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Television Stars of The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco gets a visit from real-life wartime codebreakers

Margaret "Peg" Buchanan, far left, Eileen Glavin, middle, and actor Rachael Stirling, right, meet for the first time during a visit to the set of The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco in Maple Ridge, B.C., May 30, 2018.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Many of the stars of the new TV series The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco were on set a day late in May, but the real celebrities that afternoon were a couple of nonagenarians who had come for a visit.

“Bring back some memories for you?” actor Chanelle Peloso asked the two women. Peloso – who on the show plays Hailey, a streetwise engineer with a secret – seemed enthralled and in awe.

It did indeed – but perhaps not exactly the way Eileen Glavin and Peg Buchanan had anticipated. Sitting in a nook off the 1950s-era set, wearing an audio pack and watching a scene on a monitor, Glavin was reminded of another set of headphones she wore – daily, for hours at a time, across the Atlantic more than 70 years ago.

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The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco is a spinoff of the British series The Bletchley Circle. In the original series, four women who worked at Bletchley Park during the Second World War get together a couple of years after the war to use the skills they honed at Bletchley to solve a series of murders.

Bletchley Park, a country estate northwest of London, was a key operation for the Allies during the war, where codebreakers worked to penetrate and interpret coded communications between the enemy Germans. The female-dominated work force sat for hours at a time at listening stations, doing work they didn’t wholly understand, never fully aware of the crucial role they were playing.

“My own conclusion is that it shortened the war [in Europe] by not less than two years and probably by four years,” historian and cryptanalyst Sir Harry Hinsley, who worked at Bletchley Park, said in a 1993 speech.

Margaret "Peg" Buchanan, far left, Eileen Glavin, middle, and Yasmeen Hassan visit the set during filming of The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco in Maple Ridge, B.C., May 30, 2018.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Buchanan, 92, and Glavin, who turned 97 in June, are two of those women.

“We knew it was important work, but we had no idea what it was,” says Glavin, her cane resting by her chair during an interview in showrunner Michael MacLennan’s office at the production studio outside Vancouver, where the show is being shot. “We knew we had an important job, we were sworn to secrecy. So we just didn’t worry very much because we couldn’t talk about it.”

When one of Glavin’s sons heard about the production shooting in Maple Ridge, he reached out to let them know about his mother, who lives in nearby New Westminster, and see if she could visit the set. Coincidentally MacLennan’s mother, Lori MacLennan, who volunteers at a Lower Mainland hospital, learned during water-cooler chit-chat that a former fellow volunteer – Buchanan – had also been a codebreaker. Buchanan was invited to the set as well.

“I was very nervous at first,” Glavin says about the visit – her first time on a film or TV set. “I thought: ‘What will people ask me? What can I tell them?’ It was so long ago.”

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WARTIME

Glavin was born Eileen Gurnett in tiny Billericay, Essex, in 1921. She learned Morse code in Girl Guides when she was about 10 and later moved to London, where she worked as a typist. After joining the Royal Air Force in 1943, she was told she would be a wireless operator and was sent to Dunstable, near Bletchley Park. It was in fact a listening station. She spent her days searching frequencies for messages, wrote down what she heard, typed it up and handed it off to someone else, not understanding what it was.

Michael MacLennan, middle, Yasmeen Hassan, left, and Eileen Glavin, right, view the Enigma machine, which was used by the Germans in the Second World War to encrypt communications, on the set during filming of The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco in Maple Ridge, B.C., May 30, 2018.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

“It was all in code, you see,” she says.

The Germans were using something called an Enigma machine, which allowed their operators to type a message and then scramble it using notched rotors. The receiver, using the same rotor settings, would unscramble the message.

The Allies worked to decrypt these messages, using enormous early computers known as “bombes” that were designed to break the code; and by recruiting human beings who were good at solving puzzles.

Buchanan was born Margaret Jones in Liverpool in 1926 and volunteered for the war effort in 1944. “What do you do in your spare time?” she was asked in an interview during her Royal Navy training. “Do you like doing crossword puzzles?” Yes, she told them, she and her brother used to make them up all the time.

She was sent to Bletchley Park where, for hours a day, amid the constant whirring of the enormous machinery, she would work with bits of paper and nonsensical messages, which she handed off to a switchboard operator who sent the information up the chain. As with Glavin, she didn’t know why she was doing this work or what her role was in the big picture.

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Margaret "Peg" Buchanan, left, speaks to actress Chanelle Peloso while visiting the set of The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco in Maple Ridge, B.C., May 30, 2018.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

“We did what we were told and we didn’t ask questions,” says Buchanan, who moved to Canada in 1949 and now lives in Tsawwassen, B.C., near Vancouver.

“We didn’t know we were codebreakers. We had no idea.”

The operation remained top-secret for decades; it wasn’t until the 1970s that the information was declassified and word of what happened there emerged. There have since been books and films about Bletchley and the Enigma code. After Buchanan’s daughter, Heather Amos, saw one of them – the Oscar-winning 2014 feature The Imitation Game – with her mother, she suppressed an urge to stand up as the credits were rolling and shout, “My mother was there!”

ON THE SET

Buchanan and Glavin – who had not met each other before the set visit – sat next to each other, chatting quietly and watching a scene being shot on the monitor: Four characters, all women, come up with a plan to help crack a mystery.

The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco is a spinoff set in 1956, three years after the original series (which ran for two short seasons for a total of eight episodes and can be seen on Netflix). The premise: Two of the codebreakers from the first series – Millie (Rachael Stirling) and Jean (Julie Graham) – travel to California to investigate the murder of a close friend and are joined by two North American former codebreakers – also women.

It’s the first original programming ordered by BritBox, which is run by BBC Worldwide and ITV (ITV is the broadcaster of both the original and spinoff series in Britain). The series airs in Canada this fall on City.

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During a break in shooting, the two real-life former codebreakers were given a slow tour through the set, Buchanan using her walker and Glavin her cane. They received a hero’s welcome. Cast and crew members smiled at them or ducked away momentarily from their duties to wander over and have a look or say hello.

“Were you at a listening station,” Rachael Stirling asked Buchanan and Glavin, before being called away to shoot a scene. “Where did you stay?”

Both women were asked to sign copies of the script; Glavin applying dots and dashes – she was asked if she could sign in Morse code.

MacLennan showed them an Enigma machine; there are two on-set – a real one from Germany and a good imitation. He’s pretty sure he was showing them the real one.

Michael MacLennan is photographed on the set during filming of The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco in Maple Ridge, B.C., May 30, 2018.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Standing in the set of Millie and Jean’s San Francisco apartment, MacLennan introduced Glavin and Buchanan to the cast and crew as “two original Bletchley girls” in a short speech. “We want to welcome you to this show and thank you so much for being such an inspiration,” he said, followed by a burst of applause.

One crew member approached the women reverently. “Thank you, thank you,” Collin Slack said to them – first one, then the other, shaking their hands and looking them deep in the eye.

“I’m getting goosebumps,” Slack, a grip, said afterward. Indeed, in his short-sleeved Ministry concert-tour T-shirt, his hair was visibly standing on end. Slack had told them about his grandfather, who had been a radio operator on the HMCS Haida, a Royal Canadian Navy destroyer.

“Whether they knew it or not, their work was integral to saving the life of my grandfather and his entire crew,” Slack said.

With a tight shooting schedule – production was set to wrap on June 6 (yes, D-Day) – the cast and crew had to get back to work. “We’ve got to go and solve more crimes using our brilliant Bletchley brains,” Stirling told the women, before dashing off to shoot her scene.

An entourage of admiring crew members followed the women outside. More thank-yous were exchanged. As Buchanan was driven away in a grey CR-V, she looked outside the Honda’s window and jokingly offered a queen’s wave to the production crew standing around.

“I never thought in a million years I would get to meet [former codebreakers],” Slack said, weighed down by a chest tool-pouch filled with gear, but looking as if he was floating on air. “It was an honour.”

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