Smart, addictive and situated in a fascinating historical moment, “The Bletchley Circle” is the kind of nifty little British confection only PBS would provide, particularly in this limited three-episode format. Likely to appeal to an older audience as an old-fashioned whodunit, there’s also a Sherlock Holmes/”CSI”-type aspect to the notion of four women trained to decipher German codes during World War II reunited nearly a decade later to help crack a string of brutal murders. Perfectly cast and cleverly paced, consider it a mini-“Masterpiece Mystery” for that franchise’s crime-loving loyalists.
The four women are introduced identifying patterns in Nazi communiques while urging each other to “Never be ordinary!” But nine years later, they’re just that, living varying degrees of domestic bliss or desperation, when Susan (Anna Maxwell Martin of “Bleak House” and “South Riding”), now a slightly bored housewife and mother, recognizes a spatial pattern involving a series of slain girls.
Dismissed by police and her bureaucratic husband (Mark Dexter), who knows nothing about her heavily classified past, she reassembles the old gang — her boss (Julie Graham), the brash Millie (Rachael Stirling) and timid Lucy (Sophie Rundle), blessed with a handy photographic memory. Reluctant to get involved at first, they eventually join her in trying to locate the killer, which isn’t helped by the condescension the quartet faces at every turn.
Written by Guy Burt and directed by Andy De Emmony, “Bletchley Circle” (named for the war operation) doesn’t turn its protagonists into superheroines or make some half-assed attempt at “Murder, She Wrote.” Indeed, the four frequently appear to be in well over their heads, and are horrified at the sight of a dead body, making them all the more real, and thus their courage all the more inspiring.
The cast is strong across the board, but Maxwell Martin stands out for her vulnerability and pluck as Susan, utterly convincing as a woman who has spent the years channeling her formidable intellect into puzzles and child-rearing, before sparking to life in a way that begins to threaten the post-war life she’s built.
Perhaps foremost, it’s great fun to consume what amounts to a movie (excising promo filler that fills out the hours, the three chapters together run 132 minutes) over three weeks, with the cliffhanger breaks nicely pulling audiences along to see what transpires next.
Credit the Brits, too, with producing something like this in a tight little package that doesn’t overplay its hand. (Perish the thought some Yank decides what we really need is an Americanized “Bletchley Circle” procedural.)
The program caps a night of PBS drama that includes two other 20th-century period pieces: the second flight of “Call the Midwife”; and the soap “Mr. Selfridge,” starring Jeremy Piven.
Connecting those dots might not quite add up to a circle, but for viewers who appreciate classy drama, it’s a pretty impressive triangle.
The Bletchley Circle
(Miniseries; PBS, Sun. April 21, 10 p.m.)
Cast: Anna Maxwell Martin, Rachael Stirling, Sophie Rundle, Julie Graham, Mark Dexter, Steven Robertson, Simon Williams.
Filmed in London by World Prods. Distributed by Content Television. Executive producer, Simon Heath; producer, Jake Lushington; director, Andy De Emmony; writer, Guy Burt; camera, John Pardue; production designer, Mike Gunn; editor, Stephen O’Connell; music, Nick Green; casting, Julie Harken. 3 HOURS