The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco: Julie Graham on “liberating” Jean and working with “superstar” showrunner Michael MacLennan

It never appears like Julie Graham is hurting for work. The Scottish actor has starred in an impressively long list of TV series in the UK, including The Bletchley Circle, Benidorm and Shetland. Still, she knows that good roles for women are never a given, especially after reaching a certain age.

“I’m now in my 50s,” Graham says. “These opportunities don’t come along that often.”

That’s why she was “delighted” to learn she was going reprise the role of Jean in Bletchley spin-off The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco, currently airing on Citytv.

“It was a show that I was very proud of and a show I was very fond of,” she says. “I was really excited about it. Plus, you get to do foreign travel.” That foreign travel was to “beautiful” Vancouver, where the series was filmed this spring.

“I’d never been to Canada before,” she says. “I loved it.”

We caught up with Graham just as she finished a day of filming on the set of Queens of Mystery, an upcoming Acorn TV mystery series, in England. She shared her experiences shooting the first season of The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco, previewed how the last two episodes will impact Jean’s life, and dropped some hints about what could happen in a hypothetical Season 2.

Were you shocked to learn that Bletchley was not only being revived, but it was being relocated to San Francisco and filmed in Vancouver?
Julie Graham: It’s a bit of a dream come true in a way. If you work on a show and then it gets cancelled, it depends on the experience you’ve had on the show, obviously. But we were all very disappointed when it was cancelled because, not only had we had such a good time making it, but we just felt that it could have gone on. So when Jake Lushington, the [original series] producer, called us up and said it might happen, they were quite far down the line with it because I don’t think he wanted to get our hopes up. But I was absolutely delighted because I had such a wonderful time shooting it, and I also thought it was a brilliant subject matter, and I love working on female-led dramas, so it ticked all the boxes for me.

Did you find working on Canadian set at all different from working on a UK set?
JG:  It’s pacier there, I have to say. There wasn’t a lot of hanging about, which I loved. I really love working at that sort of pace. I mean, we were shooting an episode a week, an hour of television a week. In the UK, it probably averages 10 days to two weeks, especially for an hour [show]. And the Canadian crews, I was really impressed with their work ethic. They were really lovely. Everybody was so welcoming, and the calibre of the guest stars that we had on the show just blew me away. They were so impressive. I mean, brilliant actors. And then, of course, we had two Canadian actresses [Crystal Balint and Chanelle Peloso] playing the other leading roles, who were just terrific, and we all hit it off really well. So it was a really enjoyable experience, the whole thing.

And also, we don’t tend to have showrunners in [the UK], but that is becoming more and more of a thing, one person sort of overseeing everything. So that was a new experience for me, I’ve never really worked in that way before. And Michael MacLennan, who was our showrunner, our lead writer, our executive producer, he was just wonderful because he was there all the time. He was there every day. It was a wonderful experience. I absolutely adored him because he was really inclusive and really wanted our opinions. He would send us scripts and he would ask us for notes, which is an unusual process. It felt like a sort of collaboration, and it felt like we had quite a lot of input into the kind creative writing process as well. And he was very keen for us to feel involved in that, not so much in the technical writing of it, but in terms of the knowledge and preservation of our characters, of these people that we played before. He was very keen to kind of have our input into their world. And apart from that, he’s just a fantastic human being. I really enjoyed that part of it because he’s a superstar.

In what ways do you think the move to San Francisco has changed Jean this season?
JG: It’s very rare that you get to revisit characters that you’ve already played. But then to put them into such a different environment and different world, it really sort of colours your whole view of how you play somebody because the possibilities are endless. For instance, someone like Jean, if she’d stayed in England and working in London, her life is so predictable because there are so many limitations on a woman like that in the 1950s. She was unmarried, she didn’t have children. The opportunities that she had were very, very limited. And obviously, because she worked at Bletchley Park, she wasn’t allowed to [talk about it]. The whole thing about trying to get a job in the Foreign Service, they just thought that she was mad. As far as they were concerned, she was just a cleric in the war. So when she’s then presented with this sort of whole new shiny world, you can take that in so many different directions. And it’s almost like a spring awakening for a character like her. She just allows herself to see things differently. We had a lot of fun with that. She’s quite a contained, closed character, and to open her up a little bit and have some fun was really liberating.

Jean is central to the last two-part mystery of the season. Can you give us a preview of what happens to her?
JG: She’s put in mortal danger. She’s in a situation where her life is kind of in the balance. And [the story revolves around] how she behaves in that environment, and it has a huge and lasting effect on her. It’s almost like a life-changing event, I think. The very fact that she’s chosen to stay in San Francisco is a huge thing for her anyway. She realizes that life is short and life is precious and that she only has one chance at it, and the situation that she’s put in in the last couple of episodes, it changes her life.

I hope the show gets another season because it still seems rare for a show to focus on the brains of women and also to have interesting lead roles for women in their 40s and 50s. 
JG: I would really love to do it again because it is much tougher when you’re older as a woman. There’s no doubt about it. And you do notice that certain parts dry up. To have these women who are just there and have their own narrative, and they’re not serving a man, and they’re not serving a male narrative, is incredibly refreshing, and I think the show has a lot more to say.

I also think it’s going into an interesting period of time as well. We’re going into the late 1950s and early 60s and, of course, the whole Cold War era is coming up, which I think would be a really interesting thing to explore. And I know Michael was very keen to explore that more. So yeah, here’s hoping. I’d love to do it again.

Is there anything, in particular, you’d like to explore with Jean in Season 2?
JG: I guess her just being a little bit more open and a little bit more relaxed. I mean the possibility that she might even [meet someone]. She’s a spinster. She’s never really had a relationship with anyone, so that might be a possibility. You never know. And the friendships between those women was something that I really loved. In [the original series], it was very driven by plot—it was also driven by character, of course—but it was very much about Bletchley and what these women had achieved. But in the reinvented version, it explores the relationship between them much more. To me, that was a really interesting thing to do as an actor. I’d like to explore that more if we get the chance to do it.

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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