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The Greatest Generation...

...of Women!!??Since I never watch TV except for the news, I am amazed to have found two terrific programs all in one evening: "Call the Midwife" and "The Bletchley Circle." Both are set in early fifties London. Ration books are still in use. Babies are delivered at home. And "Call" the midwife seems to require running to the nursing convent where they live because people have no phones. The women sleuths in "Bletchley" are in the process of regathering their experience as wartime "decoders" to solve a case of serial murder.Without going into plot details, let me suggest that the overall impression (on one sitting) is that the women in both dramas are smart, resourceful, energetic and terrific. Naturally there are overtones of male chauvinism which hardly deters them--they smile indulgently. Since there are few expectations by their betters that they are as smart, resourceful, etc., as they actually are, they are free to act without fear of failing, achieving, etc., or having a graduate education.Since these are current 2011-12-13 productions, I am impressed that the filmmakers are conceptually and dramatically able to imagine liberated women before there were any--officially! Sunday evenings on PBS.

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Ms. S. --Which station is the Bletchley program on?What a fascinating outfit Bletchley Hall was! Historians have realized it only recently, but the women "decoders" were actually founding the science of programming electronic computers -- theirs, "the Enigma", was just about the first electronic computer and the programming had to be invented from scratch. They were treated like clerks at the time, however. Besides the great Alan Turing who invented the thing, others who worked there on decoding included some apparently ordinary railroad employees whose job it had been to plan the switching of railroad tracks which allows trains change course == dynamic switching structures which are analogous to the on-off operations of computers. I read recently that at the end of the war there were 10,000 people working for the decoding enterprise (at several campuses by then), and not one of them ever broke their pledge not to talk about what they were up to. The Germans never had a clue that the English were reading their secret messages "as if they were the daily newspaper". Some say Bletchley saved the West -- the war never could have been won without it.Check it out in "Alan Turing: The Enigma" by Andrew Hodges.

We watch "Call the Midwife" regularly, and there is a lot to like. The second thing you're referencing, I believe premiered last evening, at least in Chicago. I was off puttering around with something else when it aired, but we tivo'd it and we'll get to it sometime this week. My wife was already anticipating great things.The show that comes in between those two, about a London retail emporium, hasn't hooked us. I think that PBS hopes it becomes another Downton Abbey, but we've given up on it already.

Station? PBS...Channel 13 in NYC. Re computers: One of the amusing scenes has a flashback to Blethchley where the four woman are tracking a German name. One of them, apparently with a photographic memory, quickly recites all the dates when the name has appeared in their records. She sounds like a computer, but is more attractive than one.Secrecy: yes, apparently none of these women have revealed the nature of their wartime work to anyone, including husbands...

My wife always watches; or, if needed, tapes and watches later. Call the Midwife is excellent - almost as good as Downton Abbey.

Bletchley Circle also has closed captions, which helps me get their "English," or whatever it is they're speaking..... do they all have sinus infections?

"which helps me get their English, "I've been watching PBS on Sunday evenings for so many years that I've become pretty adept at being able to understand it, but there is a Cockney fellow on Call the Midwife - the caretaker or whatever he is - whom I haven't understood yet, and we're into the second season.

At one time some of the shows shown on BBC America were preceded by a public service announcement that recommended turning on closed captioning. Seriously.

Thanks, Ms. S. I look forward to it.

The idea that at some point around 1970 women became "liberated" is an insult against my grand-mothers, grand aunts etc. who were some of the freest people I ever met.

(Sorry, Margaret. Trying again with your comment in quotations.)"Naturally there are overtones of male chauvinism which hardly deters themthey smile indulgently."(I think its funny when people who never watch TV mention that fact.)I like Call the Midwife, but I havent noticed the overtones you saw. A couple of weeks ago, e.g., when a nun and a nurse had to climb up the side of a ship to take care of a woman giving birth, her father and the seamen to whom she had been made available for sex, were cowed by the women.But I suppose its all in the interpretation.(The East End is a little too clean for the period, when bombed out buildings still abounded, but thats okay, too.)The thing I found interesting last Sunday night was the casual way the nuns (Anglicans) explained to the midwives how newborns with spina bifida were dealt with in days of yore: they were given chloral hydrate and allowed to drift away in peace.

I increasingly have to turn on the subtitles when I watch a British show or movie if characters are not speaking with a "received" accent.

One of the recurring themes of "Call the Midwife" is that these East End residents would never be receiving the standard of care exemplified by these trained nurses were it not for the national health service, which I think was brand-new during the period in which the show takes place. Thus we see a government program improving the lot of the poor and empowering women, all at the same time. No wonder conservatives want to cut PBS funding :-)

Best programme on TV right now, followed closely by "As Time Goes By" also shown on PBS.

My first encounter with sub-titles for Brits was "Prime Suspect." Helen Mirren was perfectly understandable. Her male colleagues were not. Someone has told me several were from the north of England. I gave up. Then one Christmas, our son gave us the complete DVDs, which had sub-titles. Even some years after it first appeared, "Prime Suspect" remained an engrossing show.Another curiosity: "Life on Mars," a Brit detective show didn't seem to have the non-standard English problem...All professional actors???

Prime Suspect is the very best thing I've ever seen from that entire BBC / PBS franchise. I wish Helen Mirren would do 20 or 30 more episodes.

I second that: more "Prime Suspect."But "Life on Mars" was pretty terrific, combining police story, detective work, modest romantic interest, and sci fi... But it seems to have been short-lived.

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About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.