The Bletchley Circle

ITV’s new crime thriler, The Bletchley Circle, ticks all the boxes for me…

You can watch it, here

The story is set just after WW2 and against a backdrop of general austerity – it shares the visual style, colour palette, and fashion-sense of Foyle’s War. Tweedy coats, cardigans, wild-garden bombsites and railway trains are right-up-my-street.

The main, female, protagonists of the story were previously colleagues in the secret stuff at Bletchley Park during WW2. They use their data processing skills, pattern recognition and super-memory to solve a series of murders in the London suburbs.

One of the best things about the story is that it refutes the idea of random. The killings seem to have no rhyme or reason – in terms of location and victim – except that the girls are all sexually assaulted, after they have been murdered!

It’s really important to refute the idea of random in life. It’s especially important if you are involved in solving crime or preventing violence. Very little is random – the modern usage of the word is just a lazy way of saying that we haven’t thought about it and worked out the connections. In fact, it’s an admission of ignorance.

Bletchley Park was the code-breaking centre of the British war effort. Nowadays, it is famous as the location where Alan Turing and Tommy Flowers built the first electronic problem-solving machines. Google are supporting Bletchley as the birthplace of modern computing! Incidentally, it’s well worth a visit.

Of course, the women aren’t taken seriously – it’s not their place – and they aren’t allowed to mention how amazingly intelligent they are to their male partners and bosses (official secrets). There’s a consistent theme of condescending patronisation towards the women throughout.

There’s a clear sense of social tension as the women of WW2 reposition themselves for ordinary life, its frustrations and numbing routines. To be fair, this is evident for the male characters too. But the women are especially frustrated by the limitations of their various roles as wives, mothers and home-makers.

A few people have suggested that this problem is at the heart of the drama. I’m sure that’s right.  The difficulty is dramatising this problem of post-war frustration within the limits of prime-time TV genres. I thought the murder mystery genre worked pretty well.

In fact, it’s difficult to think of another genre that would have worked so well. The whole point is that the historical context was all about women being forced back into the home and their traditional roles. The world of work was much more limited, for everyone, back then and the idea of these women setting up some kind of commercial enterprise wouldn’t have worked in relation to their home lives and partners.

Even the off-piste sleuthing in the film is problematic enough in relation to the Police and to the men at home.

The women work independently and on the edges of the usual police procedural. That’s OK, we’re familiar with the form from Agatha Christie, where Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple do the same; and from Conan Doyle, where Sherlock Holmes lends a hand to the police.

The amateur sleuth, private investigator and retired police officer are staples of the crime mystery genre. There’s a perception that the police are institutionally corrupted by the political interference of city hall etc, and that’s without all the usual “bent copper” malarky.

The women quickly find that the connecting thread which provides the pattern, that will reveal the killer, is the railway timetable. Specifically, the slow-train out of St Pancras!

The film didn’t really go into detail about how they managed this. There just seemed to be a lot of brain power and tea. Nevertheless, the connections between railways, train timetables, murder and code-breaking was just too good to be true. In the film, the connection was made evident as they traced the line of the railway with a borrowed red lipstick.

In case you think all this is a bit far-fetched, you should remember that murder and the railway have been connected from the beginning. In London and as recently as the 1980s, the North London line provided a backdrop to the vile attacks of John Duffy and David Mulcahy.

One of the sub-plots here is the danger that accrues to women being out-and-about on their own. The railway carriage was, from the first, understood as a place were men and women could meet and talk beyond the usual controlling mechanism of society. This made travelling exciting; and potentially dangerous.

Of course, the mere suggestion of danger has usually been a simple ruse to keep people at home. A modern re-iteration of “here be dragons.” The reality is that the most horrible things often happen at home. my advice is to get out more; but to keep your wits about you.

You can read my previous posts, if you’re interested, about the connections between railways, murder, timetables and so on. Just scroll down the blog.

I’m looking forward to the next episode already.

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