Bomb Girls: Taking A Glimpse Into Our Past

An Interview with Co-creators Michael MacLennan & Adrienne Mitchell
By J. Lynn Stapleton

Photo: © 2013 Bomb Girls II Productions (Ontario) Inc. 
(L-R: Charlotte Hegele, Antonio Cupo, Ali Liebert, Jodi Balfour, Meg Tilly, Michael Seater, Anastasia Phillips)

As the Canadian series Bomb Girls continues into its second series, I had the opportunity to interview the show’s creators and writers Michael MacLennan and Adrienne Mitchell on how they came to create the series about a group of individuals working in a munitions factory in Ontario during World War II, doing their bit to contribute to the war effort. From wonderful strongly-written female characters, accurate props, and strong story-telling, this series has easily become a favourite, not only to Canadians but also with viewers around the world, thanks to word of mouth over social media.

LS: It’s been fantastic seeing this series being a reflection of Canada’s past, and something I’ve never seen before, learning more about that part of our past. For those who maybe haven’t already heard, what prompted the development of this series and made it reality?

AM: A few years ago, Maureen Jennings (the author of the Murdoch Mysteries book series) and Deb Drennan ( a make-up artist) brought this series idea to Janis Lundman and myself as they thought we would be a good fit. Deb Drennan’s grandmother was a Bomb Girl and worked in a munitions plant called GECO in Scarborough, so the subject matter was very dear to her. Janis and I jumped on this idea; this was a piece of history that was rarely talked about or depicted. How many Canadians knew that by 1943 thousands upon thousands of women were working for the war effort in very dangerous conditions building munitions and for the most part, having never worked outside the home. We knew that the stakes, the drama and challenges for these women would provide for excellent and compelling drama. Next, we needed a talented, experienced writer with a penchant for WW2 history and a strong illustrious background in serialized character-based drama. Enter – Michael MacLennan who was our dream writer! He responded to the material immediately. Michael and I soon dove deep into this world to create this exciting series with the immediate support of Global TV ( Shaw Media). The network jumped on immediately and has been a strong supporter and advocate of the series at all stages with our co-producer Muse Entertainment.

LS: Each of the characters has an interesting and diverse background. How did you go about developing each of the characters?

MM: When it comes to the initial main characters, we looked at “orchestrating” the world of the show, to make sure that we were able to sustain many seasons of story from the core characters. This isn’t a show that lives and dies on its guest characters. My belief is basically this: if we don’t invest in our series regulars, then how can we ask our audience to? There was much research into various women who worked the lines, and for me they formed various archetypes which in turn became the main characters of the series.

LS: The concept of freedom holds meaning for each of the characters, both freedom for themselves in as much as they’re coming to this new world of working in the factories, building the bombs for Allied forces, but also freedom from their family, from their own identity, from societal expectations. In what ways would you like to see this concept of freedom further explored in the series?

AM: I’d like to further explore the consequences of the freedom our characters are experiencing. I’d love to depict how difficult it is for our characters to taste this freedom, knowing that when the war is over they’ll have to go back to their traditional and more domestic lives. It would be fascinating to show how this sudden freedom is changing them, and whether they like who they are becoming It would be exciting to probe further into their fears and doubts surrounding their newfound freedom and show their struggles to hold onto it in the face of temptation and crossing boundaries. I’d love to look more into the cost of their sudden freedom, but dramatize this in a way that allows our characters to find ways to prevail.

LS: The attention to detail when it comes to the props and backgrounds to make everything authentic to the period is phenomenal, including sourcing out newspapers. What has been a challenge when it comes to finding props as new storylines progress?

MM: Everything — from each line of dialogue to a newspaper headline, only be a second’s shot in an episode — is researched and tested before it’s finalized. Setting a series in the 1940s is a tricky blessing. It’s far enough in the past that we need to do deep research to know the world. And yet it’s close enough to us that we know, if we ever get something wrong, we’ll be called out. So we’re careful to source it all. We’re blessed with an amazing props and set department that have been able to find everything we’ve asked for and more. We’re still waiting to tell a storyline about a gal sitting under a sun-lamp, 1940s style — since we went and bought one of these contraptions!

LS: Within the context of WWII there’s a lot of stories to tell and for the past season and a half there’s been lots of love, heartache, delving into social expectations and constraints, religious oppression & expression, pregnancy, suicide, sexuality, dealing with soldier (and Vera’s) PTSD. Ali Liebert has already expressed in a video interview (http://goo.gl/HTuCO) that she’s already got ideas for her character for a third season. Is there anything you’d like to tackle but haven’t already?

MM:There’s such an amazing societal shift that’s starting to happen in 1942 and 1943… that’s what I’m eager to explore. I want to see how Vera comes to appreciate her intelligence, how Gladys witnesses a breakdown of class structure. How Betty comes to find her own self-confidence, and how Marco and Bob face their individual futures once their barriers begin to crumble. How Kate comes to find a real and authentic voice that’s separate from the narratives she’s been taught to accept. How Lorna opens herself enough to experience grace. In short… we’ve only begun.

LS: This series is one of Canada’s little success stories. The initial small 6-part period miniseries about (primarily) women in World War II set in Toronto has grown into a 12 episode second season, so far. The show has been critically acclaimed and a genuine hit, and it seemed to take off on-line thanks to social media and word of mouth. What about the story lines seem to garner such a great response to the show, both domestically and abroad?

AM: Our modern high-tech world with its advances in communication through the internet and social media has created this vast sprawling global village of interconnectedness. However it also has created a world that is steeped in information overload, where our attentions can be easily fractured and splintered, leaving us strangely alienated by it all. Bomb Girls, harkening back to a simpler time where women and men had a clear, common goal to fight an imminent threat, has a galvanizing force for our audiences. During WW2, women entering the workforce were enjoying a camaraderie and freedom that they had never experienced. Our characters and story-lines set in the factory, jazz clubs, music halls, workers’ rooming houses, and venues of the social elite exemplifies this freedom in a way that is compelling, seductive and charming. I think the series is a breath of fresh air for the audience and is a welcome contrast to our more complicated lives today.

LS: You’ve got a fantastic website with a lot of interviews, photographs (historical and set), video clips about the design and look. It’s very interactive, including the Facebook page and actor twitter accounts, something which a number of shows are doing at present. It’s a far cry from what was available back in the forties when people received their news and information on the radio. What do you think about the growing popularity of the show via social media like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, blogs, etc?

AM: With a period show we did so much research and tried to be as accurate as possible down to the last detail. However some of those details may have only ended up on screen for a second. The website was a great way to get into all of the fascinating stuff we’d unearthed about the era that didn’t make it into the show. Social media is such a growing trend with TV viewers nowadays; people are always looking for supplemental content and wanting to interact with and discuss the show between the weekly airings. One thing that’s so different about Twitter and Facebook is its a new way to receive a very instant response on what people are thinking of the show. We’ve also found it a great way to give back to our fans with various contests and giveaways. We’re also so impressed with all of the creativity coming from the fans on sites like Tumblr, the drawings and screen caps, and the deep analysis of the show. As for the actor’s twitter accounts, that’s all them. A lot of the actors are very active on social media and have been so great about interacting with fans and talking about the show. Some of them have gotten in on the fun with live tweeting during the episodes which has given the fans added value and new insights into the characters the actors have portrayed.

LS: You’ve been exploring Betty’s sexuality throughout the series. Her falling in love with her best friend over the first season and then learning to protect herself and her heart in the second season so far. I can’t remember ever seeing something so well written and established for a character of this time period (let alone any other), and it’s done so with respect and dignity. And having Gladys learn and accept that about Betty without judgement, and Leon. Thank you. How did you decide that this was a story that you’d like to see explored for this character?

MM: Thanks for the kind words. It may seem strange coming from a guy here, but Betty and Kate’s individual experiences are deeply connected to my own. It was a courageous thing for our broadcaster to buy into — remember, this is an 8pm network series — but I promised them that Betty and Kate would be the great love story of season 1. Seems I wasn’t wrong. Still, the challenge moving forward is to be true, as we always are, to the time. There are many times when I want one of them to speak her truth, to use language to break through the barriers of fear and deeply felt emotions… but the truth is, there just weren’t the words back then, to allow those kinds of conversations. I’ll say this: no one’s rooting for these two as much as I am. And all I can hope for is that the world of the 40s… and the world of today… can work towards a resolution that we all feel is true and right for these two remarkable characters. As for the Leons and Gladys’s of the world… what I found amazing is how, despite the lack of cultural visibility, there was in fact great tolerance and understanding for the wonky loves that arose due to the unique circumstances of WWII. You couldn’t find two more different people than Leon and Gladys. And yet, in their own way, each has a similar attitude of tolerance. With Leon, he assures that the series not deliver some kind of anti-religious message. Yes, there are men like Vernon Rowley. But his is only one interpretation of the holy and the good. Leon offers another… and we’ll see Kate torn between both, as she comes to fold together the various disparate elements of her being.

© 2011 Bomb Girls (Ontario) Inc. 
(L-R: Antonio Cupo, Charlotte Hegele, Meg Tilly, Ali Liebert, Jodi Balfour)

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About jlynnstapleton

I'm a Licensed Practical Nurse, photographer and writer. My focus in photography has been primarily landscapes, particularly water based images, both in colour and black and white. I love to travel when I can and sometimes find some unique treasures to photograph. I also enjoy writing these blogs and doing interviews when I can. I'm the oldest of three siblings. I grew up in St. John's, Newfoundland [Canada]. I came out as a lesbian when I was twenty-one, and fortunately I've had a supportive family, and friends.
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