Back in January 2018 – a lifetime ago- Rosamunde Hutt, artistic director of the theatre company Pursued by a Bear (PBAB), came to me and asked me if I’d like to write a play about women.
I thought for about five seconds before saying- YESSSSSS!
Then I panicked and thought- whaaaa….? As in, where to start?
The answer quickly became obvious. I’d spent the last few years managing a project very close to my heart- discovering, rediscovering and bringing back to life many of the amazing women from Hertfordshire who didn’t have the prominence that they should have. Trestle Arts Base and I fund-raised the money from the Heritage Lottery Fund, called the project ‘Hertfordshire Hidden Heroines’, and found some truly incredible, pioneering and inspiring women- only about 100 to start with… among them were Edwardian ballooning aerialist Dolly Shepherd, suffragette Constance Lytton and explorer Violet Cressy Marcks Fisher.
These top three became the basis for Nothing on Earth – the play which Rosamunde commissioned me to write. The title is taken from Mrs Pankhurst’s legendary 1913 speech about how to get the vote for women:
Women are very slow to rouse, but once they are aroused, once they are determined, nothing on earth and nothing in heaven will make women give way.
Five talented actors performed a rehearsed reading- that is, script in hand, minimal props and set- in May 2018 at Trestle. The play was rough, not long enough and there’s never enough time, but it went down so well with test audiences – ‘Visionary. Feet on the ground, head in the constellation, and eyes forward’ (audience member) – that the Arts Council funded a full commission, giving me time to write the full length version, and allowing a week of research and development on the script with actors and a creative team.
Fast forward to October 2019, and that 90 minute version of Nothing on Earth was then rehearsed and shown to more test audiences in partner venue Hertford Theatre and again, at Trestle Arts Base.
In partnership with Dacorum Borough Council, and with Karene Horner-Hughes from Trestle, we also ran workshops with elders in Hemel Hempstead and Tring. The elders told stories which included being buried alive for three days in the Blitz, being evacuated from Hackney to Tring, working from the age of 14, travelling across the world from Mumbai to London to Hemel Hempstead, fleeing Franco’s dictatorship in Spain. These wonderful rich reminiscences of their own lives were represented in a brand new text, performed by our professional cast of five as a ‘curtain raiser’ to the Trestle public reading. Among these elders were women in their nineties who came to the showings and, inspired by Constance Lytton’s remarkable example, on the way home in the mini bus chanted ‘No surrender!’ in the true suffragette spirit.
They loved being part of a live theatre experience:
‘I’ve had a wonderful time, I’m with people’.
‘Let me know if there is anything else we can come to!’
Director Rosamunde takes up the story:
Audiences loved the play: ‘a sensitive, relevant, funny, empowering, moving and powerful piece of theatre’, and appreciated its local links: ‘Inspirational. Will make you proud to be from Hertfordshire’ (audience members).
The R&D enabled composer Helen Chadwick to write 10 original acapella songs which an audience member described as ‘so powerful the way it emerged and grew and enfolded the characters and us in subtle yet deep ways’.
Eight women from Hertford performed an original song by Chadwick during the Hertford Theatre public reading, after a joyous singing workshop in the venue. We also created poems and drew pictures about Heroines with families at St Albans Museum’s Fun Palace and sang Helen’s new compositions and Dame Ethel Smyth’s March of the Women with singers from community choirs at Watford Fringe. Pursued By A Bear Associate Director (Film) Grant Watson worked with digital media students at the University of Hertfordshire (UH Arts), creating ideas for a potential social media campaign for our proposed tour. We learnt about the exciting possibilities of extending the experience of the audience through transmedia storytelling e.g. through Web Series, Instagram stories, blogs, podcasts, teasers etc.
And the play was welcomed by Hertfordshire Year of Culture 2020:
‘Some inspirational women from Hertfordshire’s past linked together with a touching and all too real modern story. Can’t wait to see the finished product next year. Can’t recommend it highly enough and really looking forward to the whole show during HYOC2020’, Tweet from HYOC2020
Anna Reynolds takes up the story once more:
In early 2020 Pursued By A Bear Chair, Thomas Kell, and Rosamunde leapt on trains and drove up motorways to persuade potential partners in Hertfordshire to join us on our Nothing on Earth adventure. Dacorum Borough Council, Hertford Theatre, HYOC2020, Pumphouse Theatre & Arts Centre, Watford, Rhodes Arts Complex, Bishop’s Stortford, Trestle Arts Base, St Albans and UH Arts all generously committed their support. But just as we had everything in place for a very exciting tour of the finished play, and our new application for funding was safely in the Arts Council of England’s inbox to be considered, the lockdown hit and theatre as we know it was suspended.
Until an exciting offer from UH Arts enabled a new way to keep the project going. Not only keep it going but extend it; make it broader and more accessible and even more exciting. UH Arts asked PBAB to provide ideas for online content for their website.
This time, the request from Pursued By A Bear was: would you like to write a series of short films about some of the Heroines you have discovered, starting with a brand new monologue commissioned by UH Arts? Fingers crossed we will be able to secure funding from the Arts Council Emergency Support scheme. Which they did.
And here we are: for a long time I’ve been desperate to write about the amazing 8, the so-called ATAgirls, those intrepid women who flew a variety of warplanes from Hatfield’s De Havilland airbase (where the University now sits), among other places, to the South Coast and Scotland. This was immensely valuable because it freed up the male pilots who would then be able to take off straight away for France to fight the Second World War from the air.
These women were a real mixture; some had never flown before, some were only seventeen, some were wealthy married women who’d had the luxury of already learning to fly as a hobby. What they all had in common was courage, a sense of wanting to do something that mattered, and the most important quality- a total lack of fear. They loved flying as soon as they got the chance to do it, and life really would never be the same again for them.
With only ten minutes warning, in some cases, they’d have to learn how the aircraft operated, using just the paper logbook, and take off in an open cockpit, with a compass and their own eyes to guide them. They flew the massive, heavy Wellington and Lancaster bombers and also the nimble Spitfire, the lighter, more sensitive plane that flew like a bird and landed like a cat.
Here are some of their stories in this brand new play, Learning to Fly.
I’ve taken liberties with them; I’ve sewn together an amalgamation of their stories and their own words, along with my own flights of fancy about what those journeys must have been like. The women’s own stories are well documented because many of them wrote autobiographies but still they’ve not been given the celebration they deserve.
And so here we are, July 6th 2020, two and a half years since Rosamunde and I first talked about a new commission, and we are premiering our first Nothing on Earth Short: Learning to Fly.
Actress Géhane Strehler, who grew up in Hertfordshire, tells the story of how we made the film:
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
When first presented with the prospect of filming “Learning to Fly” during lockdown, my immediate thoughts turned to re-creating the right aesthetic. Almost every aspect of our modern interiors we live in today are so far removed from 1940s housing. White washed walls and bright accent coloured furnishings give an all too clean and crisp impression of a minimalist lifestyle – and simply filming against a plain blank wall would look more like an audition tape than a monologue set in wartime Britain.
I turned my attention immediately to exteriors. Our house was built in 1892. It is a lovely red brick building with white sash bay windows, which we made use of in the opening titles. The stone stairwell with the cast iron railings, adorned with climbing ivy, provided a fitting backdrop for the first scene.
At the back of the building, we made use of the red painted fence in a couple of scenes and a little patch of grass at the end of the patio. As well as all the summer flowers in bloom. It all had a somewhat appropriate feel for the period, and nature is the one thing that is consistent and spans across every epoch. It felt appropriate therefore, to also use the grassy knoll and trio of trees just by our house, in the picnic scene and final field scene. I especially wanted to try and recreate some of the gorgeous Hertfordshire countryside, where I myself grew up, and in and around Hatfield Aerodrome, which is where the first ATA Girls were based.
The challenge came when trying to hunt for something akin to an aircraft hangar. I had often heard of them as both my grandparents were stationed at the airbase in Mildenhall during the war. Grandpa used to fly in the mighty Lancaster Bombers as a top turret gunner and Granny was responsible for their maintenance and upkeep. Checking over the engines and cleaning the spark plugs after each mission was her contribution to the war effort. I’d often be told that they were huge lofty barn like spaces made from ramshackle timber or more often metal structures. It wasn’t until returning from an evening walk, the one hour exercise permitted in lockdown, that I realised the garage shutter door could look a little like corrugated iron and definitely give a colder, harder feel to the footage.
The last of the exterior shots was a bit of chance, but worked well. Trying to replicate being inside the cockpit of a Spitfire, it suddenly dawned on me that all you would really need is clouds and sky! So we filmed that scene with the camera facing straight upward – and thought it rather lovely to get some clouds floating through the trees for John Gillespie Magee’s poem “High Flight”.
Turning my attention then to the interior shots, I looked in every room with fresh eyes, when it dawned on me that the heavy old brown furniture that has accompanied my partner during each house move would suddenly come in very handy.
It used to belong to a Mrs. Yusuf who lived upstairs of his father’s house and was a family friend. She passed away in the early 80s by which time she was ninety odd. She was therefore born just before the turn of the century and lived through both wars. She left behind a mirror dresser, sideboard chest of drawers, single door wardrobe and a rickety old piano stool – which then became the central focus and backdrop of the interior scenes, and especially useful for the scenes in which my character speaks about dressing in regulation uniform at wardrobe, the importance of donning lipstick at the mirror dresser and having a warm cosy cup of tea by the sideboard before bed.
Once all the set locations were sorted, I just added little touches to finish off the set dressings, such as the framed photos of the Air Transport Auxiliary Girls and a Spitfire – the flowers in old crystal vases and brandy glasses (also passed down through generations) – right down to the brass candle holder.
These tiny details really transformed the world I was about to inhabit, each having its own little history to tell, and belonging to someone that would have lived through WWII and experienced it first hand – a little nod to that generation that gave so much…
IF LOOKS CAN KILL
Looks can kill they say, and indeed the right or wrong “look” can kill the desired aesthetic or, in our case, guise or pretence.
Getting the classic 40s look right was going to be very important to the filming, but also to the character, because she reminds us to “always keep up appearances – even at 10,000 feet” and that it’s “a matter of pride” – and of course keeping up appearances throughout the project was going to be crucial.
Anna Reynolds, the writer, sent me some fabulous reference photos both in black and white and in colour. I scoured the uniforms and flight gear of these ATA girls. I looked up 40s fashion of the day and discovered that despite the war effort, women still paid great attention to their looks. They were taking over many of the men’s jobs, but were encouraged to still look glamorous doing so. They put on their “war face” and ensured that they were the “beauty on duty” to help with morale.
So I began a hunt for appropriate costumes – turning my own wardrobe inside out, as well as that of my partner’s. I poached a white shirt and black tie from him, and found a navy jacket that could pass as the Air Transport Auxiliary uniform. I dug out an old leather jacket, reclaimed a leather satchel and donned Granny’s tan and cream gloves to try and recreate the aviator get up. My grandmother Agnes Mary Bibbing was instrumental in the upkeep and maintenance of the Lancaster Bombers at the airbase in Mildenhall and was very particular and punctual. I wore her wristwatch throughout as a little memento. And I always remember the story of her returning to base in a truck followed by a German fighter pilot who shot at them.
Some things however could not be sourced from things lying around at home, and so that’s where the move to everything online during lockdown became very useful. A few quick purchases and next day delivery meant that I could procure a fur lined aviator hat, a navy RAF cap with yellow insignia and the writer Anna sent the flying goggles.
With the main outfits/uniforms completed I then scoured magazines of the era for general ladies’ fashion. I found some khaki trousers, a cropped jumper, a couple of delicate cream lace and pleated thin 40s looking shirts, a midcalf A-line skirt of the era, heeled and flat shoes. I decided to keep to a palette of colours for the character – blue hues based on the ATA uniform, browns based on the aviator leathers and cream colours based on the vintage look.
Next it was time for some hair tutorials. I watched countless videos on the subject. Curls were all the rage, and thankfully I had plenty of them, but learning how to pin them up was a master-class in itself. Many messy tangles later, and a few hundred hairpins, I finally found a way to get the distinct side parting and the front rolls reminiscent of the time. I looked at some accessories and found a white flower hairpiece and a blue and white checked scarf, which I learned to tie up in the classic vintage “Rosie the Riveter” way!
And finally, the make up – and getting my “war paint” on. I read many blogs on the subject and interviews with make up artists on movie sets. I found that plain face powder and dark accentuated eyes was all that was needed – no jazzy eye shadow or defining blusher – as this smooth basic foundation was highlighted by one main feature of the day: lipstick!
Lipstick was a wartime woman’s armour and varying hues of red were all the rage. Darker tones for those in more sombre military uniforms, and to match either navy, khaki or green depending on what division you were in – to brighter vibrant hues for all those helping in other areas such a shopkeepers, plane builders and Land Girls – all to boost morale.
Lipstick is such a strong motif in the piece, and so after trying seven different variations, I landed on the best colour for the character, the costumes and wore it in every single scene as the one running theme throughout. As screen siren Elizabeth Taylor once said “put on some lipstick, and pull yourself together” – Attagirl!
LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION!
Like any theatrical production, I worked very closely with the director Rosamunde Hutt on the delivery and meaning of the text, the character development and overall arch of the storytelling journey. The only peculiar change in these lockdown circumstances was that instead of being in a rehearsal room, we were in a rehearsal Zoom (video conferencing), sometimes joined by Pursued by a Bear’s Chair Thomas Kell to keep us on track with the brief, and more often by the writer Anna Reynolds who would amend the script and share with me much of her research and reasons behind many of her choices.
Rehearsing online for a self-filming project really helped Rosamunde get a sense of what each scene might look like, and we would adjust the framing, actions, close-ups and delivery accordingly. We worked out the detail of the staging as one would in theatre, and I marked all the points in the script that I would look in a certain direction, come close to camera, or pick up and use a prop.
Speaking of props – this was another area in which I sought to bring as much authenticity as possible. I procured two authentic “Aeroplane” magazines from the 40s and recouped the metal thermos from a pile destined for the charity shop after my partner’s lockdown clear-out. I came across a leather bound notebook belonging to him that would serve as a log book. I raided my glasses cabinet and found some classic looking hexagon shaped ones for reading, and some brown sunglasses as per the iconic photo of pilot Maureen Dunlop on the cover of Picture Post. I even made a sandwich from brown unsliced bread (who knew that sliced bread is such a modern convenience) – and wrapped it in brown wax paper. All the tiny details mattered and Rosamunde carefully pointed out that the tea cup ought to have a saucer – where were my manners!
Right from the beginning, I had wanted to find a manner of speaking indicative of the era, but not alienating to a modern audience. I watched countless videos and interviews with the truly brave aviator Amy Johnson and listened to her speech patterns and emphasis. I recorded my lines for each scene on my phone and listened to it over and over again. Making tea, gardening, cooking – until the words had subliminally sunk in.
Finally, it would come to the filming, and not only was negotiating modern technology a new challenge I would never normally have to worry myself with (this would be my new theatre audience) but giving them the “best seats in the house” was definitely time consuming. Setting up the camera on top of several precariously balanced shoe boxes seemed initially risky. Little did I know I would become such a dab hand at that, and be so bold as to place it on top of a stool, that was on top of a chair, that was on top of a table and even then I often used an old painting easel to rest the camera on, almost atop of a huge wedding cake. Truly a circus balancing act. And if not that, then certainly a trapeze act, once suspending the camera with masking tape from a bicycle repair stand I found in the bike shed!
With Rosamunde’s expert direction we made sure that angles were varied: straight on, high above, profile and down below. The most challenging scene being that of inside the Spitfire cockpit. My Grandpa Norman Maurice Bibbing had spoken about flying in the Lancaster Bombers at Mildenhall airbase during the war – he was a gunner and his hearing was shot to hell as a result – but his talk of the sensation of flying was key to that scene. With the camera just merely placed on the ground we tried to recreate the G-Force effect and all that comes with the propulsion of flying through the air.
Filming took place in several takes. A great, many, numerous, myriad, several takes! You perform once to a theatrical audience, however this was a whole new world. Firstly, filming in the elements is a surprise – the wind whipping up the microphone, the shadows and change in light as clouds pass, the sprinkle of rain drops, the itchy grass… Then there’s the endless succession of delivery vans touting Ocado, Sainsbury’s, Tesco… And everyone in lockdown is ordering online, so Amazon, DHL and Parcel Force are out, in well, full force that’s for sure! Cars passing by ruin a take with their noisy engines, and even the quieter electric ones are ultra-modern like a Tesla X/Y/S… Mopeds delivering take-way pizza and the like were actually the most bearable, as there is something quite nostalgic and archaic about a bike engine sound. Sometimes you’d get the blaring sound of rock music from a sporty car or an open window of a neighbour with the Top 40 wafting on the air but not suitable for the 1940s… a top favourite however being Captain Tom Moore (now a knighted Sir, the oldest artist to claim a number one hit, and having raised over £32 million pounds for the NHS during lockdown) being an exempted favourite with “You’ll Never Walk Alone”…
Just the opening scene filmed on our doorstep required 27 takes: a jogger in neon lycra, the builders diligently completing construction next door, a middle aged lady on a walk talking loudly about Boris Johnson (if only someone could make reference to Churchill for crying out loud!)… No, the passing new-born baby is doing all the crying out loud, and to top it all off, a family on a bicycle ride have just stopped to have a look at what’s going on, and all four bike helmets are in shot behind the garden rails, punctuated by their youngest proclaiming “mummy, why is that lady talking funny?” to which the rather amusing response of “because she’s supposed to be from olden days” neatly ties in with my final lines – that’s that take down the pan…
Then there’s a moment, a pocket of silence, the song of a blackbird carrying on the wind and I think this is it. This is the time to start, press that red record button – and deliver Anna’s witty and poignant lines, in a mad flurry as fast as they will trip off my tongue. I have to get to the end of the take without any interruptions. I’m hoping, on a wing and prayer, this one doesn’t end up in the bin with all the other deleted takes. The light is beginning to fade.
I can but try – and ‘by golly I’ll die trying’!
Then finally that’s it! I made it! That’s the shot.
But also sadly, that’s the final scene – and that ladies and gentlemen – is a wrap!