Not all heroes wear capes. Not all heroes wield magical weapons. Not all heroes have chiseled pectoral muscles.
A different kind of hero gets their due in The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco. These heroes are audacious, resourceful, brilliant and undeniably heroic, despite not being Kryptonian or born of a lab accident. They’re based on real women from history who stepped up when their countries needed them, with no fanfare during or after.
The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco is the spin-off of The Bletchley Circle, ITV’s wildly popular series about a quartet of women in England who worked as code breakers during the Second World War and reunite years later to solve crimes.
The newer, locally shot BritBox series moves the action (and two of the original characters: Millie and Jean, played by Rachael Stirling and Julie Graham respectively) across the Atlantic to 1956 San Francisco, where the duo take up sleuthing with a couple of American women who, like them, had worked as cryptographers during the war.
Vancouver actress Crystal Balint plays one of those American women: Iris Bearden, a jazz musician, mother and underappreciated research assistant at Berkeley. Like many of her real-life counterparts, Iris’s wartime work is classified and buried in the past. Even her loved ones don’t know that she spent the war years decoding encrypted messages and saving lives.
“Thousands upon thousands of women were doing this incredibly complex code-breaking for the second half of the world war,” says Balint, who researched American code breakers upon being cast in the show. “Once the war ended, the men came home and their jobs went to them and the women were asked to quietly step aside and go back to their lives of raising children and keeping house and home.”
In the United States, code breakers (the majority of whom were women) were recruited from Ivy League schools and by way of newspaper ads, says Balint. Those women who passed the tests — and were unmarried, childless and willing to relocate — converged in a top-secret unit in Virginia called Arlington Hall, where they broke code for the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy.
The action of The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco takes place 11 years after that work was purportedly over — more than a decade after female war veterans like Iris would have been expected to transition back to their pre-war lives.
“All these women have experienced this vast awakening of who they are and what they’re capable of and suddenly those things [like raising kids and keeping house] don’t seem like enough, but they have to be,” says Balint. “How do you reconcile that?”
“It would have been difficult for a woman of Iris’s ilk, marginalized both as an African American and a woman, to know your place, and to carve a path for herself,” adds Balint. “Through her work in the war, she had an opportunity to not just figure out who she is but realize how amazing she was, and that’s not something a lot of women get to experience even now. It’s a real gift, and to have to wrap that back up again is a challenge.”
But Iris asserts herself in her music, in her family, in a lab at Berkeley, and solving crimes with her old friend Hailey (played by Chanelle Peloso) and the recently arrived ladies from Bletchley Hall.
Balint — whose credit list includes Mech-X4 and Prison Break as well as well-received stage appearances in City of Angels and The Mountaintop — enjoyed sharing the screen with powerful women (“It’s not often as a woman that you get to work with other strong females”) as well as a long list of Vancouver-based actors in recurring and guest starring roles, including Jennifer Spence, Ben Cotton, Peter Benson, Paul McGillion, Teach Grant, Jessica Harmon, Jordana Largy and Chelah Horsdal.
“Every single one of our guest stars was from Vancouver, and that was really empowering,” says Balint. It might be called The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco, but the series is “a real Vancouver gem,” according to its star.
The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco found an unlikely fan in Sharon Stone. The Basic Instinct actress tweeted out her love for the show shortly after the series premiere in late September.
“It was a shock,” recalls Balint. “I saw that and I fell off my chair. I had to double-check that it was really her, and it was.”
Will Sharon Stone pop up in 1956 San Francisco?
“I’m sure everyone is thinking the same thing,” says Balint.
The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco airs Fridays at 8 p.m. on Citytv.