The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco is all about second chances. The codebreakers in the show get a second shot at using their smarts after post-Second World War society tosses them aside. And the series itself is living a second life, recovered from a scrapheap in the UK and relocated to North America for a fresh round of episodes. But the series also represents an unexpected second chance for showrunner and executive producer Michael MacLennan.
Back in 2013, Bomb Girls, the beloved war drama that MacLennan co-created with Adrienne Mitchell, was abruptly cancelled by Global TV and Shaw Media after its second season. The move touched off a passionate campaign by fans to save the show, but all that came of that was a TV-movie that was, according to MacLennan, “shaping up to be horrible.” So he left the project and went through what he describes as a “very difficult time.”
“I was really just questioning,” he says. “I think I was disappointed because I loved the show. I loved working with all the people I had, but I also felt like I had so much more story to tell.”
There was just a sense of injustice to the situation. “That show never should have been cancelled,” he says. “And it was.”
However, as the entertainment industry mantra goes, the show must go on—even if it’s a different show. So MacLennan picked himself up and went on to write and produce for a string of other successful TV series, including Bitten, The Fosters and This Life, thinking he’d forever left behind all those untold Bomb Girls stories.
But then came The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco. The series was a spin-off to a British show that had also been prematurely scrapped after its second season, and it was in need of an experienced showrunner to guide its production in Vancouver.
“I think they thought of me because of Bomb Girls,” MacLennan explains. “And rather than feeling like I was retreading old tricks, it was exciting to me to think that I might return to that well and continue exploring some things and characters and ideas that I had been prevented from doing.”
Bletchley ended its first season tonight with “In for a Pound,” written by MacLennan and Laura Good. In the final hour, Millie (Rachael Stirling), Iris (Crystal Balint), and Hailey (Chanelle Peloso) worked together to save Jean (Julie Graham) from Russian agents and to recover Iris’ prototype codebreaking machine from a former cryptologist turned Russian spy. The episode also included some intriguing threads to be explored in a potential Season 2, such as the government mole who tipped off the Russians about the prototype and Hailey’s poignant confession of love for Jean.
We asked MacLennan—who won the 2018 Writers Guild of Canada Showrunner Award—to help us unpack some of the events in tonight’s finale, tell us more about the connections between BC: SF and Bomb Girls, and let us know how things are looking for a second season.
When I first learned you were going to be showrunning The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco, I thought that was really interesting because of your connection to Bomb Girls. Bomb Girls explored the lives of women during the war effort, while Bletchley deals with the flip side, with the way women were tossed aside afterwards. Was that something you wanted to explore?
Michael MacLennan: Yes, you’re onto something big there. Thematically, there’s the idea of these women who are underappreciated, underestimated, in a kind of hidden in plain sight sort of situation. And that they are both trying to do good in the wider world. One you could say is trying to fight Hitler, and one is trying to find justice for the victims of these crimes, but the parallel strand is that they are looking to empower themselves. So when I came to the project, I said that I wanted to emphasize those themes.
For me, the project needed three things that were different from what I had seen in the original series: more diversity, more character, and more of a total variety. And [Omnifilm Entertainment and World Productions] were all for that. So it was in the character that I kind of amplified those themes that were still of interest to me, and I felt that now I had another vehicle to kind of tell those stories. And it’s [set] 10 years later, but a lot of the research was very similar. It’s similar terrain in terms of the sort of proto-feminism movement and the ways that women were carving out futures for themselves. It was really quite similar, and I just wanted to continue to tell that.
So, in a way, it is a hidden sequel to Bomb Girls.
How did you go about planning your mystery blocks for the season?
MM: It was a lot of things. We wanted a range of worlds. It was almost like a graph or a cryptographic puzzle in itself. We wanted different communities, we wanted different feelings for the audience, so that, for example, in the first block, we had sort of an inner city, downtown vibe, the second is a suburban kind of feel, and the fourth being a little bit more an international vibe to it. And, of course, we could only do four, so we had tons of other ideas that we just couldn’t get to in the first season.
The other thing that I thought about was who was the final über-villain of sorts. And when you’re doing a two-hour mystery, you need a lot of layers to the onion to pull back. So it was like we didn’t want all of the bad guys to be men, for example, and we didn’t want all the victims to be women.
The other thing I thought about was in each block, who carried the heart of it. And with four lead characters and four mysteries, I traded them out. The first one was Millie, the second was Iris and her marriage, the third was Hailey, and the fourth was Jean. So there was kind of a trading of who has skin in the game. And this is part of the value of a short season, is that before we started shooting, we had written the first six and outlined the last two, so we were able to have a bird’s eye view of the whole season before we started filming. And I think that that made for a better show.
When I spoke with Rachael Stirling and Julie Graham, they both emphasized how much they enjoyed the collaborative relationship they had with you. Was that sort of working arrangement at all unusual for you?
MM: I would say yes and no. It is not unusual in that I always have an open door policy with actors. Every actor who comes on one of my shows, whether a day player or a lead, I phone them and welcome them to the show. I talk to them specifically about why they got the job, and I let them know that I’m there to answer any questions that they might have and be of assistance to them. Partly, it’s because I come from a theatre background and, unlike a lot of writers, I’m not afraid of actors. I respect them. I think part of what I love about my job is watching actors do their thing, whether it’s in editing or on sets or in facilitating their creative process in advance of their performance. But it also helps me to make sure that on the day, as we say, when we’re filming, we’ve talked about it in advance. I have to be honest, it makes more work for me. However, for a lot of actors, it’s not part of their process to really engage too much on that, but for some it really is, and I have to be willing to engage on that. It makes the work better. So that’s the part that is not unusual.
I think the part that is a bit additional, and therefore a little unusual was that I was very upfront with Julie and Rachael. I’ve lived in England, I’ve written other British characters. I was nominated for a Governor General’s Award—which is Canada’s Pulitzer—for a play in which almost all the characters were British. But I’m not British. So if there’s anything in this that doesn’t feel real, if I’m not writing the dialogue right, if there is a different phrase you might use, I want to hear it. Because the worst thing would be for an audience back in the UK to feel like, ‘Eeew, we don’t talk like that.’ So I really, on top of my normal open door policy, I was really wanting their input on the characters and, specifically, the dialogue of their characters to make sure it read true. And I think it was unusual for them to have that level of openness. They said that normally when they make a British show, and certainly it was the case with the Bletchley shows, the writer is not ever on set. They never meet the writer. So it’s a very different way of making television.
I have to say that Hailey’s storyline was one of my favourites this season. There was just something so touching about her trying to figure herself out.
MM: Hailey is obviously a descendant of Betty [Ali Liebert, Bomb Girls] in terms of archetypes. It’s a different story, she’s a different person, but there’s similar life experience, a similar hidden [element].
I didn’t want there to be a big coming out moment. Partially because there wasn’t the language. There’s actually an anachronism in the third block, and it’s the word ‘homosexual.’ It didn’t exist yet. And it’s hard for us to get our heads around that. They called themselves ‘homophiles,’ and there’s another time when we use that word. But the point being that language is such a powerful component of our identity, and when you don’t have language, you don’t have a toe-hold to climb the mountain of your identity. So it’s consciously cryptic, but she doesn’t have to do a lot of heavy lifting because the person closest to her, a sort of parent to her in the shape of Iris, already knows.
I appreciated that Hailey’s struggle was with language and not necessarily with coming out, something that was also reflected in that lovely scene with Jean in the finale.
MM: The ending between Jean and Hailey, where Jean’s response is very cryptic. It needs to be unpacked a bit more in the second season. But the essential dialogue was, ‘You know I love you,’ and then Jean says something like, ‘I do.’ But there’s a big pause there, and she’s managing a lot of emotions and so forth. That was a real direct answer to me of a different conversation at a different bar where a different piece of music was being played that was disastrous. And I’m thinking of Bomb Girls, where Betty kind of made a move on Kate [Charlotte Hegele], and that went so terribly wrong. Hailey has had the benefit of a bit more time, and I think maybe handled things a bit better than Betty did, but we as a culture and as a society have had the benefit of a bit more time with the war and the benefit of 12 more years. So much has happened.
There’s a big line of thinking that feminism would not have been able to take hold if not for the war. Even though it happened, arguably, a generation later, the seeds of it were planted in the war. But before the war, on both sides of the Atlantic, women did not have the opportunity to socialize beyond a very narrowly prescribed circle. And so, suddenly, women from different classes and different parts of the country, and—whether its England or the United States or Canada—people were sharing their stories, they were talking to each other, and in so doing, a tremendous, tremendous power was built up. I think that what we saw at the end of Episode 8 was a kind of result of two women who had gone through the war, had learned a lot, had come to know each other through the previous eight episodes, and so that that kind of coming out didn’t need to be experienced as a crisis.
Please tell me there are plans for a second season?
MM: Yes, but this is where I feel I return to the awful times of Bomb Girls after its second season. But the reviews have been respectable, and the ratings have been very good. For BritBox [in the U.S.], it has been a very good call for them to have made this their first series.
We’ve been asked to put together some ideas about what we would do for a second season, so I’ve put together six good ideas that we can choose from. Hopefully, we’ll know soon. I’m on tenterhooks. Certainly, all the actors want to come back. It was a really fine time. It was really the best professional experience of my career so far.
Images courtesy of Omnifilm Entertainment.