It’s pretty easy to take a quick glance at The Bletchley Circle and think you’ve got it figured out. Combine two parts Rosemary & Thyme, one part Sherlock Holmes, one part Numbers, boil until completely devoid of flavor, add a dash of Masterpiece Theatre saccharine and a sprinkle of tut-tut-tea-time-pass-me-a-scone English inoffensiveness, and you’ve got the recipe for my impression of the series before I actually sat down to watch it. And to be frank, if not for my interest in the
Enigma and Lorenz ciphers used by Germany in World War II, and the Allied efforts to break those codes, I likely never would have watched the first episode.
But thank goodness I did, because that initial impression couldn’t have been more off-base. True, The Bletchley Circle does owe a debt to the aforementioned properties. And yes, it is unapologetically English. But rather than being just another formulaic murder-mystery series or, worse yet, another boring period drama, the first season actually manages to be a smart, well-scripted whodunnit that carves out its own identity.
Actually, to call it a whodunnit is a little misleading. Yes, on
BLETCHLEY AT A GLANCE
This British murder-mystery series is a masterclass in economical storytelling that assumes the intelligence of its audience.
The Kaleidescape download is a step up from the streaming version, mainly in its shadow depth and detail. Its 1080p presentation holds up better on screens 65″ and up.
the surface the show follows four former Bletchley Park colleagues who reunite seven years after the end of the war to get to the bottom of a series of murders that have the police baffled. And yes, they use all the tools of the codebreaking trade to analyze patterns and hone in on the elusive killer. But that’s not really what the show is about, and if you watch murder mysteries in an attempt to identify the killer before the big reveal, or to experience that “Ah ha! I should have seen it all along” moment, I’m afraid you’ll be sorely disappointed.
What The Bletchley Circle is really about is the relationships between these four women, and their attempts to find their respective places in society after contributing to the war effort and then being forbidden to reveal—even to their husbands—the role they played. What it’s about is a peculiar moment in time when a country is struggling to find its own post-war identity. It’s about the age-old struggle between masculinity and femininity and the social norms surrounding such constructs. And what makes The Bletchley Circle work is that it grapples with all of this without being overtly political or in any way heavy-handed. In lesser hands than those of writer Guy Burt (probably best-known for his work on Showtime’s The Borgias), the series could have easily devolved into the sort of Woman Good/Man Bad culture-war orthodoxy that I sympathize with politically, but always find boring in works of fiction.
Thankfully, the struggles the quartet faces as a result of being highly intelligent and highly skilled women living in a world that only knowns how to place them in secretary-, cashier-, librarian-, or housewife-shaped boxes are handled with enough nuance that the series feels true to its time and place. It doesn’t feel like a wholesale re-evaluation of the past through the
lens of current mores.
If there’s a criticism to be leveled against the first season of the show—three perfectly paced 46-ish-minute episodes that feel more like a single movie with two built-in potty breaks—it’s that the four leads occasionally feel more like archetypes than fully fleshed-out characters. In fact, at times the young Lucy (played by Sophie Rundle of Peaky Blinders and Gentleman Jack fame) feels like little more than a vehicle for her eidetic memory, which comes in handy when the plot calls for the quick recollection of dates and figures.
But such blunders are few, and on the whole The Bletchley Circle is a masterclass in economical storytelling that assumes the intelligence of its audience. Is it worth owning? I’d say yes, but only the first season, which thankfully contains a satisfying story with a proper beginning, middle, and ending. Season Two ups the production-value ante a little, and adds some color to the otherwise beige palette of Season One. It also features a somewhat more on-point storyline that ties more directly into the ladies’ time at Bletchley Park. But some sloppy scripting and puzzling anachronisms keep it from being as satisfying as Season One. My recommendation would be to check out Season Two on Amazon Prime before spending $16.99 to own it.
Season One, on the other hand, is an easy no-brainer purchase for anyone who likes a good (and I do mean good) period drama or murder mystery. The video transfer available from Kaleidescape is a step up from the streaming version on Amazon, mostly in its handling of shadow depth and detail. The streaming version also suffers from a few chromatic aberrations that might not be noticeable if you’re watching on a 65-inch TV all the way across the living room, but which definitely mar the presentation when blown up to cinematic proportions. The Kaleidescape transfer nips such problems in the bud and looks great on the big screen, even if its resolution is limited to 1080p.
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.