The Bletchley Circle, with Anna Maxwell Martin, Rachael Stirling PREVIEW

Sophie Rundle as Lucy, Anna Maxwell Martin as Susan, Julie Graham as Jean and Rachael Stirling as Millie. Pic: ITV

Rating: ★★★★ 

ITV1: starts Thursday, 6 September, 9pm 

Story: In 1952, Susan, Millie, Lucy and Jean have returned to their normal lives after distinguished – and secret – service in code breaking during the war. Their humdrum lives hide their brilliant abilities, until Susan – a mathematics expert able to spot and interpret patterns – becomes interested in a series of London murders that have hit the news. In a horrendous series of killings of women, she believes she can see a pattern…

Whodunits can be incredibly tedious, concerned with the cold mechanics of who committed a crime. The Bletchley Circle is something of a whodunit, but with a superb premise and intriguing characters it is way superior to your average mystery.

We’re introduced to the circle of four women in 1943, doing brilliant work at the code-breaking HQ at Bletchley, using their various mathematical and analytical skills to decipher high-level German messages.

Official Secrets Act
Fast-forward nine years and the quartet – Susan, Lucy, Jean and Millie – are leading dull lives as housewives or singletons on civvie street. But the post-war ghastliness of rations and dreariness is increased horribly when we spy someone dragging and molesting the dead body of a woman.

Rachael Stirling as Millie

Susan, now a ‘happily’ married mother of two, has followed the linked murders of four women in the press and on radio. She believes she can see a pattern in the killings, and that the fourth victim is actually the fifth because the fourth body has not yet been found.

Her Bletchley past is of course shrouded by the Official Secrets Act, so that husband Timothy believes she only did clerical work during the war, though he acknowledges that she is good at puzzles. All her frustration at being a housewife whose biggest challenge is making the meat ration last a week is brilliantly captured early on. Are her best years already behind her?

Susan sees a geographic pattern to the murders
So Timothy, while arranging for Susan to meet a senior policeman to explain her theory, is patronising at the same time – ‘You really think that just by listening to the wireless you can tell police where to look for a murder victim?’

Despite serial killers and geographic profiling not being as well understood in the early 1950s, the Deputy Commissioner of Scotland Yard gives Susan the benefit of the doubt, clearly picking up on just how smart she is. However, when the police search doesn’t find a body, Susan is embarrassed and upset.

However, with her wartime friend’s words coming to mind, ‘Never Be Ordinary’, Susan decides she must do something to halt this killer of women, and gets in touch with her old comrades and enlists their help.

Anna Maxwell Martin as Susan

Anna Maxwell Martin
The Bletchley Circle has its implausibilities, but it is an intelligent and fascinating three-parter, both about the science of solving crimes and the women of this time. The re-creation of the period is very good and convincingly portrays the buttoned-up feel of the times.

Anna Maxwell Martin, whose credits include Bleak House and South Riding, stands out from a good cast as Susan, outwardly respectable and accepting of her life as a housewife, but inwardly boiling with frustration.

Susan and her friends are slightly invisible in these postwar years, and are able to poke their noses into things and hardly be noticed. But knowing how brilliantly clever they are makes their attempt to expose a disturbingly creepy killer very suspenseful.

Cast: Anna Maxwell Martin Susan, Rachael Stirling Millie, Sophie Rundle Lucy, Julie Graham Jean,  Steven Robertson Andrew Croft, Mark Dexter Timothy, Anastasia Hille Angela Barker, Simon Williams Cavendish, Ed Birch Harry, Michael Gould Deputy Commissioner Wainwright, Matthew Cullum Constable Barry, John Lightbody Sergeant George,  Simon Sherlock DCI Compton, Jocelyn MacNab Claire, Elliot Kerley Sam, Jamie Glassman Vicar, Sarah Finigan Mrs Casterwell, Joanna Brookes Mrs Cross

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