when the true murderer is discovered, building a new relationship with.
Parallel moment: Alice and Lizzie come together.
The problem is Alice’s sacrifices are over-the-top, and a new note of slightly meretricious hysteria enfeebles the stoic mood of the first year. OTOH, a political touch was the murderer was a fanatic anti-communist who had been a fascist in the war.
Millie tells Hattie and Lucy what she has discovered in a contraband warehouse
The second and as it turned out, last story of this mini-series, “Uncustomed Goods,” had Millie and Hattie first, and then with Lucy (now working at Scotland yard, a position worthy her gifts), Julie (still a librarian), rescue a group of trafficked women from a life of abusive prostitution in the UK itself. It made me uncomfortable that the chief villain was a seething brothel and black-market madam type, though it may be probable, and certainly kept the women-centered nature of the stories intact. Nonetheless, they needed the help of a brotherly male in power or with access to information; Tim Piggot-Smith replaced Simon Williams for this function:
The corpses have become bloodier, more mutilated too. I suspect the melancholy undertow plus the frankness about how women are made victims by their society — it’s not clear these immigrant women will do well now — did not find favor with those who want an upbeat story. It’s obvious they were laying a groundwork for another season: the man in Scotland Yard who has been colluding with the corrupt woman who is trafficking women and running black market deals looks very angry at Lucy and we see that a romance is beginning between and other employee in Scotland Yard.
The costume designer did not keep up the somber colors quite as much, and there were many more shots of the women in parks. In Fashioning the Nation: Costume Drama and Identity in British Cinema, Pam Cook showed that bleak outfits and dark lower middle-looking streets are not realistic but rather symbolic of a self-controlled mood of acceptance of what is. People love the flamboyant dress of the older costume dramas not because the costumes are believable, but because they stand for dreams of desire fulfilled. The second season was inching towards more typical costume drama: in the US Mad Men, set in the 1950s, the women are dressed in scrumptious concoctions of crinoline and flounces. I have a preference for the first, a Brief Encounter look myself — I allude to the 1940s movie of self-sacrifice by train with Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson, an Anna Maxwell Martin type) look myself.
Not that it was not done tastefully and with an eye towards commemorating this Bletchley Circle women:
A recreation of an actual picnic a group of Bletchley women had — there’s an extant photograph imitated here
The feature had a Bletchley Park woman who is still alive tell of her experience, her silence for 30 years, and her satisfaction to be appreciated now
We still had these passing moments of sustained fulfilled endeavour:
At someone’s kitchen or working table
The woman are in a group, they don’t operate alone — but in some scenes to see them walking along in their high-heeled pumps, handbags on arms, through bomb sites, wrecked neighborhoods, seems improbable — would they not call attention to themselves? In her invaluable study (as no other has gone on to develop her idea seriously), The Girl Sleuth, Bobbie Ann Mason says the early twentieth century girl detective fiction has girl sleuths working in a group, often of 4, never alone. A growth or change which occcured around 1940 was to allow a woman to work alone, independently, like Nancy Drew, Judy Bolton. Mason is dismayed to find that once again in 1972 this group formation has returned to girl detective fiction, as if it cannot be conceived a woman can act firmly on her own. In The Bletchley Circle we feel they need one another because it’s dangerous their quest, and also we see how vulnerable they are to their society ejecting them and men’s violence, but still the group being necessary is there again. Mason wrote her book before we began to see men’s detective fiction evolve to give the famous detective a female side-kick (like Joan Warton in Elementary with Johnny Lee Miller as Sherlock).
The explanation which feels more satisfying to me is that the society watching these films printing these books does not want to see women alone. They want to see them in groups, to reinforce what modern women psychologists say is the relational nature of women’s psyches.Some studies suggest the hostile portrayal of the Renaissance Queen Elizabeth I derives from her having lived so independently. The anomaly is not wanted or appreciated. In Moore’s book she is endlessly showing her lesbians in a group It may be that women naturally form groups: at the bottom of society, when women are hired as cleaning women they form teams, work with the same women each day, and naturally begin to identify as something like families; men on the other hand, wait on corner streets and are picked out to join a truck one at a time for that day; tomorrow they will be with a wholly different group of individuals. Women would not do well with this. So this group detective story replicates a woman’s sense of what’s important, what she’s comfortable with, enjoys too.
The favorite spot in both seasons, all three stories is the bowels of Julie’s library