Members of The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco cast and crew attended the TCA Summer 2018 Press Tour a few weeks ago, and I had the opportunity to chat with them about their new show — the first BritBox Original series.
The interviews below have been edited for clarity and length.
Julie Graham (Jean McBrian)
It isn’t often that a popular television program gets resurrected years later as a follow-up series (versus a straight-up reboot like Doctor Who), so I asked Julie how The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco came about.
“Well, it was a wonderful woman called Laura Good, a young woman who’s a writer and works in production in Canada. She was a huge fan of the [original Bletchley Circle] show and she just felt that it had legs, so she approached a Canadian production company and said, ‘Look, I think we can take this show somewhere else cos there was a code-breaking station in San Francisco that was also manned by women, and their story hasn’t been told, and I think we can combine the stories and take it in a whole other direction.’ So it was her brainchild.
“And then of course we have a wonderful showrunner, Michael MacLennan… and the production company in conjunction with BritBox, so it all stems from this one woman having a fantastic idea… I love that. I love the fact that she was such a fan and made it happen.”
Happen it did. So it follows that it’s also rare for an actor to get to play the same character in two related but different series, and I wondered aloud about how it felt for Julie to re-inhabit the character of Jean McBrian.
“For me, it was thrilling because I loved playing her the first time round, and I’m always quite surprised how much people love her… I think everybody had, when they were growing up, a kind of auntie or somebody in their life who was a bit like Jean. You know, a solid woman who was no-nonsense but kind and reliable and would figure things out.
“I based her on a lot of my aunts and people in my life when I was growing up. A lot of these women weren’t married, but they were kind of aunts to everybody. I think that’s why people like [Jean] so much. I think they feel quite safe around her… She’s comforting and she’s someone you can completely rely on. She’s without any vanity and she’s not self-serving in any way… And she’s very relatable… and very accessible.
“And also I think there’s something fascinating about women of that generation, as well. They’re not self-serving in any way whatsoever. They keep their own counsel. They’re very dignified. They’ve got a lot of self-respect. They come from a different age. You know, we’re all kind of self-obsessed now. We’re all kind of navel-gazing constantly, focusing in on ourselves, how we feel, and all that stuff, and women like Jean just got on with it, you know? I don’t think there’s enough of that these days, frankly. I think we could go back to those old-fashioned values a bit more.”
(I couldn’t agree more, but that’s a topic for another time and another article.)
In the new series opener, Millie (played by Rachael Stirling) wants Jean to go with her to San Francisco to investigate a possible serial killer from their Bletchley days. It’s the kind of adventure that seems out of character for the staid, no-nonsense Jean, so Julie offered up details about her character’s backstory and explained why it took very little convincing on Millie’s part for Jean to agree to go.
“I think she’s at a kind of a dead end in her life. I mean, life has just carried on, and when Millie comes along and suggests [going to San Francisco] to her, at first she’s horrified, but actually the catalyst is — you know she’s reached a dead end because she’s actually applied to go into the diplomatic service or foreign service, so she has made inroads to try to change her life… She goes for this interview and she’s interviewed by a man who patronizes her, and she realizes very quickly that he’s not going to give her the job because there’s so many things going on — there’s sexism involved, there’s ageism involved. She cannot ever, ever reveal her true qualifications because of the secrecy that she’s sworn to through Bletchley Park, so all she can ever say is she worked in clerical, but enhanced clerical. So this man has no idea of how skilled she is because she’s not allowed to say.
“So I think the sheer frustration of not being able to move on with her life is the catalyst for her agreeing to go with Millie. Otherwise, I don’t think she would’ve. I think she would’ve been horrified and stayed put. But I think this job interview is so crushing to her that she sees her life all stretched out ahead of her, all the same old routine, and she decides to go for it and mix it up a bit and be brave and be dragged along on Millie’s coattails.”
Julie then added some historical perspective on that interview scene.
“It encapsulated the experience of women generally in that time. So many women were frustrated because they just were not allowed to move forward with their lives, because they were prevented from doing so. And actually, the thing that’s brushed over is that, even if [Jean] gets the job, [the interviewer] says to her, ‘If you ever get married, obviously you’ll have to give it up’ — that was the reality in those days. They were very reluctant to employ women because if they did go and get married, they’d have to give up work, which is extraordinary when you think it’s not that long ago that women actually had to give up work because they got married. I think what’s wonderful is that encapsulates not just Jean’s experience but the experience of so many women in that position.”
Personal pain was the catalyst for Jean going to San Francisco, and after unmasking the killer at the end of the first two-part story, it looks like Jean is set to return to London. So what has her stay in the City by the Bay?
“Well, there’s that [i.e. the thought of going back to her old life], but then something else happens to her. She goes through a bit of a life-changing experience, where her kind of life is threatened and she realizes that, actually, life is to be lived and life’s too short and she’s got to seek every opportunity that she can…
“It comes about in the second story. She finds herself in a situation where… she just thinks, ‘Yeah, I can’t go back to my boring old life, otherwise what’s the point?’ So there’s lots of things that kind of tell her to stay or convince her to stay.”
Michael MacLennan (Showrunner) & Alexandra La Roche (Director, “Not Cricket” & “Iron in War” episodes)
I was thrilled to bits about chatting with Michael and Alexandra, as I wanted to learn more and share with you some of the finer points about production on The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco, because visually it is quite stunning. But before we got into the more technical aspects of the series, we started with how Alexandra got involved with the production and the historical and storytelling significance of San Francisco.
Alexandra: “I was approached by Michael, and we talked at length about the show. I had watched the original series and I was a fan, so immediately when I heard about it, I wanted to be a part of it. And of course, the only thing that worried me would be to live up to how much I liked the original series, and as soon as I met Michael and spoke with him and we talked about the backdrops and San Francisco, I knew that this was going to be brilliant and that I wanted to be a part of it.
“I was always inspired by these women, the original women, and just the historical context of these brilliant women who really are the unsung heroes. They’re overlooked and they’re underestimated at every turn, but because they come together and forge these friendships and these relationships, they push each other to realize their potential and to use their abilities. And that took a lot of courage at that time in history. A lot of courage.
“It’s almost as if they can only be themselves fully when they’re together because no one else knows how brilliant they are, and they really can’t say, and of course they don’t because in those days you didn’t.”
Michael: “You might threaten the man.”
Alexandra: “Yeah. So when you see them together, you get to — they get to be themselves and then they push each other to have the courage to be themselves. And we as the audience get to see that. It’s like being a fly on the wall in history.”
Speaking of history, there were three locations in America with code-breaking facilities during World War II, so I asked Michael to explain why, of them, San Francisco was chosen as the setting for the series.
Michael: “Great point, great question. So, just to recap, two of the main centers of cryptography in the war were Arlington, Virginia, and Hawaii. For us, it was about the world… These two British women were coming to a new world — coming to, in a way, the future, from a war-torn, teeth-kicked-out-of-it city, to something completely different. Arguably Hawaii would be even more different, but it’s not a world that was going to make sense for us, setting [the series] in the mid-‘50s.
“But San Francisco, arguably the most iconic city in North America, was the most different for two people who lived in and made a life for themselves until this point in England… In doing the research, just looking at what an exciting time California was in the ‘50s and specifically San Francisco — the jazz in the city, the beat poets, the beginnings of so many of the movements that we think about as sort of defining the second half of the century in terms of the women’s movement and [San Francisco being] an important locus for the civil rights movement. We just felt like it was a world that offered an appeal but also a trove of stories and a way to really get the most out of our 1950s setting.”
For anyone who’s ever visited or seen photos of San Francisco, you know it’s quite the colorful city. Color is key in the production design of The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco, and I asked Michael to share about the color palettes used in the series.
Michael: “Well, firstly, there’s really two color palettes in the first episode because the first 15 minutes are England. And even within that there’s war England and then there’s 14 years later England. So we really wanted to play up the contrast of that…
“These mysteries have real stakes, they have emotional consequence for our characters, and to varying degrees there’s some darkness to them. And within that it was important to us to build a world that we want to be in, that we enjoy visiting every hour that we go there for the show. And it’s easily done once you start to do research about California and the kind of ‘50s colors that people painted their rooms with. People weren’t living a beige existence…
“Technicolor was really a big thing then. These women are sort of living their lives in Technicolor in a way, so we wanted that to be reflected in the production design of the show… I think it’s also reflected in the vitality of the camerawork, so in a way we’re trying to make the show familiar to fans of the original series, but time has changed. It’s set years later. Television has changed in the five years since the show was on the air, and we’re setting it in a different world. We needed to make sure it was both familiar but also newer. Lexi can speak more about the camera style of the show.”
Alexandra: “There really was a style in terms of both the camerawork and in the lighting. Kamal Derkaoui was the Director of Photography, absolutely brilliant, and he always had a vision in terms of where the light was and making sure that that backdrop was always in a very vital kind of lighting, a dynamic kind of lighting, while still keeping it ‘period.’ So there’s a feeling of being in another time when you watch these shows, which is so subtle and yet vibrant and keeps you in that story longer…
“We’re very much about the color, both in terms of California and in terms of the ‘50s — layers of the visual, and the show is very visual — and that was kind of the commitment to San Francisco. It’s such a visually fascinating place!”
Rachael Stirling (Millie Harcourt)
The last of my back-to-back Bletchley interviews was with Rachael Stirling. As with Julie Graham, I wanted to know how it felt for Rachael to re-inhabit the character of Millie in a show that’s similar to yet different from the original Bletchley series.
“It was refreshing. It was lovely to come back to a character like Millie and discovering all the things I loved about her. She’s a bit older, a bit wiser. And the whole show, as you say, feels like it has commonalities with the original, but actually… it feels like we know what the show is now. It feels like it’s about the sisterhood, about the commonality between these women, about the collaboration between them, but also these wonderful elements of the music, the jazz, that San Francisco introduces them to.
“There’s so much more diversity. One of our new cast members is the beautiful Crystal [Balint], who is not one of the white Miss Marples… It’s a bit lighter in tone than the original, and in the very serious aspects of it, it’s still these women, post-war, not being able to use their brains in any satisfactory way, not being able to serve their country in any satisfactory way after the war. The entertainment aspect is that we get about using our brains to solve crimes.
“And also the relationships between the characters, I feel like Michael MacLennan really allowed time in the show to develop these characters as well as to spin a good yarn. You do get to see these women from totally different backgrounds get to know one another and you see them acknowledging the differences between them as well as the things that they’ve got in common.
“So it’s a sort of fish out of water. Jean and Millie are very much fish out of water and they’re confronted by the new world; they don’t know anything about America and society there… But it’s true to the original in the sense that you see bright women — superheroes with handbags — using their brains to crack crimes. I think it’s fun and it’s lighthearted and it’s what it’s supposed to be: entertaining. And we hope that people are entertained.”
I certainly have been with the three episodes to date, which are lighter in look and feel than the original series but whose stories still carry dark undertones. Given this, I was curious to know Rachael’s take on being situated in dark stories that are told in the midst of vibrant colors, and learned more about her perspective on the series and on television in general in the process.
“It’s a great contrast to have these bright colors. The sunlight is what you don’t get in London. The quality of light of San Francisco is what Kamal, our brilliant DOP [Director of Photography] has really used, and it sets up, as you say, a great contrast between the darkness of the plot and the kind of shininess of the new world. And it also makes the show as a product a bit more glitzy, a bit more glam, a bit shinier in that regard. It has a sort of different character to it and the lighting is integral to that.
“And I think, yes, London was incredibly dreary in the ‘50s, and the grey palette of the original Bletchley was true to that and told that story, and this has a vibrancy to it and an energy to it and a shininess to it. It is an American and British [and Canadian] collaboration of a show and I think that it’s sort of beautifully encapsulated visually by our DOP, who was with us throughout the whole shoot and who, my god, knows how to light women’s faces. It’s a lovely, new tone that the show inhabits well.
“The first three-parter we always thought was going to be its own thing. We didn’t think there was going to be a second series. Our brains don’t work like that in England, or they didn’t then in terms of television. It was a one-off three-parter and that was it. It was because of its popularity that we then revisited it and did the next four episodes, and very much again we thought, ‘Right, that’s it.’ So each time the show has resuscitated, it has a different incarnation, both with the women that come to play in the show and the nature of the stories that we’re trying to tell. And I really feel that in this incarnation, it has that color and that vibrancy and the wonderful Californian light, which you don’t get to see on a British telly very often, I can tell you.
“The other thing I find so exciting is actors — all these wonderful American and Canadian actors that we were able to cast in the show. They’re not recognizable faces to a British audience, and I always think that’s such a relief… and great joy. I think that’s why we have a great appetite for the Nordic dramas — we can’t put those faces in a box, we don’t know who these actors are or where they come from, we don’t know what to expect — and I think that’s thrilling, the introduction of Iris and Hailey and Ben Cotton’s character, the policeman, whom I adored. We don’t know them, they’re not known quantities to us, and that’s always, I find, a joy in television, to be introduced to new actors and new talent…
“We’ve seen up to [episodes] five and six now, and I’m so incredibly proud of each of the storylines. As we start each of the storylines, we get more confident with what we are and what we’re making and how we’re making it, and is it the kind of telly that we want to watch. And it is, because I want to.
“Of course, there’s great room for and it’s necessary to see very dark reality or hardship and to have reflection on our screens, but then there’s another form of entertainment which is lighthearted and fun and [with] elements of camp and hijinks and comedy and just not so taxing for the viewer that you feel drained at the end of it. There are nights when you want to turn on your telly and be entertained in the old-fashioned sense and made to smile.
“Our unique point is that you assume these four women are there not as foils to men but simply in their own right forming friendships and trying to find a purpose in life. And I find it a joy to watch, a happy way to be entertained for an hour, and I’m really thrilled that we did come back to it and we’ve given it this reboot. I think it’s justified and I’m proud of it.”
Rachael describing the new series as “a happy way to be entertained” reminded me of how there was little to no humor injected into the original series.
“There wasn’t any. We were longing for it, but it was so plot orientated and I feel like in the original we thought we were making something quite dark and serious, perhaps by virtue of the very greyness of the world in which we were inhabiting. The relocation and the vibrancy of San Francisco allows us a levity, a lightness, and a kind of lightness of touch that enhances your enjoyment.
“You want to see the women banter. I want to see the women banter off duty; I don’t just want to see them talking about how to solve a crime. I want to see them eating and talking and dealing with the cultural differences, and I think Michael cleverly allows us scope to do that in this new incarnation. It must, of course, have a plot that drives the story forward, but actually you turn in to see the characters, don’t you, in the end, and that’s a very lovely, human aspect of it. You know, do they make each other laugh, and if they do, how?
“Especially if you’ve got genuine relationships like Jules and I have had for 20 years. We properly make each other howl in laughter. It would be a shame not to draw on that, and in this series we’re allowed to. And in the next couple of stories you’ll see Jules and Millie have a bit of a tiff, and there’s time allotted for that kind of character development. To me that makes it much more attractive as a show. It’s not just about cracking a code; it’s about charting a friendship.
“It’s all about accessibility and entertainment and these wonderful women who are superhero sleuths with handbags, who are great role models. The things they consider to be most important are loyalty, friendship, and purpose, but we do manage to have a laugh along the way.”
So in looking ahead, and considering the prominent role that jazz music has in the series, I had just one question left: Will we get to see Millie dance?
“I don’t know where you got that idea from, but yes, you do. You get to see Millie let her hair down. You also get to see Jean do something highly unlikely. You get to see Jean with her hair out of place. That’s all I’m saying. Jean has something of a makeover and Millie cuts a rug.”
I can’t wait to see it.
Episode 4 of The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco premieres in the US and Canada tomorrow, August 15, exclusively on BritBox, as well as on the BritBox channel on Amazon US. The remaining four episodes will debut on successive Wednesdays through September 12.
My thanks to Julie, Rachael, Michael, and Alexandra for our chats, and to BritBox for arranging the interviews.
Share this post/page.