Category Archives: The Bletchley Circle

REVIEW: The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco (S3 8/8)

There’s no doubt about it: The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco has improved immeasurably during this second batch of four episodes.

The pacing is better, the stories are meatier with greater substance, and everything feels more in sync.

Last week, the first part of the final two-part story, there was even a twist in the usual TBC:SF storyline: Jean, Millie, Iris and Hayley had gotten themselves involved in a Russian spy caper, culminating in Jean being kidnapped and tortured by Russian agents.

It was a race against time for the remaining Circle to find her before it was too late.

It was almost as if TBC:SF was attempting to be an adult, gritty crime drama.

And, for the most part it was succeeding.

As ever, there was some codebreaking involved. This is the show’s schtick and it needs a segment where the Circle is huddled over some sort of code.

Just a word about these puzzle scenes. I tried to figure out why watching people crack codes can be so exhilarating. Dan Brown made a whole career out of it, and TBC:SF is infused with the same kinds of thrills.

I remember a show on British primetime in the 1980s called 3-2-1.

It was truly bizarre.

Groups of people tried to solve riddles and puzzles, and then win prizes. At the heart of it was a character called Dusty Bin (told you it was bizarre) and during the last part of the show, the host, Ted Rogers, would reveal the answers to the clues in the most baffling way possible.

It went something like this: a couple watched a scene starring celebrities, who, at the end of each one, would bring the contestants a clue and a riddle. They would then chose to reject one after trying to figure it out.

The riddles were so ridiculously oblique you had no clue what was going on.

It’s the same with TBC:SF. The thrill of it is watching the Circle talk at each other as each layer of code is broken. The reveal is often baffling and leaves you thinking: how did they get that answer?

It doesn’t matter how they got to where they got to know, watching them get there is strangely satisfying.

Using this method, they figured out that Jean was being kept in The Grosvenor Hotel, and hatched a plan to get her out. But not before something else happened: Hayley and Ilya the Russian cellist’s friendship had progressed to the point where he was invited around to he apartment. There he stole the new encryption machine Hayley had constructed.

Ilya had played her. The Russians wanted the machine.

And then the finale: the Circle busted out Jean from the hotel just in the nick of time (of course they did), they managed to track down Ilya and determine that he was part of a group of spies including Deborah Mitchell, who wanted to defect and take the machine with her. The fact that Micthell was involved was no real surprise.

They accomplished all of this with time for a drink in the jazz bar right at the end, with Hayley professing her love for Jean and figuring out that there was a Russian mole on the inside, whose identity was still to be revealed.

It was hardly Line Of Duty, but it did set things up for an arc in the next series, if there is to be one.

As they clinked drinks and laughed to each other with jazz blaring out from the stage, we were left to ponder TBC:SF.

It won’t change the world or reinvent the wheel. Quite the opposite: it often relied on too many familiar beats and stuck to a fairly rigid structure (not least the bar, which felt like a device you’d see in a sitcom or soap opera). But it was watchable, especially these last four episodes.

I just wish it taken a few more risks, threw off its shackles and really went for it more often. Not that the look of it helped. It looked cheap and cheerful, too bright and something you’d see somewhere in a daytime schedule.

Edgy, but not too edgy enough for primetime.

And yet, I wonder if it will return, or enough people have enjoyed it.

We’ll soon find out. Farewell for now, Circle ladies.

Paul Hirons




REVIEW: The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco (S3 E7/8)

Throughout this third series of The Bletchley Circle (and the first to be set in San Francisco), I’ve been enjoying the cultural references of the 1950s – a decade that has always fascinated me.

In this batch of four episodes, the last in the series, we’ve seen stories using civil rights, the beginning of the Vietnam War, gender equality, the Beat movement and music as backdrops. They were some of the key themes from that decade, but one has always been missing: the Cold War.

These last two episodes of the series seek to redress that balance.

It all starts off with a fairly lengthy preamble. Iris, Hailey and Dennis attend a recital at a former diplomat’s residence, featuring a star cellist from Russia (whether this would actually happen at the height of the Cold War is moot). The host couple is friendly – maybe overly so – and Hailey is verbally jousting with the cellist before his performance merrily, while Iris is excited to be there.

Then things take a turn.

Dennis goes walkabouts, so she goes to look for him. That’s when she comes across one of the Russian contingent collapsing in a hallway, coughing up blood and, well, dying.

Knowing what she knows, Iris sees the death as poisoning (oh, Russians and poisoning? History really does repeat itself) but the subsequent FBI investigation has concluded otherwise: it was a heart attack, and that’s the end of it.

And there starts an uncharacteristic episode of TBC:SF. We’re used to fairly pedestrian, jot-the-dots procedural in this series, but there’s a bit of a shift in this episode, with lots of different active strands on the go.

You get Iris being investigated by the FBI, Hailey trying to get her encryption machine off the ground and enjoying a developing friendship with the Russian cellist, Millie is working in a diner to help make ends meet (although she’s instantly bored), and Jean is in mortal danger.

As ever with this series, there are cyphers. Not one, but two. The first is a tattoo on the dead man’s arm. He’s Ukranian and seemingly a double agent – someone who wants peace between the two nations. The other comes from one of Jean’s old Bletchley bosses, who hands her a piece of paper with a set of numbers on it. He explains that the Russians don’t want to get hold of it.

It’s not long until she has been abducted by Russian agents and is tortured for the information they think she holds. Unknown to them, Jean has left the numbers in a book at her library, and Millie and gang have found it.

Throw in an assassination of another Russian at the jazz club, and my eyes popped out of my head.

This is as close as TBC:SF will ever come to a spy thriller.

Paul Hirons


REVIEW: The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco (S3 E6/8)

At the end of episode five of The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco, Jean, Millie, Iris and Hayley had got them into a right old pickle. No surprises there.

Millie’s cousin Edward had been arrested for being a communist, and Jean and Millie had been given their deportation papers subject to a hearing. Three days to prove their innocence and get Edward out of jail (on, “trumped-up charges” Millie said. Read into that what you will.)

We seemed to have two different cases – a gang running heroin around the city and homosexual men being beaten up – but the question was: how were these two strands connected. As ever with TBC: SF, it was all to do with codes, his time in the newspaper.

The girls had determined that gay men were using codes in the newspaper to contact each other and arrange meetings. Almost like a secret dating service. After a visit to Rusty and his friend Paul, they had found out an underground group of homosexual men was in existence, taking care of each other and providing solidarity.

But then they found the missing link… another code appeared in the same newspaper, used by drug smugglers to dish out meeting places and exchange points. After a visit to Hayley’s old pal at the newspaper who set the ads, it seemed this man had accidentally mixed the two up and the two groups had suddenly been connected. The drug smugglers thought the gay guys were a rival gang and had begun to beat them up.

It was, of course, all extremely far-fetched and faintly ridiculous, but strangely enjoyable. There was real jeopardy here, and the added dimension of persecution and homosexuality in the 1950s gave this story some real historical and emotional depth and oomph.

By the time the women used Boyce to trap the drugs gang – which included some bent coppers (where’s Ted Hastings where you need him?) – I realised I was actually really enjoying this episode.  It was full of hokey lines and exposition galore (“I’m going to have a milkshake and try to figure out who the lynchpin is” was one of my favourite lines), but the added emphasis on social context at least made you care. And, when Hayley courageously admitted to Iris she, too, was gay and she would not be cowed, you really ended up rooting for her.

In a decade and in a country that was so at odds with each other – civil rights, conservatism versus a creative explosion, the birth of consumerism and the rise of despicable McCarthyism – you would expect that TBC: SF would be a prime vehicle to explore these social themes and changing mores. But it’s only now that it feels it’s really embracing them.

Which has given this series a real shot in the arm.

Paul Hirons


REVIEW: The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco (S3 E5/8)

As regular readers will know, I have a soft spot for The Bletchley Circle, which in its first two series, matched cosy crime amateur crime-solving with impeccable period detail and an intriguing premise: our four main (female) characters were ex-codebreakers at Bletchley during the war.

Losing two of its main cast members, the first four episodes of TBC: SF saw Jean (Julie Graham) and Millie (Rachael Stirling) transported to the West Coast and a new set pair of crime-solving buddies, Iris (Crystal Ballint) and Hailey (Chanelle Peloso), two ex-cryptographers.

The first four episodes of this series were paper-thin, by-the-numbers, story-of-the-week stuff, which was fine, but now in the 1950s, it only dipped its toes into the issues of the time – race and feminism being two key themes. But what I want from this series is Ellroy’s LA Confidential, dollops of Chandler and James M Cain. Chance’d be a fine thing.

But in this fifth episode, at least there was more of a hint of grit.

Millie’s English cousin Edward had met a young man, Rusty, in a diner. Afterwards, Rusty had been chased down and beaten up, seemingly randomly. He ended up at Millie and Jean’s (previously Edward’s gaff), bloodied and incoherent. Now at the hospital, the two women were left with his cigarette packet, which contained a reefer; which, in turn, contained a rolled piece of code. The rest of the cigarettes were filled with heroin.

The game was on, and soon Millie and Jean were asking the help of Iris and Hayley.

As ever TBC: SF reverted to type when approaching its procedural elements: the group split up, two going one way, and the other two going the other way. It was all about cracking the code and getting the drugs back to their owners, which they eventually did.

But the story wasn’t over – Edward was badly beaten up and told Millie about his homosexuality… the real reason he had met Rusty in the diner.

But why were drug running and illicit meetings between men linked? It seemed we were going to find out in episode six.

In between all of this, there was the usual clunky exposition and the join-the-dots transportation from one place to another. But at least it was stuffed with fun cultural references: Hayley had met Allan Ginsberg and was flirting with the beginnings of the Beat movement, there was much mention on police corruption and Jean revealed that she had worked for Alan Turing.

So it’s fun, extremely lightweight and, as crime drama goes, a very easy, undemanding watch.

I’d still like Ellroy to have a go at the scripts, though.

Paul Hirons


The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco returns to ITV in April

When it was announced that a sequel series to The Bletchley Circle was to be set in San Francisco, we were intrigued: we had a soft spot for the first series.

It followed a group of women who worked as codebreakers at Bletchley Park during the second world war and, having now returned to civilian life, find themselves investigating murder cases which have the police stymied. It starred Rachael Stirling, Julie Graham,  Anna Maxwell Martin and Sophie Rundle.

With Maxwell Martin and Rundle gone, the San Francisco series was set in 1956, three years after the events of the original series. Jean and Millie depart London for San Francisco to investigate the murder of a close friend. There they are joined by North American code-breakers Iris and Hailey who, like their British counterparts, find themselves undervalued and overlooked despite their indispensable contributions to the war effort. With renewed purpose, the code-breaking team will stay in San Francisco and continue to solve mysteries together in the Bay Area.

The first episodes from the San Francisco series aired in 2018, and now we’re getting the final batch.

The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco: Friday 26th April, 9pm, ITV


REVIEW: The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco (S3 E4/4)

Let’s face it: The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco has been way below par, which has been a real shame. The characters are there, the backstory and premise are sound and fun, and even some of the ideas in this new series have been interesting. But everything else has been sadly lacking. The plot, the pacing, the dialogue… it has all been so by-the-numbers and so predictable you can’t help thinking it has been one, big waste.

Still. There we were, at the end of the series and we couldn’t not find out who had done what to poor suburbanite, Charlotte, and whether suspect James would be offed by his hysterical wife, who, last we saw, was brandishing a knife and screaming at him about his infidelity. First things first: James was wounded and when running to Lydia and husband Kenny, distraught at Patricia’s ‘episode’. This, in turn, led to Lydia losing it, too, the trauma of finding one of her social set dead in her bed too much.

I have to say that most of this episode passed me by. Where the first part of the story kept me interested and had a strong, underlying theme in which to explore (a woman’s place in the world), this series finale (series finale, no less) slipped back into TBC:SF’s lazy way of expositional dialogue (like A LOT) and an investigation so formulaic it was borderline dull.

There were more codes from which the gang could extrapolate theories, there was more pairing off, and there was more standing around in front of evidence boars chatting about what they had just done, what the suspects had done and what they were going to do. It was just so… y’know.

Saying all that, I didn’t see the final reveal. Kenny – Lydia’s husband – had been feeding his wife, Charlotte and Patricia new-fangled pills from his pharmaceutical company, which had the opposite effect of his intentions – instead of making these depressed and/or anxious women feel better, they tipped them over the edge and cause them to take their own lives. Kenny had covered the deaths up and made them look like murder, to try and save him and his company. A touch of Munchausen by proxy.

So that was an interesting and unexpected conclusion. And what was also unexpected was the closing scenes, where we saw Kenny – distraught at his wrong-doing – James and Howard come to terms with the loss of their wives. Normally in crime dramas the victims, especially female, are forgotten, but here we saw grief, raw and unfettered. For a show that was so by-the-numbers, so stuffed with poor dialogue and lazy characterisation, this was really good.

And we may have more. With Jean deciding to stay in San Francisco, Iris’s husband now off to Vietnam, and Millie loving her new Stateside life, there’s plenty of scope to keep this going. Let’s hope they make any future episodes and series better because there is something there to work with.

Paul Hirons





REVIEW: The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco (S3 E3/4)

The first two episodes of The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco really weren’t up to much and just about as by-the-numbers as you can possibly make a crime drama. And yet I still watch it – I like the amateur detective element, I like the idea that a group of women who were ace codebreakers during the war are now putting their skills to good use and solving crimes and, this being the mid-1950s, I love the period and the aesthetics and the sociopolitical ferment. So despite the pacing, construction of the narrative and the bargain-basement dialogue and budget, there’s just enough here for me to keep on keeping on.

Episode three was better. Not in leaps and bounds, but better. This time the theme was ‘women and their place’. We’ve seen in series like Mad Men that the life of a suburban housewife in 1950s America was a tricksy one – expected to stay at home and look after the kids while the husband worked all day to provide for them, their existence was one of status envy, hidden anxieties and bitchy get-togethers. Now, I’m not suggesting that this episode of TBC:SF was anywhere near as nuanced or as well written as Mad Men (it wasn’t) but some of these themes were explored.

None more so than the central mystery, which involved a married woman who Iris and Hailey knew from their Presidio days and who ended up dead, found in the middle of the road. The victim – Charlotte – liked a drink and was considered a loose cannon. The police thought it was suicide, but the Circle… well, you can guess what they thought (especially after they determined Charlotte was 10 miles away from home). The investigation continued in a very TBC:SF way: Iris and Hailey followed one lead and found some stuff out, Millie and Jean continued along another line of enquiry and found stuff out, and then the whole group occasionally got together to discuss what they had found out.

The first prime suspect was Charlotte’s husband, Howard, a meek, neat and mild man who fell in love with Charlotte because of her energy but grew to despise it. The Circle soon found that Charlotte had been in an illicit relationship with someone called J, and had been pilfering jewellery from the neighbourhood to keep up with the Joneses. A lead brought the Circle to a posh country club – where women were denied entry, naturally – and a meeting with J himself, an unpleasant lothario named James Crawford, ensued.

As ever in TBC:SF suspects were being built up and then knocked down again. But that theme just kept on coming – an old Presidio colleague of Iris and Hailey’s – Lydia – was the archetypal lady of leisure: she hosted cocktail parties, was all smiles, lipstick and conviviality on the outside but underneath this patina of perfection was a different story. Poor Lydia had a recent brush with mental illness. Iris, meanwhile, was fuming that Marcus was being posted to Vietnam and hadn’t told her about it (he also had the gall to demand that Iris stopped prying into these cases).

It’s still pretty average fare, but at least here, in episode three, there were things to grab a hold of.

Paul Hirons



REVIEW: The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco (S3 E2/4)

Last week’s opening episode of The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco was pretty bad, I have to say. Which was a shame because I enjoyed the first two series and I like the set-up and the characters. But this new series? It looked cheap-as-chips, the new characters who were brought in were carbon copies of the paradigms set by Anna Maxwell Martin and Sophie Rundle, and the dialogue was so exposition-heavy the characters might as well have just stood around telling each other what had just happened and what was going to happen (which was pretty much what they did).

And still, there was a serial killer at large, and everyone loves a cat-and-mouse game with a serial killer (well, maybe apart from his or her victims), right?

So we all know by now why Jean and Millie made the journey to San Francisco: to catch a fiend who murders women and tears out their tongues. At the end of episode one, we saw new members of the code-cracking team, Iris and Hailey, help to determine the location of the killer’s next murder. It took them right into the heart of a civil rights’ demonstration where Iris’s son Dennis was protesting. Sure enough, they found young Isaac, a friend of the Beardon family, laying dead in the spot they predicted.

Throughout the first part of this story, there was the whiff of changing times: of jazz and the Beat Generation, of civil rights, shifting attitudes towards women and their place in society, and a post-war society that was hell-bent on post-war urban regeneration. And, credit where credit is due, this episode explored those themes further, to the extent that it distilled them all into one big, central theme: home.

Iris had been so shaken by Isaac’s murder that she decided to leave the team, and Millie went along to the funeral. There, one of Iris’s jazz chums sidled up to Millie at the bar and said: “Can’t know who you are until you know where your home is.” And it all fell into place: city hall type and property developer George Mason wanted to flatten the Fillmore, build new homes for the rich and wealthy, forcing long-standing community members elsewhere. The Harrison family had decided to move out to Oakland. Everything was all about home and what it meant.

So all this socio-political stuff was quite interesting and nicely handled, but when it came to the case we were back to the structure of the previous episode, sadly. Things happened quickly, far too quickly. Ex-serviceman Roy Tullis was the prime suspect, then he wasn’t. Then George Mason was implicated, and then he wasn’t. And then Iris called around to the Masons to tell the politician all about Roy and then she saw some astronomical charts on the wall and realised that the code used by the killer was not a ‘hobo code’ as they suspected but symbols on the space charts hanging on the Mason’s wall. And then George’s military son walked in and it was him and Iris was attacked and then Jean bashed in the front door (where did she come from?) and then Mrs Mason walked in and explained she knew that her son was a murderer and she had been protecting him. The end. That was it.

Blimey. Talk about over in a flash.

We had two main suspects, one of who was let off the hook and the other (Roy Tullis) who was arrested as an accessory to murder. But it all happened so quickly it was difficult to process. It was as if the writers looked at the clock and thought, “crikey lads, we’d better get a move on because we haven’t got much time to finish this story”. This incredible change of pace meant that the potentially interesting story of a mother covering for her psychopathic son for years went completely by the wayside. It was ludicrous.

It was pretty obvious that this series of four had been split up into two separate stories, but still… we get it all the time in things likes Silent Witness and the like, and they handle it well and produce sound, well-paced drama week after week, series after series. I’m afraid this was all over the place, which, again, was a shame because I still think there’s a good show in there somewhere. With a bit of care and a bit of extra time, this story could have been told much better, and with much more consideration to tempo, dialogue, character development and narrative arc. Crucially, the actresses who play characters that subvert gender and racial stereotypes deserve much, much better.

A real shame.

Paul Hirons




REVIEW: The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco (S2 E1/4)

The first two series of The Bletchley Circle were based on a fun conceit: a group of women who forged a friendship and a bond during their time as codebreakers at Bletchley during the war reunited after realising that nothing quite lived up to the sense of importance and satisfaction of helping the country. And because of this, those four women Susan Gray (Anna Maxwell Martin), Millie (Rachael Stirling), Lucy (Sophie Rundle), and Jean McBrian (Julie Graham) provided plenty of good, old-fashioned amateur detective thrills if not from the Golden Age itself, pretty soon afterwards. (As regular readers will know, I’m all over anything set during the war or in the 1950s – I love the aesthetics, I love the period, I love it all.)

Yes, it was always by-the-numbers and you could pretty much guess what was going to happen next, but it was watchable and enjoyable. So it was with a muffled cheer I greeted the news that BBC and ITV joint venture, Britbox, had joined ITV in a co-pro to resurrect the series, this time setting it in San Francisco.

Things started off, though, back in the war. Maxwell Martin and Rundle have left the show, so the story focused on Graham and Stirling’s characters, Millie and Jean. We were introduced to Claire, a passionate young codebreaker who didn’t think too much of the Americans, so much so she withheld some information. Dobbed in by Millie, Jean had no choice but to fire her from Bletchley and banish her to Bristol. Unfortunately, Claire met a sticky end at her final function at Bletchley – a dance. She was found with her throat cut and her tongue cut out (which was revealed a bit later), with a symbol drawn onto her wrist.

Fast forward to 1956. Millie, now a nanny, and Jean, a librarian, suddenly found themselves bored and at a dead-end. That was when Millie saw the article in the newspaper – a killer had struck in San Francisco and the victim had the very same symbol scrawled upon her. Millie saw this as a way out of her dead-end job and inject some life back into her, well, life. The next trick was to persuade Jean.

Jean revealed that she had been in touch with a contemporary based in San Francisco during the war, at The Presidio, called Major Six. So off they went.

Now, once again everything was pretty much by-the-numbers and, frankly, a bit daft. It also looked… well, cheap. Some of the filters used during war scenes to make scenes and characters look 10 years younger were quite extraordinary. There was so much lens flare you’d imagine JJ Abrams frothing at the mouth if he ever saw this. And yet, you still kept watching.

Once they had set up shop in San Fran, Millie and Jean did what they did best – investigate and crack codes. They finally hooked up with Major Six – a jazz musician called Iris (Chrystal Balint) – who, in turn, recruited a young friend, Hailey Yarner (Chanelle Peloso). And do you know what? Iris and Hailey were carbon copies of Susan and Lucy: Iris had a husband and was beginning to get more involved in the case, and keeping secrets from him, while Hailey was a quirky slightly naive ball of energy. Exactly the same as the first two series.

There were also nods to jazz music, the start of civil rights protests and even the Beat generation, which did give it some social context and a bit of visual richness, but it felt so cheaply done it wasn’t a world that you felt you could totally immerse yourself in.

Paul Hirons

ITV confirms The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco transmission date

We’re getting a bit excited about The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco – a third series of the ITV crime drama or a spin-off series of the ITV crime drama depending on your point of view.

It’s been in the pipeline for a while, but now we know when it will be transmitted.

Series one and two, if you remember, saw Julie Graham, Anna Maxwell Martin, Rachael Stirling and Sophie Rundle form group of women who worked as codebreakers at Bletchley Park during the second world war and, having now returned to civilian life, find themselves investigating murder cases which have the police stymied.

The spin-off series, San Francisco, sees Graham and Stirling return is set in 1956, three years after the events of the original series. Jean and Millie depart London for San Francisco to investigate the murder of a close friend. There they are joined by North American code-breakers Iris and Hailey who, like their British counterparts, find themselves undervalued and overlooked despite their indispensable contributions to the war effort. With renewed purpose, the code-breaking team will stay in San Francisco and continue to solve mysteries together in the Bay Area.

Graham and Stirling are joined by Crystal Balint, Chanelle Peloso, Jennifer Spence and Ben Cotton.

Here’s a trailer:

And here’s the transmission date…

The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco: Wednesday 25th July, 9pm, ITV