CHAPTER TWO – HOW TO BUILD A PLANE

Anna Reynolds updates us.

The first film in the series has come out – “Learning to Fly” is now officially launched and looks and sounds great, thanks to the performer Géhane Strehler, director Rosamunde Hutt, composer Helen Chadwick and editor Grant Watson.

I learned a lot creating this first one- (I think we all did) – writing a theatrical monologue that the performer will self-film is quite a challenge. Also, I really wanted each of these films to be focused on discovering a new heroine – based on real stories of real women, but taking a composite approach. So, for example, with the Attagirls, in 1943 there were originally 8 aviator women who piloted the warplanes from Hatfield’s De Havilland airbase to different airfields all over the land so that the male RAF pilots could then use them in war. I didn’t want to work too closely on any one woman’s story, but to take some of the most interesting elements of lots of them so that they could fly solo. (It’s impossible not to use aerial similes or allusions when talking about this stuff, I’m afraid.)

Now onto film 2, “How to Build a Plane”, and the same composite approach is working well. Uncannily, this film’s performer, Nia Davies, is currently based very near the Broughton Aircraft Factory in Wales where the real story took place, and even spookier, or more karmically if you will, has been having talks with local people whose mothers or aunts worked at the factory, and like the character, were ‘headhunted’ from the local Co-Op store to attempt the feat of building a warplane in…. well, you’ll have to watch the film to know.

The other thing I’m excited about is that we’ve decided to give each film one or two links or connections to the other films in the series, which you might spot if you watch them all. It’s a way of giving the films and the women who tell their stories a sense of all being part of a bigger picture, and of speculating about how one person or incident of bravery or act of love or loyalty or strength might have influenced another, even unwittingly.

Watching the films in rehearsal on Zoom is fascinating- the performer has far more agency than they might have had previously, over their camera angles, the lighting, their hair and make-up, wardrobe, setting etc…

Director, Rosamunde continues

The building of a Wellington Bomber in 1943 might seem in 2020 to be an intriguing historical story but actually HTBAP has a poignant contemporary resonance. Betty, and her hard-working band of those who were ‘no use or too old’ for the war, had delivered their fantastic coup at Broughton factory. Airbus is based there now, manufacturing wings for Airbus aircraft. Whilst we were getting ready to film Betty’s story, on 2nd July, Airbus announced that due to the impact of Covid 19 they were to lose 1,435 jobs at Broughton. In January of this year the company, I believe, had years of orders on the books for aeroplane parts which would be delivered worldwide. The pandemic had abruptly put an end to that and highly skilled workers would soon be out of a job. From 1939 Broughton has played an integral role in the aviation industry. Now, as then, those who work there must be wondering what the future holds.

The Airbus factory in Broughton, Wales today

Anna reminded me of how ‘being of use’ matters so much to us all as human beings. We watch Betty coming to life again after the loss of her husband. We speculated that perhaps she has unrealised ambitions as somewhere along the line she had been told she was ‘no use’. We saw Betty as potentially the spokeswoman of her merry band, a little cheeky, answering back to those in authority.

We chose 1972 for the year in which Betty is looking back at her great adventure, 30 years after that momentous 24 hours in her life. In 1972 hope for change for women was surging across the world. That was the year that Germaine Greer was talking about women being stuck in monotonous jobs, American women were fighting to get the Equal Rights Amendment ratified by all US states and the feminist magazine Spare Rib was founded in the UK. The seminal Women’s Liberation conference in Oxford had happened, the controversial Miss World competition had been disrupted and the women workers of Dagenham had won their fight for equal pay. Like for Betty, many women’s lives would never be the same again.

Image used with permission from the Women’s Library at LSE

Another contemporary resonance to 2020 is the theme of childcare. Betty has to use all her powers of manipulation to get her Mum to consent to looking after ‘the kiddies’ to allow Betty to go and work in the factory. Before the Covid 19 pandemic many grandparents in the UK were playing a vital role in caring for their grandchildren. In lockdown that facility was lost and surveys show that the lion’s share of childcare has fallen once more on the women. Worries have been voiced that we might be turning the clock back resulting in working mothers becoming very vulnerable to losing their jobs. There seems to be still so much more work to be done in ensuring women can fulfil their dreams and aspirations!

We hand over to Nia Davies, who plays Betty in How To Build A Plane

Nia Davies in character as Betty in How To Build A Plane

I was at the public reading of Anna’s “Nothing on Earth” at the Trestle Arts Base in St Albans last year. I really loved the play, along with the stories of the elders in the community which I found incredibly moving. So when Rosamunde approached me to do “How to Build a Plane”, I immediately said yes. I had thought, because of lockdown, that it would be a very long time before I would be acting in anything at all, let alone something with such a great subject matter. And this is the first time I have ever been able to play someone from Wrexham, my home town!

OUT OF THE CO-OP INTO THE FACTORY

I had heard of the Broughton Aircraft Factory, but I knew it as the home of Airbus. My mum’s previous neighbour had worked there. I watched a Pathé newsreel from 1943, which documented this extraordinary feat – managing to build a Wellington Bomber in just over twenty-four hours. The narrator talks of the women’s ‘flashing fingers and winking needles’ as they stitched the linen carapace. I started to get a sense of what it was like.

Then I phoned my friend Dave. He comes from Saltney, near Broughton, and he told me that in the 40s and 50s, most people living there worked at the Broughton factory.

The factory in Broughton in the 1940s

Dave was born in the 50s but he was very much aware of the factory. His father, grandfather, and two of his brothers worked there. Children would wear clothes made from offcuts of the material used to make the aeroplane seats. Dave’s mum was from Wolverhampton and, like a lot of women at the start of the war, she was posted to North Wales.

I told Dave about “How to Build a Plane” and how Betty’s life is transformed by working at Broughton. About how she says that there was no way she was going back to the Co-op after that. He said he liked that for several reasons. Firstly, because his mum worked at the Co-op! And secondly, because he is more aware now, looking back, how women were empowered by the war. Women were very much working and running the family at the same time. They were given jobs while the men were away. Good, worthwhile jobs. And many continued working after the war, they didn’t just give up and go back to running the home. He saw the women of the war generation as workers. Building aeroplanes and working in munitions factories and engineering. Growing the crops, providing the food, joining the land army. The work of women was as important as the work of men. They were the backbone of families, without any shadow of a doubt, because they had worked. The women were the heart of the factory.

In my own family, my Aunty Gwyneth, who had been at home looking after her mum, became a nurse and my Aunty Thelma joined the Land Army. When I told one of my aunties about the film, she remembered someone from her village had worked there at that time. Her name was Gwyneth Lloyd, and my aunty put me in touch with Gwyneth’s daughter, Linda. Linda told me that her mum had initially gone into service when she left school at fourteen. Then, after a few years, she started working at a Co-op store.

When the war started, half the men left the aircraft factory, so women were desperately needed. One day, Gwyneth was working with a few other women in the shop, when she was called into the manager’s office. She thought, “Oh no, I’ve done something wrong!” but when she got there, the manager had nothing but praise for her. He mentioned how well she worked and then he told her that they were looking for people to go to the factory and he was putting her name forward as the first option. And so she started working at Broughton.

It was very strange to be launched into a “man’s world”. All those big tasks. Like driving cranes. Putting the planes together. Gwyneth worked on the Lancaster bombers. Everyone did twelve hour shifts. Her job was to work on the headgear for the pilots. It was like a cap with a mask attached. The most important thing was the oxygen – the higher the pilots went, the more oxygen they used. There was also a communication piece inside the mask, to make contact with another plane or somebody down on the ground. She was in charge of fitting the headgear and inspecting them to make sure that they worked when they were fitted into the aeroplane. She always had pride in her job. She said there was a great camaraderie with the other women. They were from all walks of life so they had so many different stories to tell. The only thing she didn’t like was in the winter, when it was always dark going and dark coming back. And then they’d get home and there’d be a blackout! She stayed on at the factory after the war, until 1947, when she got married.

A HOUSE FULL OF TREASURES

I moved back to my Mum’s house just before lockdown to care for her, and I began to look in cupboards and on top of bookcases and in drawers. This is a house full of treasures. Many things were tidied away when my mum and dad moved here twenty years ago and were then forgotten. Things from my childhood and from both my grandmothers’ houses. I wanted to bring these old, previously cherished, things back to life, and started to find places for them around the house. I hoped it might make mum feel more comfortable and safe. So when Rosamunde told me that most of the film would be set in 1972, with Betty reminiscing about the factory, I knew that setting each scene wouldn’t be a problem.

The Indian Tree tea set which belonged to my grandmother – very loved and kept in a high cupboard. The Jersey sugar bowl from my parents’ honeymoon. The big blue jug that has housed Mum’s paint brushes for many years. The brown ceramic hen that had been sitting on her nest on a high shelf, until I put her to work, looking after our eggs. Nain’s teapots and tea cosy and her china dogs. I found a set of dominoes that belonged to my dad. He loved dominoes and we would play at Christmas. Now me and mum play several times a week. The pretty cake stand we now use for our cake. And we eat a lot of cake! Little egg cups with pictures of Welsh ladies on them. A honey pot in the shape of a beehive. I remember visiting my Nain and being allowed to take the little Hummel figurines of children down from their shelf and play with them on the table.

And for months, I’ve thought that this is the kind of house that would have a butter dish. I looked everywhere but couldn’t find one. Then, an hour before I was due to work on a scene in the kitchen, I had one last look in a cupboard and there it was… On the walls, you can see glimpses of an orange sunset painted by my aunt and a painting of flying geese from my Nain’s house. The embroidery in one scene was all done by my grandmothers and my mum. The old fashioned lady with the parasol was sewn by my grandfather. During and after both world wars, men would often do embroidery as therapy while convalescing. The sewing boxes are my grandmother’s and my mum’s. The photographs in the scenes are all of members of my family. The wedding photo on a wall is of my grandparents who married during the First World War.

THE REALITY OF FILMING

Like Géhane, when she was filming “Learning To Fly”, I had to work out a way of filming myself. I became adept at balancing the tablet I was using on books on top of boxes on top of cake tins. I discovered that the metal of the tablet acted as a magnet with the lid of a biscuit tin that I could then lean against books, a hand weight or a glass to get the right angle. A kitchen bar stool that I’d been about to give to the charity shop, became the absolute foundation for my camera tower in most scenes. Seeing myself on the screen before filming was incredibly helpful for composing the scene for the film, but was also quite disconcerting. I would fiddle and preen before a take like Nadal about to serve. But not necessarily with the same devastating result. Getting absolute quiet, even in a quiet house on a quiet street was tricky. There would suddenly be a fleet of motorbikes roaring down the road, or someone would decide to mow their lawn. The kitchen would start to make strange noises, and I would spend ages searching for the source of the sound. Apart from the fridge and the lights, I discovered that the kettle would randomly decide to click spontaneously. Why? For fun? Who knows. Perhaps the objects in the house were starting to have strong opinions of their own as to the quality of my acting.

Gail, our neighbour, was roped in as camerawoman for the shots in the garden. She asked for a director’s chair and a clapperboard. I could offer her neither, but she did get biscuits. I had to hide most of Mum’s gnomes because they were a bit too contemporary, but I was pleased I could let one have a featured role.

Throughout it all, my mum was so patient. I would settle her with a cup of tea and a cake and a pile of magazines in the lounge, and say, “I’m just going to the kitchen to do the film”. “Oh, no problem dear,” she’d reply. Then when Gail asked her how she was coping, she told her, “I get put in the corner and told to shut up!”

I would put on makeup, costume and hair before helping my mum to get up in

the morning. Mum had very strong opinions on all the looks she was subjected to. She wasn’t sure about the blue eyeshadow at all, but she loved the Rosie the Riveter headscarf. She said, “You look gorgeous. You’re not going to leave me for the world of film, are you?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.