As The Bletchley Circle returns, Rachael Stirling tells me about her mother, Dame Diana Rigg, the ‘undignified’ cult of celebrity and lessons from the brave ladies of Bletchley…
Rachael Stirling is certainly no shrinking violet. On screen, the star of lesbian BBC drama Tipping The Velvet is positively luminous and in person her joie de vivre is tangible. When we met at the launch of the second series of ITV drama The Bletchley Circle, 36-year-old Rachael was on fabulous form, roaring with laughter and regularly dragging her fingers through her mane of hair.
The series, which returned to our television screens this month, follows four women who used to work as codebreakers at top-secret Bletchley Park during the Second World War: Jean (Julie Graham), Susan (Anna Maxwell Martin), Millie (Rachael Stirling) and Lucy (Sophie Rundle). Now working as civilians, the girls reunite to solve a series of murders.
The second series winds the clock forward to the year 1953, a year on from the first series, and the girls come together to crack a second case involving a former Bletchley Park colleague, Alice (Hattie Morahan), who is accused of murder.
Rachael was certainly delighted to be back in the role of feisty Millie. ‘It’s fantastic,’ she enthused. ‘We drive every day to work with a song in our souls and cause chaos when we get there.’
Even in 2014 it is rare for a TV crime drama to revolve around female protagonists.
‘Playing characters that are not just foils to men, their story lines are valid and they are there in their own right, rather than to look pretty or ordinary, and it is a joy,’ she said.
‘I am too old now to do scripts that I don’t believe in and I believe in this one fervently, so it makes coming to work a pleasure. It’s a privilege, actually. I believe in the spirit of this show and I think it’s an export in the best of Britishness and the fact that that is embodied by four female characters is something that we are all incredibly proud of.’
The ability to keep secrets is central to the show – and of course to the real-life work of those at Bletchley during the war. It’s something that Rachael believes we’ve lost.
‘The ladies of Bletchley Park have got that wonderful quiet dignity that comes with being able to keep secrets. I don’t think people can in this day and age.’
Indeed, this is a theme that clearly stirs a passion in the actress. ‘It’s not that I don’t like modern society, it’s just that over-exposing and talking about yourself doesn’t sit well with me.’
On the social network Twitter, the cast of Bletchley is known as #Ladynerds, something she is pretty happy about, though most of the time she confesses she doesn’t really get the whole ‘Twitter thing’.
‘If it heightens awareness of Bletchley and people who work there, it’s great. But I just don’t understand why discussing what you’re having for lunch or where you’re having a pint is interesting to anybody except you. I don’t get it, it just passes me by.
‘There’s this belief that the trivial details of people’s lives are somehow important, relevant or interesting. It’s a by-product of everyone wanting to become a celebrity. Where everyone wants something to have significance. But the fact is, what everyone does has no significance at all. I find that funny.
‘I don’t understand the fascination with the minutiae of life. It’s so against the discretion that’s showed at Bletchley Park. It’s all about “look at my black hair, or white hair”… or whatever. To me it has no dignity.’
Her relationship with her mother Dame Diana Rigg (an actress and icon of 1960s feminism) is something that Rachael keeps close to her chest. Indeed, she is known for being ‘prickly’ when her mother is mentioned, something she attempts to put into perspective.
‘I didn’t grow up in a big, rich acting family. Mine was not a celebrity upbringing and the relationship between me and Mum is really private and we keep it to ourselves. It’s not showbizzy at all.
‘I don’t have stories of Vivien Leigh coming over for tea; it was a very private, personal, normal upbringing. Occasionally I wondered why people pointed, but apart from that I didn’t feel different.
‘I think that demands great credit but it does mean in terms of my relationship with her, which I am always asked about, I get a bit prickly. Just because she’s in the public domain doesn’t mean our relationship is. I’m not a celebrity, I’m an actress.’
Rachael’s character Millie definitely has the best outfits in Bletchley. But a question about the show’s fashion generated a groan – not just from Rachael, but also from Julie Graham, Hattie Morahan and the show’s producer Jake Lushington.
‘We all kind of rankle at this kind of question. I mean, you wouldn’t ask a series of blokes if they liked wearing their double tweed,’ she explained.
Yet she does concede that her wardrobe is rather fabulous. ‘The entire budget is spent on me,’ she added, with a throaty laugh.
The new series of Bletchley consists of two self-contained stories each played out across two hour-long episodes. It’s a format that producer Jake and creator Guy Burt hope will see it continue for series after series.
But, Bletchley isn’t all that’s on the horizon for Rachael. ‘I’m on The Game, babe,’ she roars with mirth. ‘Someone said to me at a wedding, “what do you do” and I said, “I’m on The Game” thinking he’d find it quite funny. And he went, “Do you have a website?”
‘I was like, “I’m joking! I’m on a show called The Game. I’m not actually a tart…”’
(The Game, for those as equally confused as the gentleman at the wedding, is a six-part BBC Cold War drama, scheduled for next year.)
And Rachael is also currently rehearsing for a Terence Rattigan play, Variation On A Theme. ‘We are going to put it on in the Finborough. It’s above a pub, a 50-seater,’ she explains. For which she will earn £50 a week.
But back to Bletchley Park and Millie – does she have an enduring affection for the character? ‘I have a bit of shared territory with Millie,’ she agrees. ‘She’s forward driving, not afraid of things, she’s got no tethers, no ties, she’s adventurous and I’ve put a lot of myself into her.
‘When I went for the audition I just sat down and said, “I am Millie, you’ve got to give me this part.”
‘There’s always an element of yourself in every character you play, you have to find the “simpatico”, even if it’s ugly. But I haven’t poured myself into Millie, I have just made Millie into me.’
FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE LADY MAGAZINE ON JANUARY 8 2014
THIS INTERVIEW WAS ALSO PUBLISHED IN THE TIMES NEWSPAPER (IN PRINT AND ONLINE):