I’ve recently watched the three episodes of this new TV series. I’m a fan of Robert Harris’s Enigma, which is set at Bletchley Park, and of Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, which also deals with code breaking, so I was looking forward to seeing how the writers would pick up the Bletchley themes in the early post-war period. But overall I was disappointed, and again found reading was a more satisfactory experience than watching.
The series opens with a group of young women doing some code breaking during the war at Bletchley Park. It then moves to 1952. One of the group, Susan, now married with two children, believes that she can see a pattern in the murders of a number of women which the police have not so far connected. She puts her theory to the police, but they find nothing where she suggests they look for another body. So she turns to her Bletchley Park friends to help her prove the connection – and find the murderer.
There are some nice visual effects in the series. Those I liked best were the shots of the ‘Enigma’ rotor machines, whose signals were decrypted at Bletchley Park, and the ‘Bombes’ working away on the decryption. The setting was, as usual in British period dramas, well done, with food, clothing and hairstyles, buildings, transport and so on all looking authentic. Social attitudes, such as the condescension shown to women, also ring true. But as in so many TV crime series, an initial good idea and a well rendered setting don’t make up for a weak plot.
Because the plot is very weak. And I’m not even sure about the initial good idea. For a start, though 80% of the staff who worked at at Bletchley Park during the war were women, as far as I can ascertain, few if any worked as code breakers. They were, as might be expected, employed in administrative and clerical positions, filing, and what we would now call data entry. Harris has got this right in Enigma. Hester Wallace was recruited because she won a crossword competition – and this was indeed one method of recruitment of code breakers. But to her frustration, she finds herself working at routine and boring tasks, while her less able male colleagues get the more interesting jobs. The code breaking mathematicians in Cryptonomicon are all male; the ‘demure girls’ are ‘obediently shuffling reams of gibberish through their machines, shift after shift, day after day’. That there should be a group of young women actually breaking the codes, as we see happening at the beginning of the series, defies belief.
The way the group arrives at conclusions is never made clear. There’s talk of patterns, and drawings with arrows on them, and it’s apparently mostly a process of elimination, though how they handle a large amount of information without the mechanical help available at Bletchley is not explained. One of the group, conveniently, has an extraordinary memory, but that alone doesn’t account for how they arrive at their findings. It is simply glossed over. They also decide on the sort of person who might have committed the crimes on the basis of their Bletchley experience, though Bletchley’s role was to break codes used in communications, not the identification of individual spies. And I don’t think that factor analysis – a phrase Susan murmurs at one point – was ever used at Bletchley. I could be wrong, of course.
Then there is the element of coincidence in the story. Spoiler alert. Look away now if you don’t want to know anything about what happens. At one crucial point, Susan is going in search of information from a hospital about a former patient; it just so happens that the person she is looking for is there at exactly the same time. Really?
Having said I this, I note that other people don’t agree with me. Variety, an entertainment trade paper, thought it was ‘smart, addictive and situated in a fascinating historical moment’ – though it doesn’t say what was so fascinating about 1952. And a second series is being made, so it must have captured a sizable audience. Come to think of it, I watched all three episodes. But it’s annoying to watch something called ‘The Bletchley Circle’ only to find it has nothing to do with what actually went on at Bletchley Park.