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The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco: Showrunner Michael MacLennan on the finale, how the show is a “hidden sequel” to Bomb Girls, and the chances of Season 2

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.

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Crystal Balint brings music and morality to The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco

As all actors know, auditioning can be a heartbreaking experience. You connect with a character, feel you’re perfect for the part, knock it out of the park in the casting session … and then get told you’re not what the project is looking for.

So, it’s natural to develop coping mechanisms, especially if, like actress Crystal Balint, you’ve been working in Canadian and American television for more than 17 years.

“I tend to keep a little bit of distance from characters—even if I fall in love with them—because you just never know,” she says. “But this was one I couldn’t help but fall in love with right out of the gate.”

Balint is speaking of jazz pianist and former cryptologist Iris, one of four co-lead characters in the new mystery series The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco. “As soon as I saw the script and read the pages I was sent, I immediately felt I had a connection with Iris,” she says. “I felt this was someone I could bring justice to.”

Luckily, showrunner Michael MacLennan and the series’ other producers agreed, showing great “excitement” and “enthusiasm” for her two auditions. She was exactly what this project was looking for.

In late January, just three weeks after her first reading, Balint landed the part. “I was just thrilled,” she says. “I had been a fan of the original series, so I was really eager to see where we were going to go with this one.”

The show is a spin-off of UK series The Bletchley Circle, which ran for two seasons and focused on four former Second World War codebreakers who solved crimes in their spare time. Last Friday’s premiere episode on Citytv saw original series characters Millie (Rachael Stirling) and Jean (Julie Graham) travel to California to investigate a murder that appears similar to one that occurred in London during the war. Once in the Bay Area, the amateur—but brilliantly skilled—detectives meet up with former U.S. military members Iris and Hailey (Chanelle Peloso), who agree to help them with the case, thus, forming a new circle of sleuths.

Balint, who has previously appeared in The L-Word, Supernatural, The Good Doctor and Mech-X4, phoned from Vancouver to tell us what she loves about Iris, what it was like working with Rachael Stirling and Julie Graham, and what viewers can expect from this new iteration of The Bletchley Circle.

This spin-off features two original cast members, but also two new leads and a brand new setting. How did that play out on set? Did it feel like you were joining an established show or kicking off something brand new? 
Crystal Balint: You know, I think both Julie Graham and Rachael Stirling came in with very open minds and open hearts, and they came in with so much excitement and so much enthusiasm for what we were endeavouring to do with this spin-off. I never got the sense from either of them that there were any sort of hang-ups that they were feeling or any sort of reluctance to try any of the new directions that we were heading. They both came in really open-minded and very supportive to the vision that Michael [MacLennan] had for this particular spin-off of the show.

They, of course, in carrying that torch of The Bletchley Circle storyline for their two characters, worked very closely with Michael and made sure that they thought their storylines had been honoured from the original series. But I didn’t feel in any way that they were stifling or that they weren’t willing to also play. In fact, they were the opposite. They were really eager to explore what might happen to Jean and Millie in America, and they were really excited to do that both with Michael and with me and Chanelle Peloso, and just explore where this goes in a completely different setting. We looked to them for some guidance in some areas, but we were all sort on this fresh new ship with this show. It was really wonderful.

Your character, Iris, introduces Jean and Millie—and the audience—to the Fillmore, the neighbourhood of San Francisco where multiple murders are taking place. Did you do a lot of research into the area?
When I was invited onto the project in January, I had approximately seven weeks to prepare before we went to camera, which was late March. And I’m sort of a history nerd, which is why I was a fan of the original show, so I was really excited and really eager to start digging and learning about both the time period and the women that actually did this job and also the area in which the show takes place. Like I do with a lot of projects, if there is some kind of reference for me to glob onto, I will generally go full hog into that. I will just go as deep as I possibly can.

So I went down to San Francisco for a weekend and sort of hit the pavement and met with people in the Fillmore who were knowledgeable about the history of the [area], particularly in that time period. I also visited the area where the Presidio was and spoke with some individuals there, and I just sort of walked the streets to get an idea of the [places] and of the streets that we mention on the show. Even though, of course, they’re completely different now.

I felt it was really important for me to get a sense of just what that city felt like, because if you’ve ever been to San Francisco, it’s a very vibrant city, and that area has so much life and so much history. I spent a fair bit of time sort of rooting Iris and her family and her experience, so it gave me some foundation when I started to build who she was.

Did you do the same with the history of American codebreakers?
CB: I did, yes. There’s an excellent book written by an author named Liza Mundy called Code Girls that was released sort of serendipitously last fall. It covers in great detail the amount of input that the American female workforce put into the Second World War, once the U.S. joined the war after Pearl Harbor. And even before that, she goes into great detail about codebreaking efforts that were in place that led to this mass explosion once the U.S. entered the war. That’s something that not a lot of people knew about. We knew about Bletchley Park, of course, and that’s being featured in lots of movies and also television shows like The Bletchley Circle, but there has not been a ton of information available to us about what happened on our side of the pond, in the U.S. and Canada.

I think I got about three-quarters of the way through the book before I had to start shooting, but I tried to absorb as much as I could. Not so much the logistics of codebreaking, because I’ll be totally honest, I don’t have a mathematical mind and those who do, I bow down to. It’s an incredibly complex art form, I would say. But I did want to understand what it was like to be a woman in the 40s when it was not something that came every day, the opportunity to really save lives, in a really abstract sense but in a very important sense. And then what it was like to be snatched up out of what you’re expected to do as a woman, asked to carry this incredible task and then released and sort of forgotten about—which is really what we talk a fair bit about in both series of The Bletchley Circle.

Iris is a jazz pianist, and in real life, you’re a singer. Did that shared love of music help you better understand her character?
CB: Yes, absolutely. When I was asked to read for the project, that was another thing that really stuck out for me. It doesn’t happen often in film and TV, at least for me, that there is a crossover. Music is a big part of my life. I’ve been singing since I was quite young, and I play a couple of instruments. I’m not a pianist, but I’ve dabbled. Music, in general, is a big part of my life, so wherever I find any opportunity, it gets me a little bit jazzed up—no pun intended.

It was really lovely to incorporate those elements into breathing life into Iris because music can be very mathematical. Those who do particularly jazz, from my understanding of it—and again I don’t have formal training in it, but from my understanding of jazz and its complexities—there is a very sort of mathematical, rhythmic thing that occurs there. So just me being a fan of music and being a lover of music, it was really nice to be able to just have that be a part of who Iris was.

And we had an incredible composer working on this show. It was just so lovely to have those pieces be, not just a part of Iris’ life, but part of the world that we find these women in. Jazz is sort of like another character in this San Francisco environment. So it really did help me. I listened to a lot of music. I listened to old jazz, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday. Just every time I was in my car driving anywhere, doing any errands, walking, I was listening to jazz, and I was really trying to get that in my body.

What else really drew you to Iris?
CB: I really love Iris’ fortitude. She has a really strong sense of who she is. I wouldn’t say it was rare in that time period for a woman of her ilk, an African American woman living and working in a city like San Francisco, but there is something really grounded about that and really inspiring about that. I think one of the things I loved most about the way she was written—and the way I perceived her to be and I tried to bring to life—is that she had such a strong moral core because she knows exactly who she is, and she’s not willing to budge on that. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t have moments of doubt, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t sort of struggle with things, but at the end of the day, I think Iris sleeps well. Because she knows in every day, she ‘s done her best.

That’s why when we meet Iris in that first episode, it really throws her off her game, because she knows what she should do, but then there’s this life that she’s put together, and she knows in her heart of hearts what is required of her and what’s necessary and what her instincts are telling her to do. But she struggles, like all of us, like every person.

I love her love of her family. I mean that’s always an appealing quality when you find characters like that. I call her a lioness. She fights for her family, and through the course of the series, you start to find that she incorporates these other women into that, and realizes that that’s also a part of who she is.

What do you think viewers will most enjoy about this version of the show?
CB: I think what people will enjoy most about this show is that it’s a fun kind of romp. I mean, there’s some serious stuff that we tackle, to be sure. We cover a whole range of serious issues that were taking place in the 50s. You know, the civil rights movement hasn’t quite started yet, but things have happened, and women’s rights are beginning, and gay rights are starting to become a thing, and there is stuff going on with the Cold War—but nothing has quite blossomed yet.

So, what’s lovely about that is that we got this opportunity to play in this environment where there are serious things, but there’s also some life to it. There is life, there is colour. It’s different from the first series, where Britain’s a very different time after the war. There were rations. But there’s just a different energy in San Francisco. So, I think what viewers will really love that this is California in the 50s in this hotbed of change, and it’s colourful and it’s fun and amidst all of this, there’s some great humour. And at the core of it, these fantastic relationships with these women that just grab you. It makes you think about the relationships in your own life. Do I stand up for what I believe in? Do I fight for my people? There’s something lovely about that.

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

Images courtesy of Omnifilm Entertainment

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