Four years after it last aired, British code-breaking drama The Bletchley Circle has been resurrected and transferred to the US. DQ hears from showrunner Michael MacLennan and production designer Joanna Dunn about creating The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco.
When The Bletchley Circle came to an end after just two seasons – totalling seven episodes – in 2014, many viewers bemoaned what they saw as the premature demise of a popular drama. Ultimately, however, it wasn’t popular enough for UK broadcaster ITV to stick with the 1950s-set code-breaking crime series for a third run and the case was closed.
But in today’s television landscape, cancelled doesn’t always mean cancelled, and SVoD platforms have now built a – perhaps unwanted – reputation for reviving series that have met their end elsewhere. Amazon’s order of a fourth season of Syfy space drama The Expanse and Netflix’s commitment to a fourth run of former Fox series Lucifer are just two recent examples.
The return of The Bletchley Circle differs, however, in the fact that this isn’t just a continuation with all the same characters and the same setting for a new season. Instead, ITV has partnered with US streaming service Britbox (which is backed by ITV and BBC Studios) for The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco, which transplants two of the original characters to the Pacific coast where they team up with new faces to investigate more crimes stateside.
Set in 1956, three years after the end of The Bletchley Circle on ITV, the show sees Jean (Julie Graham) and Millie (Rachael Stirling) leave London for San Francisco to investigate the murder of a close friend. There they are joined by North American code-breakers Iris and Hailey who, like their British counterparts, find themselves undervalued and overlooked despite their indispensable contributions to the war effort. With renewed purpose, the code-breaking team will stay in San Fran and continue to solve mysteries together in the Bay Area.
Iris, played by Crystal Balint, is described as a brilliant mathematician and jazz musician, while Hailey (Chanelle Peloso) is a streetwise engineer with a secret. The new cast also includes Jennifer Spence as fellow code-breaker Olivia and Ben Cotton as roguish homicide detective Bill Bryce.
Directors on the series include Gary Harvey (Murdoch Mysteries), Mike Rohl (Reign), Alexandra La Roche (The Flash) and David Frazee (Orphan Black), while the executive producers are creator Guy Burt, Jake Lushington, Brian Hamilton and Canadian showrunner Michael MacLennan (Queer as Folk, Bomb Girls). The series is produced by Omnifilm Entertainment in association with World Productions, which made the original series, with Kew Media distributing.
MacLennan says he was attracted to The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco – the first original series commissioned by Britbox – by the story of “intelligent women who had been underestimated their whole lives.”
“I’m drawn to stories about strong women and particularly how the original The Bletchley Circle was about women who were building each other up, who were co-operating, who were recognising they were stronger together than they were apart,” he says. “It was very exciting for me to see how this kind of unique constellation of talents and temperaments came together, the results of which were unstoppable.”
The show is set at the dawn of the civil rights movement in the US, with San Francisco epitomising the country’s tremendous change – from gentrification to the transformation in racial politics – making the city the perfect setting for the series.
“When Jean and Millie come to California, it’s like they’re visiting the future,” MacLennan says, noting the differences between London, still recovering from the after-effects of the Second World War, and the Pacific coast, which was not directly touched by the conflict. “The other thing is that it was also the very beginning of the feminist movement. It was just beginning to happen, that there had been women who had come to realise their powers and potential, largely through what they did during the war, who had that tamped back down again. They went off to be mothers or wives and, after a couple years, there was a sense that ‘this isn’t enough for me, I want to recapture some of the things I’m capable of.’ It was a very exciting time of social change.”
Discussing his approach to writing the season (which tells four stories over eight episodes), MacLennan says that if he knows the ending at the beginning of writing the story, so too will the audience. “So we’ve always left room in the writing to be surprised by the discoveries ourselves as we’re cobbling together these stories,” he explains. “What’s unique about the way we’re telling our mysteries is that they’re told over two hours, so that gives us a little more time to have more layers of complexity to the mystery, and also to allow for more of those character moments for both the guest stars and our series regulars.
“When I think about a mystery, it’s usually twofold. I think about the research; I’m always looking for a story that is true to the time, but that has contemporary analogs – something that we’re going to feel like there’s a texture of it, that feels real to our lives today, a lens through which we can explore themes of today. The other side of it is character. What does this mystery do to our women? I’m always looking for ways that the investigation hook can into their personal lives. You test every good idea, and I have to admit there were a few where we were barreling towards one solution and came upon a better one, a bigger surprise. That’s a very exciting thing when you’re telling a mystery story, that you don’t have a sense of the inevitable. I think when you approach your story from that point of view, it allows the audience to be just as surprised as we are.”
As well as the city backdrop and its numerous diverse neighbourhoods, music plays an important part in setting the mood and tone for the series, via both jazz and the emerging genre of of rock ‘n’ roll. Guy Garvey, the lead singer of British band Elbow, notably makes an appearance on stage.
MacLennan says he was inspired by one of the main settings of the series, the Big Bop Club, which is based on Bop City, the first integrated club in San Francisco. “It was primarily a jazz club, and this is a place where you would see black and white musicians on the same stage, together,” he says. “The same goes with the folks on the other side of the lights, watching it. That was a rare and remarkable thing for the time, and it’s also part of the key to the place’s success. I was very excited by that as a way to present not just diversity of characters, but diversity in terms of the musical collaboration.”
With filming taking place in Vancouver, the Canadian city that has regularly doubled for San Francisco on screen, production designer Joanna Dunn was tasked with finding a way to blend 1950s America with some of the British style of the original series.
“1956 is kind of the cusp, a little before what we think of as the 50s iconically,” she says. “It’s not sock hops and poodle skirts; you want to keep a bit of a foot in what Bletchley was in the UK, so it’s more pencil skirts, more streamlined, a bit more architectural. Fifties colours are amazing, but you have to be careful because a lot of them are not good on people’s skin tones, so you are restricted to more blues, yellows and greens for the palette and tone.
“I wanted it to be bright and exciting because it’s such a fun and colourful time, but I also didn’t want to detract from people, so it’s taking that vibrancy that was a direct contrast from England and taking it down ever so slightly to make it fit. I wanted a good transition from England to here, while still being able to make it look like the land of milk and honey.”
There is more than just the 1950s on show, however, with a Victorian rooming house, the 1920s-inspired Big Bop and Iris’s family home from the 1940s. “I like that each set had its own period and its own style, but I still feel they’re all connected,” Dunn says. “It still all feels like it belongs in the same environment, and I think that’s because the city of San Francisco is also the same way.”
The designer notes that the most challenging aspect of making the series, which debuts tonight on ITV and tomorrow on Britbox, was recreating the period setting in modern-looking Vancouver. “We don’t keep a sense of history in the same way, we’re a city of transplants. Everybody is from somewhere else,” she says. “There are no roots, so I find historical things aren’t kept in the same way. Things are just taken down and built modern, which is progressive, but it’s hard to do the 50s when everything looks like it’s been built in the last 20 years.”
Having said that, Dunn enjoyed recreating a period she describes as her personal favourite. “There’s this simplicity of 50s design – there’s almost a lack of design, that stripped-back minimalism that was just starting, so it’s nice to embrace that,” she adds. “The police station is probably the best example of this because I wanted to try to give a ‘new’ construction feel. They built new things back then, so the police station was a new construction. They didn’t over-design, they didn’t over-decorate and, because of that, the lighting is done in a way that almost feels film noir.”