The BBC has been creating outstanding content recently, equal to or better than the production value of any U.S. TV. With shows like “Sherlock” and “Downton Abbey”, the BBC is redefining the not only what’s possible with TV, but as the trend continues, what will come to be expected. And “The Bletchley Circle” is no exception.
[EDITED 2015-01-15: Thanks to a commenter for pointing out "The Bletchley Circle" was commissioned by ITV, not the BBC]
“The Bletchley Circle” revolves on the lives of four women who worked at Bletchley Park during World War II.
This requires a bit of a primer.
German submarines were called U-boats. They were essentially invisible because we hadn’t perfected sonar. They were deadly because they would show up without warning fire launch torpedoes into supply ships coming from the U.S. to Europe. They even sank a few passenger ships.
The U-boats would get their orders, and relay their locations by encrypted radio transmission. That encryption made the transmissions entirely unintelligible to the Allied forces. That same encryption was used on other transmissions as well such as troop movements and attack orders. Cracking that encryption was a top priority.
Bletchley Park is a rural mansion outside of London where the British were trying to crack the German encryption, and where they eventually succeeded. They did this by using advanced math and what we would not consider elementary computers invented and designed by Alan Turing. Alan Turing is the father of modern computers. He was way ahead of his time. He was basically the Einstein of computers. He’s a legend.
After the encryption had been cracked, there were still various code words used. Making sense of those code words required a lot people to organize that data and try to make sense of it. Since all capable men had been sent to the front, the only people left to do the job were women. And so, hundreds of women worked as code breakers, interpreters, translators, and human databases. At that time people who did those jobs were “computers”
“The Bletchley Circle” is about four of those women. Much to my short-lived dissatisfaction, very little of “The Bletchley Circle” takes place at Bletchley Park. Instead, it follows the lives of the women after the war.
That’s where the story really starts to do what art does best; it has a dialogue with culture—not the culture of post-WWII England, but with our culture, today. “The Bletchley Circle” is talking with us.
In post-WWII England, and the U.S., women had few social rights, regardless of whatever legal standing suffrage might have won them. They were, and in many cases still are thought of as second-class citizens, given less pay, less work, different jobs, and often dismissed in social conversations except among themselves.
So when “The Bletchley Circle” shows brilliantly intelligent women contributing to society in a way society wasn’t normally accepting at the time, it’s talking to us, asking us if we’re treating women with the respect their humanity deserves. Sadly that answer is still a resounding “No”.
Women still face a glass ceiling when they rise to a certain level. If they’re a CEO, they are called names and thought of as abusive or controlling, manipulative or bitchy. In fairness to those around such women, when society makes it so difficult for a woman to rise to a position of leadership, it’s going to take a particular kind of fighting personality. She will be a little bitchy. Any non-bitchy, non-fighter women are held back.
“The Bletchley Circle” wouldn’t be nearly as powerful if it weren’t based on truth. The truth is, those hundreds of women/computers were real. Women were competent coders, competent mathematicians, planners. And in the U.S., during WWII, where the men were also absent, women were machinists, engineers. During the times when men are absent and through their absence made incapable of holding women back, women rise to their level of competence.
I’ve yet to find a non-physical job where a woman isn’t equally capable of doing the work as a man. As technology continues to develop, even those physical jobs requiring natural physical strength will be accessible to women. I look forward to it. We’ve been stupid in the past because we limit our growth by keeping 51% of the population held back for antiquated ideologies.
Watch “The Bletchley Circle” and see what enabled women are capable of. And then enable some of the women around you.