In THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE: SAN FRANCISCO, streaming in its entirety on Britbox, it’s the 1950s. Millie Harcourt (Rachael Stirling) and Jean McBrian (Julie Graham), who worked together as code breakers for the British government during WWII, had already found that their wartime work was useful in solving post-war murders in two seasons of THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE. In THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE: SAN FRANCISCO, the women find that the murder of a colleague was likely the work of a serial killer who subsequently traveled to America and struck again. After some indecisiveness, Millie and Jean head to San Francisco, where they meet Iris Bearden (Crystal Balint), who did similar code-breaking work for the U.S., as well as Olivia Mori (Jennifer Spence) and young Hailey Yarner (Chanelle Peloso). It’s a case of culture clash as the women first investigate the case that brought Jean and Millie to the U.S., then uncover new and different crimes.

THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE: SAN FRANCISCO consists of eight episodes that are broken into four two-hour stories. Briton Jake Lushington is back as executive producer, having also worked on the original THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE. Canadian Michael MacLennan is the show runner on THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE: SAN FRANCISCO, and his fellow Canadian Alexandra La Roche directed Episodes 5 and 6 of the new series. All three sit down together for a discussion of their work on the show.

ASSIGNMENT X: As the executive producer and the person who’s been with this project the longest, did you start out by ascertaining that Rachael Stirling and Julie Graham were interesting in doing THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE: SAN FRANCISCO before you committed to a script?

JAKE LUSHINGTON: I hate to say it, but I didn’t. But they’re friends of mine now, from having worked on Series 1 and 2, and I knew that they would have dearly loved to come back if the parts in the script were right. I kept tabs on what they were up to, but I was also very careful – we were very crushed when the show didn’t happen again. We loved it and really were looking forward to doing another season, and I didn’t really want to get their hopes up too early, especially if you look at how the show has been financed in the end. It’s quite a big financing structure, with many different parts. I wanted to know that, when we went to them, we had a script that really worked, and a show that really worked, and a finance structure that really worked.

AX: Now, how did you find your show runner Michael MacLennan and director Alexandra LaRoche?

LUSHINGTON: They were found by our major producing company. World Productions is the original producer, and I’d been exec-ing on the show, but Omnifilm Entertainment [executive] Brian Hamilton in Vancouver first approached us about doing this American spin-off, and it was through them that I met Michael and Lexi. And they’ve been tremendous and amazing to work with, and to see how they’ve taken the show to new heights.

AX: Rachael Stirling has said that someone named Laura Good was the one who said, “We should do a new season of THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE” …

MICHAEL MacLENNAN: Yeah. Laura Good worked for Omni in development. So she was a development executive, and part of her job was to think about what projects to bring to the table, to try to make partnerships around. And she personally was a big fan of the original BLETCHLEY, and she felt like there were still legs there for the show to continue. So she’s the one who originally broached it with Omni for them to pursue the rights and find a partnership with Jake and World.

AX: Are you American or Canadian?

MacLENNAN: I’m Canadian, actually coincidentally born in Vancouver, where the series is shot, but I’ve been living in L.A. for most of the past fifteen years. I started down [in Los Angeles] on a series called QUEER AS FOLK, which coincidentally was another American version [of a British-originated series]. I was in L.A. when I got the call to ask if I would join this team, and went back up to my hometown to make it.

ALEXANDRA La ROCHE: And I was brought on by Michael. And I am originally Canadian. I’m [based] in Vancouver.

AX: Since you live in Vancouver, did you come in with ideas of where to go in the city that you could make look like ‘50s San Francisco?

La ROCHE: Yes, absolutely. And I think there was just a great team that was already in place, so many different ideas coming from many different corners on how to achieve what we were trying to achieve, so …

MacLENNAN: There’s a great area of Vancouver called New Westminster, and it’s old buildings on a hill like this, and water. So if you angle your camera right, you can recreate 1950s – three feet this way and you’re back in the modern era, but with the right angles, you can get San Francisco there.

LUSHINGTON: And [Vancouver] is further north [than San Francisco], but they’re both big Pacific bay cities. I’ve done the English Civil War [in THE DEVIL’S WHORE] just outside Cape Town [South Africa]. I’ve got to say this was far less of a push than that was, so I think actually the translation is great. There were some things that were harder to find than others, but good ‘50s architecture in Vancouver, the look of that period is not beyond the pale like it is sometimes when you’re trying to make one place look like another place.

AX: Did you have problems with things like zebras wandering through the background of the English Civil War?

LUSHINGTON: We didn’t have zebras, but I have to say, there were some interesting bird sounds that we had to lie down [other sounds to cover them]. We had to have more “Hurrahs.” I think we actually had to have some heralds at some stage to mask some of the more South African bird sounds.

AX: Before you got involved with THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE: SAN FRANCISCO, how familiar were you with the original BLETCHLEY?

La ROCHE: I was a huge fan. I had already seen the series twice. I do like British television a lot. Both my parents are British, and so that’s how I was raised, watching UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS, and all of that kind of stuff, and of course, MONTY PYTHON. That was every night [laughs]. So I was a huge fan of the show already, and of these women, and of these stories, and of that whole era. It was something that was women-centric, and I just think this cast is fantastic, amazing. The two original women are brilliant, and then we found these women to compliment them, which was just astounding to me, that they held the bar so high.

MacLENNAN: Yeah. One of the joys for me as the show runner is, normally, when you’re starting a show, and every character is just sort of in everybody’s head, you don’t really know who’s going to embody these roles and how to write for them. One of the pleasures of this show was that it was so strongly anchored by Rachael Stirling and Julie Graham. So you knew how to write for those actors for those characters, but to give them greater depth than the original series was able to afford them. They could do anything. There’s comedy, there’s horror moments, you would almost say, these incredible emotional highs and lows. No matter what you throw at them, they just knock it out of the park.

AX: The original BLETCHLEY CIRCLE was very white. Here, Iris and her family are black, and Olivia is Japanese-American; there is discussion of the WWII internment of Japanese-American U.S. citizens by the U.S. government. At what point did you decide that diversity should be part of the storytelling in THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE: SAN FRANCISCO?

MacLENNAN: Well, for me personally, it’s always a key, it’s very important for me, in all of the shows I’ve done. In this case, it was right from the get-go that we wanted Iris to be African-American. Also, there’s really only one family in this show, and it’s [Iris’s family] the Beardens. The heart of this show is that home. Similarly, I remember when we were in the early meetings, at the very beginning, it was a conversation about, we just want to make sure that when people see images of this show, that they feel like it isn’t just a bunch of white folk on screen.

LUSHINGTON: I had [many] conversations with our commissioners at PBS on Series 1 and 2 about diversity, and it was very hard. Even having somebody Scottish was quite a big thing [laughs]. Even in class terms, in the first series, Lucy [played by Sophie Rundle] was from a working-class background, but she had this ability of memory. So when BLETCHLEY CIRCLE came to San Francisco, we’re talking about the makeup of the city, and the issues that we wanted to raise, it was actually a conversation that I’d been wanting to have, and wanting the show to bring in. I said, “We might want to do that.” I was just so happy. And it is the heart of the show, the Bearden family. It’s happened so easily, and beautifully, and the experiences of the different women – Hailey’s experience, where she comes from, as well as Iris’s, and what becomes together in the show, I think actually allows this series to have a broader scope. Where they go, where they come from, and how they talk about the world, it’s important. I think that’s one of the great things about this series.

AX: Americans Iris and Olivia both find Brits Millie and Jean to be pretty strange, especially at first. Do you think that’s more because the latter two are white, or because of their Englishness?

MacLELLAN: Oh, it’s definitely more [because they’re] English. Certainly, I think that both Olivia and Iris are well-used to living in a white world. It’s just the nature of life at that time. So in a way, they have that ability to traverse worlds. But one of the things that I like about the dynamic of both the Americans and the Brits is that the British have solved crimes before. So this isn’t their first time at the rodeo here. But the city is new to them. So they have these steep learning curves around, “How do I navigate this new world?” Whereas it’s the inverse for the American characters. They’ve never thought about their [WWII code-breaking] abilities in terms of an ability to seek justice in the world, and stand up for those who have been forgotten by the system, but they can certainly navigate the city very well, particularly if you look at the sort of constellation of knowledge that those three women have. They’re very different Americans, but they know the different nooks and crannies of the city.

AX: As a director, did you find that the different cast members wanted to be worked with in different ways, or did you just sort of set a tone, and let everybody go forth?

La ROCHE: Every actor resonates with different things, and you find out what words and what approaches are going to resonate with particular actors as you move along. I watched all of the dailies from all of the shows that were done before my episodes to see where the strengths were and where the weaknesses were, but in any time that you’re looking at a performance, how you’re relating to another character, that is always going to resonate, because that’s what drives this show and these characters so much, is those relationships. So when you’re peeling back the onion, and you’re finding another layer, you approach it from this relationship, when Iris is talking to Hailey, and you’ve got the layer of, you don’t want to talk about it, but you need to talk about it, you’re uncomfortable talking about it, but you do love her. So have fun [laughs]!

MacLENNAN: Right.

La ROCHE: [The actors] love that. We just love talking about these relationships.

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

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

AX: How did you decide that the season should be eight episodes, made up of four two-hour mysteries, and who was in on that decision?

LUSHINGTON: Early conversations with [executive producer] Brian [Hamilton at] Omni – obviously, the two-part structure is something that we did in Series 2. The first series was three parts, but it was the very first time it happened. So it sort of had that rhythm to it. I think I knew that if it was going to happen again, and we would get the actresses back, we would have to have the space and time for there to be character development, as well as the mystery. It couldn’t be a crime of the week, a fifty-minute show. But on the other hand, I don’t think it was a big serial show, I didn’t want to change the format. So that format was something I really pushed for keeping, and I think now we can see how the mysteries line up, and how the stories work across the series. I think we’re really happy with that.

MacLENNAN: I’ve never worked in this format before. I think you [Lushington] would maybe know better than me, but I think it’s a fairly unusual structure, to take two episodes to tell one mystery. Usually, it’s one per episode, or a whole season. And it affords you such layers of complexity, way more character time to explore just the ways that the solving of the mystery has an impact, that these are not just blank slates as characters barreling through the mystery to its solution, but they’re actually being affected by it, as women particularly. I think it’s unique that they’re women, and it has so much more emotional resonance for the impact of mysteries on them.

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

La ROCHE: It’s great! [laughs]

LUSHINGTON: That every single story of the four stories gets deeper and more diverse and more interesting and more surprising, so keep watching.

MacLENNAN: Yes. And that despite all the talk of the dark terrain of these mysteries, it’s a great romp, it’s a great, fun world to be in. I think it’s a world that we’ll all enjoy being in.

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

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

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Article: Exclusive Interview with THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE: SAN FRANCISCO Showrunner Michael MacLennan and director Alexandra La Roche


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