The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco: writer Rachel Langer on the challenges of transplanting the show to North America

Imagine that you’re a huge fan of cancelled UK series The Bletchley Circle, and then you find out that, not only is the show being resurrected as The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco, but production is being moved from London all the way to Vancouver, where you happen to live. What would you do?

If you’re writer Rachel Langer, you start dropping enthusiastic hints to friends like Daegan Fryklind, who served as consulting executive producer for the new series and wrote the pilot.

“I was in touch with Daegan in the early stages, basically fangirling at every possible moment about the show,” she laughs. “And I made it very clear to Omnifilm Entertainment that I was a huge fan and would love any chance to be a part of it.”

It didn’t require a codebreaker to decipher Langer’s hints, so showrunner Michael MacLennan—who had worked with her on CBC’s This Life and was her mentor at the Canadian Film Centre—quickly brought her on board as a co-producer. But then came the “intense” pressures of bringing the beloved British mystery series to life in North America.

“I was like, ‘Is that gonna work?'” she says.

We phoned Langer to learn more about the challenges involved in moving the show across the pond and what we can look forward to in Friday’s new episode, “Madhouse,” which she wrote.

You said you were a big fan of the original UK series. Did the idea of transplanting it to North America make you at all nervous?
Rachel Langer: I have this compounded fear every time I start working on a show that has an existing property—which at this point, is almost every show. I had worked on a reboot of another series that I had loved when I was younger, so I’m not unfamiliar with the worry that we aren’t going to do it justice, but I felt that really intensely because of how much I love the original Bletchley.

I don’t really know anything about how they make shows in the UK, other than talking to a few writers and producers that I know. But it seems like they don’t do a writers’ room; they just have one person with a very amazing vision. But we don’t do that here, we have a writers’ room. I was like, ‘Is that gonna work?’ And then there was always a concern that we were shooting in Vancouver, but it’s not set in Vancouver. That often works, but this was also done on a low budget, and it’s a period piece, which is hard to make look great on a low budget. But I’m really happy with the way that came together. Everybody involved just brought it to the max to make it look like the best possible version that it could for what we were doing.

And for the story, we had Jake Lushington, who is the producer from the UK [series].  He actually came and sat with us for a few days, and he is one of the most character-devoted producers that I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. It was cool to see him say, ‘Yes, here you are nailing the characters. Here’s one thing I can add that you might not have known,’ and really come and work with us that way. But he was really happy with where we had the characters, so I felt like, OK, we’re on the right track if they guy who knows the show inside and out is happy.

What was your approach to blending a lead cast that had two loved and established characters from the original series, Jean (Julie Graham) and Millie (Rachael Stirling) and two characters who were brand new to the audience, Iris (Crystal Balint) and Hailey (Chanelle Peloso)?
RL: We worked really hard to make sure we gave Jean and Millie the voices that they had before but in a new situation. The fact that we were putting them in a situation that was somewhat uncomfortable helped because you can understand that they may say or do things that are a little different from the norm back home because they’re in completely new surroundings. So we had a little bit of leeway there, but we did our best to have them stick to these amazing characters that had been built and presented to us. And then to kind of create foils to that with the other characters was fun because we felt that we had grounding and yet we had room to explore and expand at the same time.

As far as the audience goes, it’s sort of that thing where you can’t worry too much about it in the early stages in the same way that you can’t worry too much about the budget when you’re breaking stories. You do eventually worry about it and pare it back and change locations and make it work, but in the early stages, you really just kind of have to go full bore and not really think about it too much. Otherwise, you just get way too much in your head about how people are going to perceive it. You’ll never please everybody. They’ll always be somebody who hates what you did, who doesn’t think it works or it doesn’t make sense to them. And you hear about it on Twitter and then you just move on.

The last time we spoke with you, you were working on This Life, which was deeply character driven. What’s the difference between writing for a show like that and writing for a plot-driven mystery series like Bletchley?
RL: When I was on This Life, I was like, ‘This is the hardest show I’m ever gonna write!’ And then when I was on Bletchley, I was like, ‘No, this show is the hardest I’m ever gonna write.’ So I think I just feel that way no matter what show I’m on. But in terms of working on a mystery show, which I’ve never done, there’s a special part of the brain that needs to be accessed for red herrings and, for this show, codebreaking. I mean we’re writing for expert codebreakers, and we’re not expert codebreakers, we’re writers. So we did a ton of research, and there’s a unique challenge in making a codebreaking story accessible to an audience who doesn’t break code and needs to understand the story but to also make it seem like these women are experts at what they do. Because they were. We wanted to make sure that everybody knows how brilliant these women are, but we still have to make sure the audience understands at the end of the day how they cracked the code, or at least enough to be happy and satisfied with the story. So that was a huge challenge, and I remember some days just staring out the window down at Seymour Street [in Vancouver], thinking, ‘How are we going to solve this? I just don’t see a way out of this.’

The character stuff I find easier because it’s more intrinsic for me. I come from a place of character first. So I really worked hard to be plot-focused and mystery-focused on this one. And we had a very small room. We only had Daegan for a little bit of time. and then there was just four of us. So when one brain gets tired, there were only three more brains to pick up the slack. So we all worked incredibly hard to make sure we got what we needed.

You wrote Episode 4, “Madhouse,” which continues the mystery that began in Episode 3 involving the strange deaths of two women who were at a party hosted by Iris’ former Presidio colleague, Lydia (Jessica Harmon). Plus, Jean and Millie are on the outs because Jean plans to go back to her life in the UK. What can you preview about the episode?
RL: Episode 4 takes us further into the journey of the way that women in the suburbs—who were so often placed in a tidy package—needed to live their lives. We really get further into Lydia’s psyche around everything that is going on and how she’s been trying to conform to this status, and it doesn’t work and she kind of falls apart, as any of us would. So it takes us through the paces of sorting through who could have done this, why would they do it, and how can we keep Lydia afloat through this whole thing? And, of course, Jean’s decision to leave is challenged by Millie, and she’ll examine the pros and cons of going back versus staying.

Who was the easiest character for you to write?
RL: Hailey was the easiest for me. Probably because there’s a lot of similarities there of this girl who doesn’t quite fit the typical Instagram standard—whatever that would have been back then. I’m closer in age to her than I probably am to anyone else. But I also just really loved Iris, who is [a type of character] I’ve never had the chance to write for before, who just had some really interesting struggles of her own. The whole music element of Iris speaks to me because before I was a writer, I was a jazz piano player and failed spectacularly at that. So there are some similarities there that I enjoyed writing.

What was the best thing about working on Bletchley?
RL: I found it very rewarding to access a different side of my brain and write for a mystery that was centred around women—and the women were the smartest people in the show, the smartest people in the room at all times. And the idea that I got to contribute to something that I was already a huge fan of and just bring my best and do my absolute utmost to do it justice, whether we succeeded or failed, was hugely rewarding for me.

You are also working on the new supernatural series, The Order, for Netflix. Not only that, you’re a co-executive producer. Congrats!
RL: When my agent told me that that was going to be the case, I was like, ‘You’re kidding, right?’ and she was like, ‘Just take it and run with it.’ So, I was said, ‘OK. I’m getting my ‘straight white man’ on, and I’m going to succeed at this!’

Can you give us any hints about that show?
RL: I can say that it’s going to be super fun and that you’ve never seen such cool stuff come out of a soundstage in Aldergrove, which is an hour outside of [Vancouver]. And our cast is amazing.

The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco airs Fridays at 8 p.m. ET on Citytv.

Images courtesy of Omnifilm Entertainment

A.R. Wilson

A.R. Wilson

A.R. Wilson has been interviewing actors, writers and musicians for over 20 years. In addition to TV-Eh, her work has appeared in Curve, ROCKRGRL, Sound On Sight and Digital Journal. A native of Detroit, she grew up watching Mr. Dressup and The Friendly Giant on CBC, which led to a lifelong love of Canadian television. Her perpetual New Year's resolution is to become fluent in French.
A.R. Wilson
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2 thoughts on “The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco: writer Rachel Langer on the challenges of transplanting the show to North America”

  1. They’ve done a pretty good job of showing what it was like living in the Fifties I think (never having lived through them though). Great acting and a good a mystery too. Thanks A.R.!

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