Tag Archives: Rachael Stirling

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: Rachael Stirling on Millie’s upcoming revelation and filming in Canada

When asked if she’s ever been to Canada before this year, British actress Rachael Stirling is quick to say no. And then she pauses for a moment.

“Oh, yes!” she corrects. “I spent one night, an overnight in Toronto with Jonny Lee Miller.”

It’s not what it sounds like. Stirling and the Elementary star were simply working on different projects with the same production company and had a layover on the way to the U.S.

“We went inside the interior of a pool bar—or many pool bars,” she laughs.

That particular night in The Great White North might be a bit hazy in Stirling’s mind, but she got a proper introduction to the country when she filmed The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco in Vancouver this spring, and it was a much more memorable experience.

“The whole thing was an absolute joy,” she says. “Canada looked after us beautifully when we were there.”

Stirling, who phones us from London, played Millie on the 2012-2014 U.K. series The Bletchley Circle, which focused on a group of former Second World War codebreakers who use their skills to solve crimes in 1950s England. In the new spin-off, Millie and Jean—played by Stirling’s fellow original series castmember Julie Graham—follow a murder mystery to San Francisco and form a new codebreaking circle with Iris (Crystal Balint) and Hailey (Chanelle Peloso). After the initial crime is solved, both Brits decide to stay and build new lives in the Bay Area, and more mysteries come their way. 

Stirling says she had no qualms about flying to Canada to reprise her role—”I’d just had a baby, I had no time to have any reservations,” she laughs—but it was “an odd thing not to be able to see a script before you sign on. They weren’t all finished.”

However, that script delay ended up giving her the opportunity to influence the growth of her character once production began.

“I think by the end of the show, we really enjoyed the kind of communication [that occurred] between execs and us and our beautiful showrunner Michael MacLennan,” Stirling notes. “It became a symbiotic sort of thing, where we collaborated increasingly, and I very much enjoyed that process.”

Stirling says that Canadian television shoots at a much quicker pace than it does in the UK. This led to a nightly “kick bollocks scramble” known as the “Bletchley Blitz,” where the cast and crew attempted to film the last scene of the day in a short amount of time—often through fits of fatigue-induced giggles. But that breakneck speed exposed the professionalism and “Canadian can-do” that was present on the set.

“It was so different from filming in England,” Stirling marvels. “There feels, to me, like there’s less of a hierarchy on set. Because a script editor can turn into a director. And indeed one of our best directors, Alexandra La Roche, started off as a script editor, and another director had been a [director of photography], David Frazee. I really enjoyed that work ethic. Everyone seems to understand a little bit more about what the other person is trying to do.”

If shooting in Canada was an enjoyable change of pace for Stirling, she believes moving the show’s setting from London to San Francisco was also invigorating for the series.

“I think it’s less dark by virtue that we’re in the California sunshine, and we replicated that pretty beautifully,” she explains. “And there’s something hopeful in the palate of this show. Something a bit more sparkly. It takes itself just as seriously, but I think it’s more fun. There are more hijinks involved. It’s just joyous and a bit more waggily-tailed and a bit less spectacled.”

Another change between the original series and the spin-off is the amount of time dedicated to character growth.

“What I loved about the San Francisco version is that the characters are slightly more interrogated as the show goes along,” Stirling says. “Whereas, the first two [seasons], you had a bit less room to find out who the women were and see how they relate to each other outside of the crime scenes.”

Viewers will particularly get to know more about Millie and Hailey in upcoming Episodes 5 and 6, “Not Cricket” and “Iron in War (written by MacLennan and Daegan Fryklind, respectively, and directed by La Roche),” when the codebreakers try to crack the patterns behind a series of vicious assaults in the city.

“You learn a lot about [Millie’s] history, and there were always certain things in the previous show that were supposed by viewers, and we address that in terms of where she’s been and who she’s been with and where she sees herself in society,” she hints. “It’s a real revelation.”

Stirling says she’d be willing to jet back to Vancouver for another season of Bletchley, so long as her husband, Elbow frontman Guy Garvey (who makes a late-season cameo), and their young son, Jack, can come along like they did this spring. “We were all able to just go together as a family, and I really relished that,” she says.

She also believes that it’s important for the stories to continue to be top-notch because she’s protective of Bletchley‘s characters.

“You just want something to be as good as it can possibly be and not take your eye off the ball,” Stirling says. “That’s how I feel about these women. I want to look after them as best we can.”

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

Images courtesy of Omnifilm Entertainment