The Bletchley Circle… a ladies’ detective agency
It’s the much-anticipated drama about four Bletchley Park veterans who reunite to solve a murder. The Lady hears from the stars about code breaking, Sudoku - and why women make the best sleuths
T he Bletchley Circle is about to add yet another shining dimension to the current golden age of television drama. Set in 1952, it is an austere, rather than lavish, period piece, and is unusual in that it is a taut thriller centred almost exclusively around women.
Penned by Prince William’s former English teacher, Guy Burt, the three-part series tells the tale of former colleagues Susan, Millie, Lucy and Jean, who reunite to track down a serial killer. These four fictional women worked together at Bletchley Park during the war, playing a crucial role in breaking codes and ending the conflict.
Seven years later, however, they have drifted back into the humdrum of normal existence, their exceptional skills all but forgotten until a series of murders forces them to rediscover their talents and solve the mystery.
Producer Jake Lushington reveals that he ‘commissioned the drama on the spot’. The secrecies of Bletchley Park have provided inspiration for countless stories, and yet Burt’s female angle provided a fascinating and fresh take.
‘It’s about a wasted resource as much as it’s about saving people’s lives,’ Lushington explains. ‘They were very bright women working in a time when they were valued. But when the war was over they were put back in their box. Today, if women had made that much of an impact during a major war, we wouldn’t say, “Thank you very much. You can go back to suburbia now”.’
Anna Maxwell Martin plays Susan, the driving force who brings the group together after hearing about the murders on her wireless. Anna is no stranger to period drama, having graced the small screen with leading roles in Bleak House, South Riding and many others, and she knew instantly that The Bletchley Circle was something she wanted to be a part of. ‘I started reading the first couple of pages of the script and I really liked the idea and thought, “Yes, I want to do this”.’
It is evident that this talented actress has a keen interest in the foundation of the story. ‘I am captivated by that post-war period – which I studied at university – and that’s partly why I was drawn to it.’
Anna delivers an understated, insightful performance – her portrayal of Susan embodying the conflict within a generation of women: ‘That whole concept of who she becomes – this normal suburban housewife – in the post-war period after doing such an extraordinary thing during the war: I find it intriguing.’
Julie Graham, who plays the buttoned-up and by-the-book Jean, also found the role of women fascinating. ‘I always knew about Bletchley Park and Alan Turing but I wasn’t aware of the machinations of what the women did there.’ In preparing for the role, she was interested to learn more about the Official Secrets Act. ‘It amazes me that some people who worked there still won’t talk about it. Lots took the knowledge and the stuff they did to the grave.’ Jean is quite a severe and stoic character, but in relating her experience of filming the drama, actress Julie is anything but.
‘We had an absolute hoot filming this and we really did adore each other,’ she laughs. ‘You don’t often see female-led dramas in this way. I think one of the reasons it works so well is that we did have a very good chemistry, all four of us. We really got on.’ Another reason the drama feels so authentic is the attention to artistic detail. One of the locations, Susan’s house, was an immaculately maintained 1950s home, which the crew actually dirtied up to create the effect of a more sombre, post-war Britain. The scenes at Bletchley Park were filmed at the historic house itself.
The place has a real sense of celebrating Great Britain and its history,’ says Rachael Stirling, who plays the bohemian Millie. ‘There we were re-living the scenes at the site of this place that was one of the things that makes Britain Great.’
The total immersion in the atmosphere made the acting a dream and, like Anna, Rachael was determined to grab the opportunity. ‘I’m quite good at talking myself out of parts or I will read a part and think, “I know an actress who’d be brilliant for that”. But when it came to Millie I felt I could serve her best.’
Millie is the most modern woman of her day in that she has remained single after the war, travelling the world and seeking adventure. ‘She breaks the mould of what was expected of women in the 1950s,’ says Rachael, adding, ‘she is also probably quite lonely.’ Millie’s relationship with Anna Maxwell Martin’s character, Susan, lies at the heart of the story. ‘That’s what makes this different from a normal detective drama, the familiarity and history between all these women.’
Rachael comes from an acting family (her mother is Diana Rigg), and has also appeared in a number of high-profile dramas, including Tipping The Velvet, and yet she found the process of filming this one to be particularly special. ‘It’s so rare that you’re on a set that is women-orientated. Our first assistant director, who was a man, said at the end, “Ladies, I’ve learned more about the female anatomy over the course of filming than I ever thought I would. And I was present at both my daughters’ births!”’
The final actress making up the special foursome is newcomer Sophie Rundle. She has had a whirlwind year since graduating from RADA, filming scenes for Titanic, Garrow’s Law and now The Bletchley Circle. Her enthusiasm is infectious.
‘I’m having a blast,’ she beams. ‘Lots of adventures, too.’ Sophie plays the young Lucy, a character who exemplifies the notion of wasted ability. Having used her photographic memory to trace the German army during the war, Lucy has since succumbed to expectation and, by 1952, is embroiled in unhappy domesticity.
‘She gets married and doesn’t expect much. These women were often told to be subservient to their husbands. Unfortunately, Lucy’s husband takes that to a new level, and she lives with the constant fear of oppression and bullying.’ The opportunity to work again re-injects a sense of purpose into her life. ‘She’s come from a very working-class background and never expected to have the experience she got at Bletchley,’ says Sophie. ‘So when the three women come back into her life she’s overjoyed and thrilled to be part of the gang again.’ For her own part, Sophie turned to her family – ‘My grandparents also remembered the drab colours of the 1950s and how much hard work it was’ – as well as teaching herself about memory to prepare for the role. ‘I looked into eidetic (photographic) memory and it’s a real phenomenon. People have it in varying degrees, but Lucy’s is particularly strong: she’s like an early computer. I wish I had that so I could memorise things, especially scripts,’ she laughs.
It is clear all these actresses relished their roles and the insights it gave them into the past. Their friendships may have spilled over into real life, but sadly not the ability to break codes. As Anna says: ‘Susan is a mathematics expert, which is a stretch for me because I’m not. I can’t even do Sudoku.’
It is a testament to their superb acting, then, that all four women pull off the Enigma-cracking characters with such aplomb. The Bletchley Circle seamlessly combines social commentary, a touching portrait of female friendship and, of course, a gripping thriller. Sherlock had better watch out.
The Bletchley Circle will be broadcast on ITV1 at 9pm on 6 September.
Daily tip from the lady archive
"What makes leisure and holidays delightful is just the fact that they come rarely. If you can have them whenever you like they lose their nature.”The Lady. The Joy of Work. 14th May 1914
Attractive salary and benefits.
Furnished accommodation provided.
Must have excellent references.
Single or couple with partner who could assist with household and garden work.
Drivers licence required.
Must be good with pets.
Contact: Apply Box 15573