THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE, originally produced in the U.K. by ITV in 2012 and 2014, aired in the U.S. on PBS. Set in 1950s England, it told the story of four women who had worked together during WWII as code-breakers at the top-secret Bletchley Park facility. After the war ends, the very different characters come together to use their wartime skills to solve murders.

Now the streaming service Britbox has joined forces with ITV to bring forth THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE: SAN FRANCISCO. Original BLETCHLEY CIRCLE characters Millie, played by Rachael Stirling, and Jean, played by Julie Graham, have been out of the unofficial detective game for awhile. However, when the death of a Bletchley colleague appears linked to a killing in San Francisco, the two erstwhile colleagues decide to head to California. Millie and Jean wind up joining forces with some U.S. counterparts who cracked WWII codes at the Presidio. For English Millie and Scottish Jean, tracking the killer shares equal time with absorbing major culture shock.

Stirling, who has also appeared in films and TV series including STILL CRAZY, THE YOUNG VICTORIA, DOCTOR WHO, and DETECTORISTS, sits down to talk about her new adventures working in Vancouver, portraying Millie’s experiences in the Bay Area of the ‘50s.

ASSIGNMENT X: How surprised were you when THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE circled back around?

RACHAEL STIRLING: Very. Knocked over. Also, I’d just had a baby, so my brain was very much in my mammaries. I did not expect to be offered the chance to reprise the part of Millie in a new incarnation of THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE, set in San Francisco. I mean, it was about as strange a proposition as one could have imagined, beyond my wildest imagining. I then talked to Michael [MacLennan], the show runner, and understood the plot and the idea, and how it was that we got there in the first place, and of course they take the two spinsters from the show [laughs], who’ve got no family, and take us over to San Francisco. And it all began to make sense. I also think it was the promise of slightly reinventing the show in the New World. It’s a bit shinier, it’s a bit glossier, it’s jazzier, I think it’s a bit more fun, I think it takes itself a little bit less seriously. It still does credit to these brilliant women, but it’s about entertainment, and it’s about collaboration and friendship and good plot, and a gorgeous set of characters. And I think it’s the kind of telly I would like to sit down and watch on a Sunday.

AX: Did they ascertain that you and Julie Graham were available before they wrote the scripts?

STIRLING: Yes. But the actual story of how it came to pass was that Omnifilm Entertainment, who have been one of the big producers of the show, one of their executives, Brian [Hamilton], had an assistant called Laura Goode, who is very young, bright, looks like Pippi Longstocking, long dark hair and glasses. And she said to Brian, “There’s this amazing show in England called THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE, and it’s just been canceled, and I believe that there is a way of reincarnating this, and of bringing some characters from Bletchley over to meet some of the code-breakers from the Presidio.” We fudge that a bit, obviously. “And I think there’s a way of making this work.” Brian watched the original, and then came back to Laura and said, “Go away, go on a writing course, and write me a treatment, and show me how we would make this work.” So Laura went away, went on a writing course, and wrote a treatment for how THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE could be reincarnated as THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE: SAN FRANCISCO, and that’s actually why we’re all here, because of this glorious, young, enthusiastic person who took one look at the original and said, “I love these characters, and I think we need to bring it back.”

AX: THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE: SAN FRANCISCO seems to have opened things up a little from the first two series. The cast is more racially diverse, and it tackles subjects like the U.S. internment of American citizens of Japanese ethnicity during WWII, but it also seems to have a slightly lighter tone. On the other hand, it’s a little odd to move BLETCHLEY to America, because the original was so British …

STIRLING: See, the thing is, it was so British. I really feel like it’s got the same element of brilliant minds, but [THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE: SAN FRANCISCO] is a romp, it’s a good sleuthing whodunit romp, and we get taken on the journey, on the wave of these four witty, fun, interesting women. We’re not trying to do justice through art to the women who worked at Bletchley. You can’t do that. The only way we can do justice to them is by honoring them, in this day and age, is by recognizing what it was they did. But this show is not about doing that. It’s about entertaining an audience, and using a true fact, which is that there were nine thousand women who worked at Bletchley, after which only six hundred went on to be employed afterwards. The rest were put out to pasture, and were never allowed to say what it was they did during the war, and were never allowed to call upon their higher-ups to give them a c.v. [resume] reference. So they were literally rammed back into domesticity and put out to pasture. Now, what do you do, how do you make a form of entertainment using bright minds and the kind of absolute disillusionment that they feel post-war, when there’s no purpose for them in life?

The idea of the show is that they put their minds to work cracking crimes, collaborating, bilateral trade agreements between the United States and London [laughs], which, we’d have no show, I suppose, if Trump were president in those days. It’s about collaboration – it’s about collaboration between nations, collaboration between women, it’s about collaboration between Canada and England and America. So actually, this show has come about through the spirit of collaboration, and actually, it comes about down to character, it’s because people wanted to see these characters again, I feel, and because we’ve got a good old loyal fan base. I think always, when something is reincarnated, there will be an element of resistance, like, “This isn’t the way it was when I first saw it.” But it’s not trying to be the way it was when you first saw it. It’s trying to take a couple of the characters and put them as fish out of water in this whole brave new world, and see what happens when they meet their fellow code breakers who feel similarly displaced and disillusioned, and how they come together to collaborate, to find purpose in life.

Rachael Stirling in THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE: SAN FRANCISCO |©2018 Britbox

Rachael Stirling in THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE: SAN FRANCISCO |©2018 Britbox

AX: Did you feel any fish out of water-ness as an English actor working in Vancouver, where THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE: SAN FRANCISCO?

STIRLING: Very much. They used to say, “Where are the Brits?” [laughs] “Bring on the Brits!” And of course, we were like, “Who are the Brits? Oh, s***, we’re the Brits.” Me and Jules were the only Brits, so we were like, “Oh, right.” We got wheeled out. So, yeah. There was just a lot of love for this show. I think the thing is, this is not a war story. There are elements of truth – this is fun, this is entertainment, this is bright women, superheroes with handbags, and brains. That’s what we are.

AX: Had you worked in Vancouver before?

STIRLING: Never. Never been to Vancouver.

AX: How is working in Vancouver, compared to working in England?

STIRLING: Very fast-moving. We do an episode in eleven days, and two cameras were always on set. In England, you’d have one. Always two cameras, and two great cinematographers, who are used to working together, and our d.o.p. [director of photography] Kamal Derkaoui, who made it really look absolutely beautiful, and brought that element of light, and of California-cation to the whole thing. So I loved working in Vancouver. In England, you do this awful thing called eleven-day fortnights, where you work for six days, you have one day off, and then you work for five days, and you have two days off. In Vancouver, you get two days off, no matter what’s happening, because you work so long, the hours are so long. On a Monday, you start at seven and you finish at nine, but you push the hours all the time, so on a Friday-slash-“Fraturday,” you start at ten and you don’t finish until two o’clock in the morning on Saturday. So weekends are sacrosanct. There’s just a brilliant work ethic, and it’s about getting things done.

And I find, if you’re working within constraints, everybody does their best work actually under a bit of pressure. Not too much pressure, but a certain amount of pressure, everybody’s allowed to work to their artistic reach, and you just grab every ounce of energy that you can, because the days are long, and the work is fast. So I loved it, I really loved it. And then I was very grateful when Saturday came around. My Baba [baby] was there, so I would end up taking him to the park, and doing all sorts of mother things. My Baba was actually a bit of a mascot on set; he came to set every day. He was one, just turned one. And he would come to set every day.

AX: Once you knew this series was happening, did you try to map out what Millie might have been doing between the end of the last series and the start of this one?

STIRLING: Well, it was fairly well scripted. She’s been a governess. After being a waitress, she’s become a governess to these really spoiled, absolutely awful, spoiled little brats with an appalling sense of entitlement. And those elements are very real. An ex-Bletchley girl may well have ended up a governess to a spoiled little brat, unable to [tell the know-it-all-child], “F*** you, I won the war,” do you know what I mean? [laughs] And being talked down to. So there are very believable elements to it, and again, I think it’s about the disaffection of women post-war. Where do you go to use your brain power? How do you engage? How do you find purpose in the modern world? In our gorgeous, fantastical retelling of where you go, you go to fight crime, you go to battle the bad in society.

AX: There’s also a lot of jazz music, at least in the first episode …

STIRLING: There’s a lot of jazz all the way through. The Big Bop [nightclub] features as kind of the center – we oscillate around the Big Bop center of operations, and it’s really important.

AX: Is that fun, to be on the set with that period music?

STIRLING: It’s absolutely brilliant. Even the title, the way that it’s slightly syncopated and jazzier, I find that really exciting and enticing and reflective of the progressive, modern world, as to be found in America, not in London, but in America during that time.

AX: Do you get to dance at all in the jazz club?

STIRLING: Somebody else asked me that. Yes, I do. I do some dancing. You see a whole new side to Jean, and Millie goes dancing, and finds her playmate in San Francisco. As the series goes on, it is so joyfully heavy on character development, and you really get to know [American code breakers] Iris [Crystal Balint] and Hailey [Chanelle Peloso], and you see Millie and Jean have a bit of a frucker [argument], and don’t get on for a little while, and you see the fallout of that, and you get to spend time with these characters just as women, not just to drive the plot forward. There are moments when we just decompress, and we’re eating together, or we’re discussing – there are moments when we’re not sleuthing, and they’re really invested in those moments, and I treasure them. We all look forward to filming them, because they’re the bits I think that make the show a joy.

I love the show. There are some grisly bits to it, but it’s joyous. It’s joyous to see four women in a room sit down and try and work out how this person did this, and what are the clues, and what happens, and take an idea and look at it on its head. Again, this idea of collaboration, and of friendship, and of loyalty.

AX: What would you most like people to know about THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE: SAN FRANCISCO?

STIRLING: I would most want people to know that they’re going to have a roller-coaster of a joyful, entertaining ride, and they should switch on, and switch off.

This interview was conducted during Britbox’s portion of the summer 2018 Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour.

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Article: Exclusive Interview with Rachael Stirling on THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE: SAN FRANCISCO

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