When The Bletchley Circle was cancelled in 2014, millions of viewers were heartbroken. Not only did the series provide a fresh twist on the British mystery genre by focusing on four sleuthing women in the 1950s, but it also unearthed the fascinating history of female codebreakers during the Second World War. Its premature demise seemed like a wasted opportunity.
Writer Laura Good was one of the viewers disappointed by Bletchley‘s end. However, unlike most fans, she was in a position to do something about it. As then-script development manager for Omnifilm Entertainment, she saw a lot of untapped potential in the show’s concept and pitched the idea of a series spin-off set in North America. Her idea led to the creation of The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco, which will broadcast its Season 1 finale, “In for a Pound,” written by Good and showrunner Michael MacLennan, on Citytv Friday night at 8 p.m. ET.
To help prepare us for the big night, we asked Good—whose other credits include CBC’s Burden of Truth and the upcoming Citytv series The Murders—to tell us more about BC:SF‘s origin story and to give viewers a few hints about the “ambitious” finale.
First, can you explain a little bit about what a script development manager does for a production company?
Laura Good: It differs from company to company, but in my work with Omni it meant endlessly pitching series ideas to the development team, writing short pitch packages to hopefully woo a writer into taking over the project, reading books and scripts and recommending them to the team, and supporting writers and showrunners to develop pitches, bibles, and scripts all the way through funded development with broadcasters.
I was so excited to learn that The Bletchley Circle was getting a spin-off. What was it about the original show that made you want to resurrect it?
LG: When I first saw The Bletchley Circle, it got me thinking: if thousands of women had played such a vital role in WWII and yet we’d never heard of them until the Official Secrets Act was lifted, is it possible that the same thing was happening over here as well—that women were cracking codes in the U.S. and Canada—and we just don’t know about it yet? I dug into the history of WWII codebreaking and found evidence that women had contributed to key codebreaking achievements during WWII, but their stories had been lost due to the secrecy of the war effort. At the time that we started developing the show, all that we knew of these stories were footnotes, whispers, and a small handful of notable codebreakers, but I thought, ‘Even if there were only three women breaking code during the war, that’s enough for a TV show.’ Eventually, more research would come out and I discovered that over 10,000 women were, in fact, part of the Signal Intelligence Service during in America during that time, and I have to admit, I felt pretty vindicated for my leap of faith.
From a producing standpoint, the spinoff made so much sense—taking a beloved show and transplanting it west of the Atlantic to bring a new side of the conflict to light that we really hadn’t explored yet on this side of the pond. I was intrigued by these stories and felt like the world should know about these women, whose work shaped Allied victory and, as a result, the Western world we all live in today.
When working on the treatment, did you always plan to transplant some original Bletchley characters to San Francisco? How did you decide on Millie (Rachael Stirling) and Jean (Julie Graham)?
LG: We always hoped to bring over some of the original characters in order to honour the roots of the show and the viewers who were already in love with the series. It was established in the first series that Millie travelled the world after the war, so the runway had already been paved for this kind of crossover. Millie and Jean had a deep friendship and history on screen, as do Rachael and Julie, so it felt like a natural progression for the story and the characters. At every juncture, we tried to really serve the story and make the most authentic decisions, building off of what had been established by [writers] Guy Burt and Jake Lushington in the first series.
Was it at all difficult to sell World Productions, who made the original show, on reviving the series in a new location?
Working with World Productions was a dream from the word go. I had prepared two versions of the show to pitch them on our first call, and I only got through the first pitch before they were sold. They sent over outlines they had developed for future episodes of the original series, and we married them into what became the series pitch document that helped sell the show. Jake has excellent instincts and had a significant hand in shaping the San Francisco series from beginning to end—and always with enthusiasm and style.
The characters in the spin-off are a bit more diverse in terms of race and sexual orientation. Was that a stated goal from the outset?
LG: This was something that the Omnifilm team decided early on that we wanted to bring to the story. We knew there were some important stories that needed to be featured in a North American perspective of WWII codebreaking. Black women were doing incredible work as mathematicians at the time, helping to turn the tide in the war, and leaving an indelible mark on science and computing.
We also found records of the incredibly complex situation that Nisei codebreakers found themselves in as the few remaining Japanese-Americans on the west coast, breaking code for the Americans, against the Japanese fleet, while their families were interned by the very country they were fighting for. It’s worth stopping here to really think about the significance of that experience for a moment. We felt that if we were painting a picture of the United States and Canada at the time, this story had to be included.
The queer element dovetails with some interesting history in codebreaking—there were few disqualifying factors for women in signal intelligence, but being outed as a lesbian was one of them.
I think everyone on the creative team was excited to get to add new stories and perspectives in the San Francisco series, but these are also very realistic, relevant representations of who was there, doing the work, at the time that American women were cracking codes in the west, and so I don’t know how you tell this story without these characters. It was a very organic process and a stated intention from the beginning.
Can you give readers a preview of what they can expect in the last episode? Last we saw, poor Jean had been abducted by the Soviets. Is everything going to get wrapped up or will there be threads left over for another season?
LG: Episode 8 sees the women coming together and using each of their skills in concert in a way that we haven’t seen before. It’s the most ambitious episode yet, and it’s hard to say much more without spoiling, but suffice to say lives will be forever altered, characters will change in ways that they can’t take back, and I think there’s room for new bonds to be made and even broken between characters in the future.
What about The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco makes you most proud?
LG: Two things. One is the way the cast and crew really put their hearts into the show. It was an ambitious and challenging project to bring to life, but over and over, I saw people really showing up in a big way for each other, and they were passionate about telling these stories. I had an incredible time working with people who were proud of their work, who loved what they were doing, and who put that love into the show.
The other thing that stands out for me was a moment while we were filming block three, [Episode 5, “Not Cricket,” and Episode 6, “Iron in War”]. I was sitting behind the monitor when a set dresser walked up to me and whispered, ‘Is Hailey my people?’ I looked at her and knew she was queer, and it made me immensely proud to say, ‘Yeah girl. She’s canon now.’ I feel that way about all the characters on the show. That’s the nature of The Bletchley Circle, that some people will be able to watch it and feel seen in a way that maybe doesn’t happen as often as they’d like. But here is a place they can.
The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco airs Fridays at 8 p.m. ET on Citytv.
Images courtesy of Omnifilm Entertainment.