The Bletchley Circle Review – Fact in Historical Fiction

There are mixed views about the use of Bletchley Park Codebreakers in ITV’s drama The Bletchley Circle, which starts on Thursday 6th September at 9pm.

I was at the annual veteran’s reunion at Bletchley Park yesterday (2 Sep 2012) and The Bletchley Circle came up in conversation more than a few times. It seems that there are some who are worried that the drama could distort the true story of women codebreakers, and the work of Bletchley Park during World War 2.

To be honest, I don’t have the same concerns. I always have a clear understanding that artistic licence can impact on the representation of fact in the programme I am watching. It doesn’t ruin the programme for me, unless it is so outrageous that I don’t waste my time watching. I personally discovered Bletchley Park through fiction. This was the book Enigma by Robert Harris.

Robert Harris’ amazing novel Enigma, creates an intriguing picture of what it was like to be at Bletchley Park and introduces the reader the complexities of breaking the Enigma code but ultimately, it is a fictional story. The book contains a short disclaimer at the front of the novel:

This novel is set against the background of an actual historical event. The German naval signals quoted in the text are all authentic. The characters are entirely fictional.”

I devoured the book then went on the hunt for the true story. I am testament to the power that fiction has on influencing our historical interests. I also understand that a storyteller must create a balance of fact and fiction as not to change history in the mind of a viewer or reader. Philippa Gregory, the successful novelist most famous for her novel The Other Boleyn Girl,  never reads historical fiction:

I find that it can too easily become fact in my mind. I only read historical fact.”

The technique she uses is to work as a historian to gather the facts, then as a novelist create a fictional conversation between two points within the true history, and continuing the process until there is a gripping mix of a historical truth and fictional drama. The Other Boleyn Girl later became a TV drama and a movie.

Philomena Liggons, author of a Footprints – Secret Lives at Bletchley Park, believes that authors do have a duty to accurately portray fact in historical fiction. Philomena is a fiction and non-fiction writer. She is also a Bletchley Park guide and has an in-depth knowledge of how it was used during the war. She has been able to combine fact and fiction to create a story that both educates and entertains her readers.

Footprints is her first published novel and ‘tells a moving story of the lives and time of codebreakers in WW2 as seen through the eyes of about two WRENS based at Bletchley Park‘.

I firmly believe that historical fiction has a duty to portray historical fact.  By dove-tailing fact and fiction it gives a writer the abilities to reach a wider audience and bring history to life. Telling the story of historical events through the daily lives of fictitious characters offers the reader the satisfaction of learning about those historical facts whilst, hopefully enjoying a novel at the same time. As in a novel the reader can lose themselves in the period, identify with the characters and use their imaginations to create pictures in their own minds.

For the writer, the opportunities to provide historical fact and report events within a novel are much greater. They can simply tell the story of the event, they can combine research from interviews or memories and channel them through one character; they can drop a single fact into conversation; they can create a reaction in one of their characters and, whilst writing, they too can lose themselves in those corridors of time. They do however have a responsibility to be able to substantiate their research whilst in some way slightly distancing fact from fiction without spoiling the story for the reader.

To my mind, historical fiction provides the thread on which facts can be pegged.  It should answer questions; it should educate and should, most certainly be a pleasure to read.”

Fictionalised accounts of history have always courted controversy. In 2011 a mini-series about J.F. Kennedy caused a heated debate,  in particular about the interpretation of Kennedy’s life and death. The programme had an unpopular viewpoint that presented Kennedy in a different way to the usual portrayal of him as the ‘American Hero’.

At the time Gareth McLean, writer for the Radio Times was quoted as saying:

Audiences aren’t stupid. I think it’s a little bit patronising to assume that the audience takes everything at face value. They can make up their own minds and if they wan to find out more then they can do a bit of research around the subject.”

The BBC, where the programme was aired in the UK, held a similar view. Sue Deeks, the head of BBC programme acquisition stated:

All historical fiction has a primary duty to engage with a compelling narrative whilst not distorting historical truth. The very best historical drama will inspire the audience to investigate the fact behind the fiction.”

So it appears that where fact in historical fiction is concerned, the general consensus is balance. Fact and fiction can work in harmony, and the audience is given intellectual credit  to appreciate that some artistic licence is required to drive a story forward or fill in unknown gaps in our knowledge.

The Bletchley  Circle producers have also been keen to stress that the codebreakers in The Bletchley Circle are purely fictional and are not based on the real women who worked at Bletchley Park. Jake Lussington, producer explains that the characters are inspired by the women codebreakers and the show’s characters, Susan, Lucy, Millie & Jean have ‘attributes are ones those women did possess.’

What’s your opinion on the portrayal of fact in historical fiction or your view the portrayal of women codebreakers in The Bletchley Circle? Leave a comment or get in touch.

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6 thoughts on “The Bletchley Circle Review – Fact in Historical Fiction

  1. Hi Kerry,

    I wish that I had attended the annual reunion at BP again this year, since I would have liked to have met you – Harris’s “ENIGMA” also sparked my interest in BP.

    I too have been been doing research concerning Bletchley and cryptology for some years, fascinated and awed by the astounding work done there. I feel very strongly that that work and it’s strategic value remain under-appreciated.

    I’ve visited BP several times, knew Simon Greenish and Tony Sale, met Mavis Batey when she launched her book on Dilly Knox, attended lectures by some who worked with Alan Turing, and became friends with David Kahn. I also met Tom Stoppard, who wrote the screenplay for the film “Enigma”. I’ve operated an ENIGMA machine at the National Cryptologic Museum (I’m a member) at Ft. Meade, MD, adjacent to the NSA. I was an amateur radio operator, and I’ve had a cruise on a US nuclear sub.

    So, you see, several of my interests and experiences have coalesced into an appreciation of BP, and working for it’s rehabilitation and increasing public awareness of the work done there. E.g. ULTRA enabled so many operations, and ensured the FORTITUDE misinformation campaign by providing an intelligence feedback loop. It’s all astounding. Lately, I’ve been looking into the disaster at Dieppe – it may be that it was a (typically) daring foray conceived by Ian Fleming (perhaps witnessed from a ship off-shore) specifically to capture an ENIGMA.

    I’ve developed rather an extensive library on the subject.

    I wonder if “The Bletchley Circle” will be available in the US?

    I’m looking at posters of BP, Colossus, bombes, Enigmas, and a German U-boat quadrant map of the N. Atlantic as I write this.

    Keep up your good work, and.

    Best wishes,

    Eric Jacobson

    • Eric,

      Thank you for taking the time to add a comment and for your kind words. Your own area of research sounds fascinating and, as I am always interested in learning more, I hope we can talk some more.

      Like you, the other contributors to Bletchley Park Research have amassed substantial material about our individual research specialisms. We are all advocates of reviving our physical and digital filing cabinets to share with fellow researchers and interested readers. Our aim is to share some information for free and offer some premium research for a fee. Part of this is to support organisations like Bletchley Park and The National Archives, who we owe a great debt of gratitude for fueling our quest for knowledge.

      Have you ever considered getting your research ‘out there’? If so, you may be interested in joining our small, but growing community.

      The revolution in publishing and digital readership opens the door for independent researchers like us to build a platform from which we can write, publish and educate.

      I look forward to speaking to you again soon & hearing more about your research interests.

      Kind Regards


  2. Hi Kerry

    I feel that there is a place for historical fiction but it should be based on fact. the classic and probably the most famous example are the Sharpe series.

    I have always been interested in The Park and the intelligence war even more so since I discovered that the RAF had the Y service HQ in my village.

    Thanks for the head up for this series and I will be watching with interest not only as someone who is interested in the BP story but as a Historical Researcher and a 1940’s Living Historian (one of my characters is a codebreaker. The other is a WAAF officer from RAF West Kingsdown). I wish I could have got to The Park at the weekend but unfortunately as we have the Paralympic Road Cycling in the vill;age it was impossible to go. I did attend the 1940’s weekend back in May and loved it and will be attending that event next year.

    Kate Griffiths

    • Hi Kate,

      It’s great to hear from you & thanks for your comments. How is the research coming on and the book progressing? Email me, if you’re still interested in sharing snippets of your findings and extracts of work here. Join us & start sharing research.

      All the best


      • Hi Kerry

        The research is going very well. I have made a new contact who was an ARP Warden in the village. I’m taking a break from the research at the moment as I am up to my eyeballs working on the Paralympic Road Cycling which is taking place 1 mile from me. I hope to interview the ARP warden in the next few weeks. I have also been busy with Living History and also gained a few possible contacts through that. I have some letters out to the RBL and a magazine asking for stories and info from veterans or famlies of veterans of RAF KIngsdown