Tag Archives: Michael MacLennan

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.


The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco: Writer Laura Good on the spin-off’s origin story and the Season 1 finale

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.

The first table read, hearing Rachael and Julie reading their first lines—it felt like magic.

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.


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.


Bomb Girls’ Michael MacLennan on his WGC Screenwriting Award Nomination


This year’s Writers Guild of Canada Screenwriting Award winners will be announced on April 22. We’ve been catching up with many of the writers nominated in the comedy and drama categories. Bomb Girls‘ Michael MacLennan was nominated for his episode “Jumping Tracks.”

Can you describe the episode “Jumping Tracks” and how it fit into the Bomb Girls season?

“Jumping Tracks” is the first episode of the series, establishing the “world” of the show, setting up the central characters and their various interconnections, and beginning the major themes, conflicts and storylines that launch the show, garner an audience, and serve as a blueprint for the episodes to come.  In other words, there’s a lot that goes into those 50 pages!

What was the biggest triumph in this particular episode?

Triumph?  Hm, I’d have to say two: when Lorna, a modestly educated, working-class woman, finds the courage to stand up to a doctor in order to protect one of her girls (Vera) and give her top-tier medical treatment reserved for soldiers.  And in a different light, I’d say the moment when Gladys decides to accept a marriage proposal from Lewis, a man she barely met, before he goes overseas, likely never to be seen again.  There’s something about how she elects to boldly give comfort and bolstering to this fellow — and in so doing, offers us — and herself — an inkling of just what she’s capable of.

What does this recognition mean to you?

It’s huge.  It’s the one opportunity for the script to be recognized AS a script, and given all the thinking and writing that’s gone into it, it means a great deal, especially since it is, as they say, a jury of one’s peers.

Bomb Girls is airing its second season on Global on Monday nights.