Remember Heritage Minutes on TV? You know, those super-earnest and not always well-acted snippets of Canadian history?
Perhaps that’s what naysayers had in mind when they told Michael MacLennan his proposed series Bomb Girls would likely, well … bomb. Perhaps they thought there’s no way Canadian history could translate to exciting television. (Cases in point: Heritage Minutes included rehearsals for the first performance of O Canada and Prairie settlers building depressing-looking sod huts.)
“When we first pitched the story, people said it would never work,” recalled the 44-year-old TV writer from his Toronto home.
It did, though. Bomb Girls — about women working in a Second World War munitions factory — ranks as the No. 1 new television series in Canada, attracting an audience averaging 1.2 million. Following a six-episode season in 2012, a second season was launched this week on Global. This time there are 12 episodes — an indication Shaw Media is solidly behind the show.
The series has multiple links to this city. MacLennan is a former Victorian who once worked behind the scenes for Open Space gallery and Kaleidoscope Theatre. And one of the stars of Bomb Girls, Meg Tilly (playing Lorna Corbett) now calls Victoria home.
“She is a goddess,” MacLennan said. “I absolutely love her.”
He watched the new season’s debut episode Wednesday with friends at the Toronto house he just moved into. MacLennan was sufficiently nervous to contemplate breaking his New Year’s resolution (no drinks in January). Happily, the show “looked beautiful” — his resolution remains intact.
MacLennan’s is one of Victoria’s local-boy-makes-good stories. He is both head writer and executive producer of Bomb Girls, which he co-created with director/producer Adrienne Mitchell.
Twenty years ago, he earned peanuts working in arts administration in this city. Against the advice of friends who though he was “crazy,” MacLennan ultimately quit Open Space to try his hand as a playwright.
He soon broke out as a major artistic talent.
In 1994, MacLennan won a national playwrighting award for his AIDS drama, Beat the Sunset. In 1996, his play Grace also won a national competition. Two subsequent plays were nominated for Governor General’s Awards. Touchstone Theatre and the Canadian Stage Company enlisted him as playwright-in-residence.
Certainly, he had tangible success as a playwright, yet MacLennan became frustrated. Productions of his shows were infrequent. And sometimes the stagings weren’t to his taste.
So he reinvented himself. MacLennan studied at the Canadian Film Centre. In television, his first big coup was writing 15 episodes for the hit series Queer as Folk. Then came Bomb Girls.
Bomb Girls is unusual in several ways. For one thing, the four lead characters are women. Happily, MacLennan has a special affinity for creating female roles. The main trick, he says, is to avoid making them much different than male roles. Rather than portraying them as peripheral or sexually objectified, MacLennan’s women display depth, complexity and intelligence.
In Bomb Girls, the lead characters do have their catty, backstabbing moments. However, the female characters mostly support one another. There are no heroes or villains. As MacLennan says: “Nobody is all bad or all good.”
What’s great about Bomb Girls, he says, is that it takes place in an interesting time with vast potential for dramatic conflict. For instance, the cultural phenomenon of women working while men were away fighting in the Second World War was groundbreaking. At the time, notes MacLennan, society wondered whether women lose their femininity by assuming traditionally male roles. Would the foundations of society be rocked forever?
In 1942, when Bomb Girls takes place, there was a well-founded worry Germany might actually conquer the world. After all, the Allies were losing battle after battle. This fear contributed to a live-for-today mentality that — happily for MacLennan — lends well to juicy TV drama.
“It meant, why be worried about your virginity if Hitler was coming,” he said.
Adding even more spice — one character in Bomb Girls, the tomboyish Betty, appears to have the hots for shy Kate.
Many assume writers for hit TV shows make loads of cash. Or at least, I do. So I couldn’t resist asking MacLennan if her was getting rich.
It is a good living — but not extravagantly so. He drives a BMW. Mind you, it’s used. Before that, he had a 12-year-old Acura Integra. Like most of us, he’s paying off a mortgage. So MacLennan’s not yet in the tax bracket of those who buy Venetian villas.
He points out while writing for television can pay well, there are fallow times in between. For instance, it took MacLennan 18 months to write the first six episodes of Bomb Girls. And he gets paid a set fee per episode.
MacLennan harbours fond memories of this city, of riding his bike along Beach Drive and dreaming about one day owning a heritage home. He found the arts community — particularly the theatre community — was supportive in a way the big cities are not.
“It all started in Victoria for me,” he said. “I don’t think I would have been a writer had I not been living there.”
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