How To Take Off is the latest in the Nothing on Earth Shorts series, and again it’s been an absolute pleasure and joy to work on, both discovering the stories of modern commercial women pilots, and also rehearsing the film with director Rosamunde Hutt and performer Safiyya Ingar.
The film is a composite of different experiences. I was especially inspired by the true story of a trailblazing female pilot who was the first ever woman to captain for her airline. I was captivated by her fierce energy and passion. One of a handful of women in a huge otherwise male cohort at flight training school, she talked breezily about the many ways in which she’d had to fight for the chances her male colleagues seemed to assume theirs as right. She also painted a vivid picture of how she earned the respect of her crew and of the passengers overheard exclamations of horror or anxiety when she made her announcement every time she took off; ‘This is your captain speaking…’ – I thought it would make a wonderful addition to our series of women out front, in the air, rising up.
Below are links to some more of these inspiring stories:
One thing that also enchanted me was how much the female pilots I researched all loved to fly – as simple as that – ‘There’s nothing like it, nothing on earth’ was an often-heard refrain, phrased in different ways but all with the common denominator: nothing would ever be the same again, now that they had taken off, controlled a plane, held the world in the palm of their hands and watched the earth’s curvature.
These women also shared other qualities with those World War Two aviators I wrote about in Learning to Fly, our first film; glamour, sass, and attitude. Irresistible.
Over to Director, Rosamunde
We are nearing the end – for now – of our series looking at Women and Flight and what an exhilarating ride it has been. We have been overjoyed in our discoveries of intrepid female adventurers – dipping and diving, wheeling and banking – soaring high across the 20th and 21st centuries. Behind the scenes we are constantly adding to our library of pioneering female pilots – Amelia Earhart, who had nursed patients during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, Helene Dutrieu, who shocked the press when they discovered she didn’t wear a corset whilst flying, Florence Lowe Barnes, known as ‘Pancho’, who disguised herself as a man whilst living in Mexico, Bessie Coleman, the first African American to get a pilot’s license, known as Queen Bess, Marie Marvingt, nicknamed the ‘fiancée of danger’, who at one point disguised herself as a man so she could serve as a foot soldier, and of course the mighty Amy Johnson who was the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia.
Friends have joined in the search; one recently sent this photo of a plaque in south London honouring Hilda Hewlett, who co-ran the first flying school in the United Kingdom,
and Nia Davies, Betty in How To Build A Plane, was delighted to spot this beautiful painting by the Futurist painter Benedetta Cappa Marinetti, entitled Synthesis of Aerial Communications, painted 1933-34.
A woman flying a plane seems to be a symbol for a type of freedom. Jude Kelly, director of the WOW (Women on the World) Foundation, recently summing up what has changed for women over the last 30 years, said: ‘girls and young women are entitled to dream as big as they want to, so the fact they can dream to be a stand-up comedian, along with dreaming to fly aeroplanes and run countries, these are all very important things, the scale of the dreaming has changed.’ (BBC Radio 4, Women’s Hour, 1st October 2020).
Amy Johnson became the first woman in England to be granted an Air Ministry ground engineer license and said in 1932: ‘Women are on the threshold of another career which has so far been regarded as the strict province of men – aeronautical engineering’. She defied stereotyping and dared to dream as does Boushra, the heroine of How To Take Off.
Safiyya Ingar explains what drew her to playing the role of Boushra:
THE NARRATIVE IS CHANGING
The narrative is changing… and it terrifies some people. We are burning down the ideas that people are content with having about women, especially women of colour, women of different faiths. We can touch the skies, be superheroes, code, engineer, craft, create, kick absolute butt and look a million bucks while doing so! We always have and always will! Embrace it.
How To Take Off is about a young modern Muslim woman becoming the first female Captain at the airline she works at. No easy feat by any means. The only woman of 450 in her training academy. These numbers are not made up. And in the beginning of the process I was blown away by the knowledge that women are so unrepresented in this field too.
It’s one of the things that drew me to this piece. Being fiercely competitive myself I always love proving people wrong, even if it means falling out of a tree or taking a few hits to prove I can do something. I truly believe it’s a power women have boiling under their skin, always. The inherent desire to challenge, endure and survive.
Now as a Muslim woman, I see the stories about us being told from a particular lens, with very little input from the women who are being depicted. So with the character of Boushra (who was already beautifully written by Anna Reynolds) I was given the space to express the internal struggle that goes on in a young South Asian Muslim woman from the beginning and how, in some experiences, that struggle can affect the decisions they make in life. We are not limited by any great external factor (such as our faith). A lot of the limits are closer to home, more human than people want to acknowledge and admit. Because the reality is, like a lot of women, the limits are all to do with family, societal standards and quite frankly, the patriarchy, which has held women of all races down and back for generations. It links us all and unfortunately still holds a place in typical gender education and conditioning; “who is ‘allowed’ to do certain jobs?” “Yes, but you have to think ‘realistically’, what about when you get married and have kids?” “Women aren’t strong enough to do that though, are they?” “Girls have dollies and prams and kitchen sets as toys. Boys are given toolboxes, cars and rockets!”
In fact, Boushra’s faith is never mentioned in this piece which I admire greatly about Anna’s writing. She is a Muslim woman, who does her job and does it brilliantly well! She wears her hijab which isn’t some overstated symbol, there is no “tearing it off in an act of rebellion”. It is her and part of her identity, but her real identity is as Captain Boushra El-Aimeni! She relishes her position and takes absolute pride in the fact that she got herself there!
Much like myself, who was not held back by some strange idea that a south Asian Muslim woman (who comes from a low economic background and now identifies as gender fluid) can enrol in a world class drama school, win an award and scholarship, and graduate to roll straight into a steady career as an actor!
Boushra combats the ideas held against her in every way, we see her vulnerable and scared and, in those moments, boiling over with self-doubt, her mother enters to uplift and encourage her. We see her feisty, brave and strong, not because she must be but because she is! Honestly, I welled up when I read the script because I thought “FINALLY! A woman I know! A woman I see in myself! A Muslim sister who reflects those I know who are out there slaying! Becoming pilots, lawyers, surgeons, photographers, screen writers, journalists, comic book artists because we are perfectly capable of doing so! And we will make it known that this is what we do!” And no, we are not discouraged by our faith to pursue any of these professions! The ones who try to hold us back are… well… need I say it?
Side note: (Whilst typing this, an actor I admire, Norman Reedus, shared a picture of Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to ever run the Boston Marathon. A still of her being chased down by the race manager of the marathon to try to stop her competing. I looked up her story in her own words and it sounded absolutely terrifying. However it was incredibly reassuring to hear of the men around her who supported her and physically kept people from touching her allowing her to keep running. I often wonder what women could achieve if more men stepped out of their way to assist us like that… just a thought. Thank you, Norman.)
THE FUTURE OF THEATRE
Now the process of filming this piece was incredibly isolating. Rosamunde, Anna and I would rehearse via Zoom and then I would be suddenly alone to film the shots. Embracing this new medium of storytelling (theatre through screens) was difficult for me… I will make this incredibly clear… this is NOT “the future of theatre”. It can’t be! We stand to lose everything theatre is, the sense of connection not just with the audience but those who are creating the work. Bouncing off the energies of everyone else present in the space with you while creating work, finding the rhythm and journey through the text, teasing someone for wearing odd socks to rehearsals every day, having a cup of tea and gossip about an altercation we witnessed on the journey in!
Because I am in London, all the life and chaos that comes with it is part of the entire process… and unfortunately, it’s taken the world turning on its head for me to realise this. All these external factors bleed into the worlds we build together, and I am not ashamed to admit this piece was a struggle for this reason alone. But the team was incredibly supportive, and I was very grateful to work with a team so passionate about these stories and getting the best out of what we are “allowed” to do now. (And just to say a massive thank you to Rosamunde for asking me to do this project with her! Thank you for allowing me to use this project to spread my wings and fly!)
But selfishness aside, I understand how working digitally is incredibly helpful in terms of accessibility in many ways! I have done two audio plays and How To Take Off during lockdown and they are all FREE to access (so children and audiences from low income households can watch/listen to theatre from home and on their own devices). We have the ability to put in captioning and BSL interpreters! It gives something for people to look forward to and experience new writing in a way they otherwise may not have been aware of or been able to physically attend should everything be “normal” right now.
So it is in some ways a blessing that these stories are out there for people to access, it can aid curriculums in the future and young people can find these stories perhaps during research and may be inspired to chase a career like becoming an aircraft pilot one day! I guess that’s the idea though isn’t it… with these stories? For me it is anyway! To reach everyone, to inspire and empower!
I want someone to watch this story, see a girl in a headscarf and open their minds to the idea that a Muslim woman can achieve their dreams and break from the stereotypes placed on us! And that a woman can absolutely fly an absolutely massive plane and look fabulous doing it! And lastly, I really hope any parent watching this will walk away and ask their daughter if she’s ever wanted to fly a plane.
It’s been a joy to ring the changes a little with this latest film in the Nothing on Earth; Shorts series, How To Space. This one gets a little abstract in some ways, or at least isn’t in the same fairly naturalistic world as the previous 3 have been. The worlds of the WW2 aviator June, Welsh former Co-Op worker turned warplane builder Betty and cabin crew-turned-care home worker Jade were all recognisable and to some extent specific to their own contexts, but How To Space literally goes higher.
I was inspired by the women who have been into space- of a total of 565 space travellers, 65 have been female. There was the first, Russia’s Valentina Tereshkova, who went up in 1963; the first US woman, Sally Ride, in 1983; Judith Resnik, who died in the Challenger disaster in 1986; Anna Lee Fisher, the first mother in space, 1984; Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space in 1982; Christina Koch, who not only spent 328 days continuously in space but also co-piloted the first all-female space expedition. And the rest, all of them fascinating.
Rather brilliantly, for Chekhov fans, Valentina’s spacecraft was called Seagull and when she had launched she radioed down:
‘It is I, Seagull! Everything is fine. I see the horizon; it’s a sky blue with a dark strip. How beautiful the earth is…everything is going well’
But writing about space is so… unknowable, it demands a different style, from the writer, performer, editor and composer. I think we have all had to elevate ourselves a little on this one- the extra challenge and delight has been that our very talented performer, Chanel Glasgow, has been in semi-lockdown in Trinidad who by huge luck was filming a project of her own…! I’ll leave it to her to say more about her work.
Chanel takes up the story
As a Caribbean born and based actor, perseverance has always been a major theme on the quest to pursue my “larger-than-life” dreams. Ever since I could remember, I’ve had dreams of pushing the limit of my given circumstances in order to make it on the world stage. Growing up in a musical family who allowed my passion for the arts to flourish helped a great deal, but no one ever really believed that I would actually turn it into a fully realized career. It was very rare for someone in the Caribbean to become a full-time actor, especially on the international stage. I never allowed the statistics to deter me and I worked tirelessly towards my dream of a fully-fledged acting career.
One of my first memories of Theatre class in University, we were all sitting in a circle, googly-eyed and waiting for our lecturer to say something absolutely profound and life changing. He looked at us and said, “If you’re in this room to make money forget about it, you’re here and you’ll only stay here for the love of it”. Many hearts were broken that day, but not mine. I made a pact with myself, that if it is the last thing I do, I will make a sustainable career out of this. I still, however, found myself taking on other jobs after graduating university with my Bachelor’s degree. I worked in the bank, I worked in insurance, I was even a teacher for a bit, all the while doing acting jobs on the side. It wasn’t until I got a call from the National Theater Arts company of Trinidad and Tobago, when I decided to put teaching on the back burner to experience what it was like being a full-time actor in Trinidad. After about a year with the National I decided it was time to take the next step in developing my career further. My eyes have always been on the international stage. I spent months of sleepless nights, researching, applying, fundraising for flights to the U.K just to audition, applying for scholarships, writing countless letters and making endless phone calls. In the end all of the hard work, miraculously paid off and I got it! I got into a top drama school in the U.K, tuition and board, fully funded!
All this backstory is to simply put into context the brilliant coming together of the “Nothing on Earth” story. When I met Rosamunde, Anna and the gang I’d just completed my Master’s. I’d gotten signed by a brilliant agency and I was auditioning for work as an actor in London. The trajectory of my budding international career was very promising, to say the least. The very first time I read the N.O.E script, every bit of the character’s journey resonated with me deeply as a result of what I’d just put myself through to achieve all that I wanted in life. These female heroines on the page in Anna’s play were reaffirming so much of my own choices in such a profound way, I felt like it was my duty to share their level of passion and dedication with everyone else around me. I loved learning Helen Chadwick’s especially composed songs and was inspired by a session with PBAB Associate Director, Grant Watson, in which he explored the possibilities of transmedia storytelling and digital content in theatre. In the end, it was a great run and I felt as though I’d made some friends for life, through that experience.
Flash forward almost half a year later, to a pandemic stricken 2020. Interestingly enough, I’d decided to come back home to Trinidad for a short while to do a bit of visa restructuring before heading back to London. It was extremely difficult re-adjusting, I’d just spent the past two years living out every bit of my dream and now, it almost felt as though I’d taken several steps backwards. The depression hit. It was terrible. I fought my way out and realized that I was here for a purpose and I was going to find it.
I also wanted to network as much as possible and learn more about the local industry, so I applied for a part time position with the Filmmakers Collaborative of Trinidad and Tobago, aka FILMCO. There I was charged with developing and executing all of their education programs for filmmakers across the region. Once the pandemic struck, we were able to easily structure all of the programming online via Zoom and we hosted numerous workshops and seminars which featured actors, directors, producers, filmmakers from all over the Caribbean region, the US and UK! It was such a success! Personally, I was also able to still send in my audition tapes online, as well as attend international acting workshops, readings and auditions via Zoom. I actually made a few connections to UK based directors during that time and was able to book a residency in France (which in the end I couldn’t attend because our country’s borders remain closed). If it weren’t for the pandemic it would not have been easy, I believe. What the pandemic did was allow a space for new ideas and alternative choices. It gave me the opportunity to reach out, all the way from the Caribbean, because everything is now online. It made my voice as “equal” as someone living in the US or the UK.
Then one morning I received an email from Rosamunde! Another opportunity to work with the Pursued by A Bear Team and Anna, with Grant as the director! The first time I read the How to Space monologue, I sobbed so hard. It really was a reflection, yet again of everything I’d just been through, in coming back home. The idea of pursuing one’s dreams, achieving it, “having a taste of freedom but must follow instinct”. It crushed me. It was precisely why I had to do it! It was an opportunity to continue telling these deeply passionate stories of women who work hard against all odds. In my country, it almost feels as though being an artist means setting yourself up for a life of disappointment. Everything works against favour, you develop such a high level of tenacity, it is difficult to give up and walk away. This piece renewed so much for me as an actor on a mission to keep creating, to build my home country to experience the international stage. Purpose. How to Space renewed my Purpose.
My education work led me to interviewing Lael Greaves about her artistic work, a 13-year-old student at the Holy Name Convent Secondary School in Trinidad. She recently discovered her hidden talent for visual art during in March when the lockdown began and she starting painting some breath taking images of “Space”. I thought she would be brilliant for the moment on screen. This is Lael’s screen debut as she’s never done any professional acting before. Fun fact: the painting we see of the moon at her writing desk, is one of the first paintings she’s done.
Once the dust has settled after this pandemic, my hope is that the global industry will keep looking to access and develop those alternative networks methods of casting, work shopping, staging and filming.
Over to Grant Watson, Director
And so here we are with How To Space. This is the fourth in a series of Lockdown films that develop themes from Anna’s wonderful play Nothing on Earth. Before Covid decided to turn the world on its head Pursued by a Bear were planning a theatrical tour of this fantastic piece to venues across the South East and beyond. Then the pandemic struck and we were pitched into a completely new reality – the theatres were closed, the stages were dark and all our plans had gone up in smoke – what were we to do? There was so much in this play that needed to be said, so much life and vitality that needed to be shared. Art, like life, doesn’t just stop in its tracks, it has to find new avenues, negotiate new pathways through the darkness. So, like a lot of other creatives, we had to get to work. Under the fantastic leadership of PBAB artistic Director Rosamunde Hutt and Chairperson Thomas Kell, PBAB set about raising funding that would take the project in a completely new direction.
Back in 2016 PBAB had produced my play The Lamellar Project at The Arcola Theatre in London (subsequently retitling it Perfect Blue when it transferred to the United States the following year) – this ambitious (and slightly mad) piece was set across two continents over a live Skype line (no, really) which back in 2016 was something completely new (and somewhat precarious given the quality of the signal!) The play was a great success and put me on a new trajectory as an artist. While we worked on the production I became more interested in the idea of Transmedia storytelling – that is creating ‘universe’ stories across different platforms. Perfect Blue lent itself perfectly to this kind of work because it was set in a future where genetic engineering had saved the planet from the sixth great extinction – but the price (there’s always a price) was all kinds of terrifying corporate skullduggery. As part of the production we created films, websites, short stories and all kinds of content that operated within the same universe – an audience could find their through an ecology of storytelling and have their own unique experience of it as they went along.
I gradually became more and more interested in this kind of work and have been developing Transmedia projects with various companies ever since. Out of this the idea of telling Nothing on Earth across different platforms came about and we decided to apply for funding to create a series of films that interrelated with one another and told stories that would form part of a Nothing on Earth universe. There were plenty of stories to tell, fantastic, rich characters from diverse backgrounds across a landscape that stretched from South Wales to Trinidad! After securing funding from ACE Rosamunde set about casting and directing these shows over Zoom (and the results are available to see on this website!) What I particularly love about these films is the way they all connect – characters bleed in and out of the narrative – in Learning to Fly we see June as a young woman during WW2, then in How to Land we revisit her as an elderly woman looking back on her life in a care home in 2020. The characters drop in and out like old friends – there’s something so warm about it, so precious and intimate. The performances are simply delightful – full of energy, wit and compassion. Then when it came to the fourth film in the series Rosamunde asked me if I’d like to direct and I jumped at the chance. How to Space had a very different vibe to the other films in the series – there was something rather poetic and dreamy about it – it really did seem to exist a little outside of the world – floating in its own orbit among the stars. I was delighted when Rosamunde suggested Chanel Glasgow for the part of the astronaut – I had met Chanel at a reading of Nothing On Earth at the University of Hertfordshire and really loved her performance – so the prospect of working with her on this was terribly exciting.
Then during our initial conversation about the piece I said to Rosamunde that I thought it might be interesting if we set the monologue on a beach (thinking we might be able to shoot it in Clacton or Bognor Regis) – so when Rosamunde told me that Chanel was based in Trinidad it seemed like some kind of cosmic alignment had taken place! After hearing Chanel deliver a beautiful reading of the monologue over Zoom I was introduced to two wonderful film makers from Trinidad who would be working on the film in locations across the island. Jian Hennings and Sophie Walcott were already making a film with Chanel and had access to cameras and equipment that would allow us to take an entirely different approach to the production – rather than the actor using an iPad to capture scenes – we would use a more traditional method of filming to create our piece. With film makers of the calibre of Jian and Sophie on board I knew we would be able to create some startling images. So then we set about trying to find a process that would work.
I created a treatment for what I wanted that included descriptions of shots with reference images and various photo-shopped frames. Jian and Sophie took this treatment and started to think about locations – but given the various restrictions that were being put in place in Trinidad, our options started to narrow. Luckily Chanel was able to hire a beach house with its own private beach (!) in a rather reclusive part of the island that was able cover all of the shots we had decided to shoot. Although communication was difficult (there was barely any signal at the beach) Jian and Sophie were able to shoot some incredible footage and Chanel delivered a stunning, mesmeric performance of the monologue. Because of the various delays we had an incredibly short time to edit the piece in time for the Watford Fringe Festival – but with some help from the wonderful Lindsay Chambers we were able to edit together the film that you can see here. I think it’s a strange, mysterious and beautiful little film that really showcases Anna’s evocative, enigmatic writing and I feel very honoured to be involved in its creation. I was also incredibly pleased to include another one of Helen Chadwick’s amazing songs at the end of the film with the incomparable Chanel taking on vocal duties. The whole thing has been a joy from start to finish! I’d particularly like to thank Chanel, Jian and Sophie for their dedication to the cause – a truly brilliant team of people that I hope I can work with again one day. Perhaps this time in person…
So, despite our best efforts not to focus too much on the pandemic in the writing and making of these films, number 3, How To Land, does in fact have a few relevant issues.
It’s set in a care home, and the narrator is a young woman who has lost her cabin crew job with an airline overnight- due in part to the Covid-19 pandemic although this was perhaps the last straw in a failing business model, who knows. It’s certainly true that many air crew have found themselves suddenly out of a job they loved and thought would continue, and have equally found that their usually excellent people/customer facing skills transfer beautifully to the care and similar sectors.
Jade discovers the similarities and huge differences in her former life and this brave new one… both are low paid jobs and often hugely undervalued, but both are jobs or vocations that require courage, care, thoughtfulness, and an inner strength and resourcefulness. I wanted this story to reflect these hidden qualities that as a nation, we are now learning to appreciate that bit more, hopefully.
One of the residents in the home is a former pilot, whose visitors are unable to see her at present, although this may be partly a blessing in disguise for the proud and dignified June… watch it and see if you pick up the references to other films in the series so far.
Rosamunde Hutt, director
Walking in early lockdown, looking out to sea in South Wales, watching the tankers making slow progress down the Bristol Channel and seeing the empty skies overhead, only broken by the roar of engines of a huge military plane which I discovered was bringing PPE from China to Cardiff, several threads of our Nothing on Earth Shorts project began to weave together.
Our first two Shorts were looking at women involved in flight in the Second World War but as our Chair Thomas Kell reminded us in a planning conversation, all around us in 2020 the aviation industry was in turmoil. We had been touched by the tears of a Flybe stewardess who had heard in the early hours of the morning of 5th March that her airline had collapsed and very soon afterwards my nephew, usually travelling the globe in the travel industry, started as an assistant at a care home, alongside three cabin crew members, all adapting to caring for the residents, learning how to use hoists, to give people comfort at end of life and to transfer their people skills to an entirely new context. And in every sphere it seemed that everyone was adapting. In the theatre industry we were rapidly learning how to create theatre on Zoom. I found myself in my mother’s spare room connected to a fast internet speed courtesy of her kind neighbours directing productions on my trusty old laptop. And full of admiration for the actors involved who had been thrown into a brave new world of filming themselves, dealing with the mysteries of sound and light levels and ransacking their wardrobes for suitable costumes.
We were hearing daily of cabin crew and theatre artists changing identities overnight; the drummer who was now picking fruit and vegetables, the pilot who had opened a funeral home, cabin crew retraining as teachers, and actors, stage managers and lighting electricians driving delivery vans, stacking shelves, working for the NHS. Anna talked to Suzanne Ahmet, playing Jade in How to Land, and myself about June inspiring Jade to raise her game, effectively saying ‘don’t settle for less, don’t shut down your aspirations, be yourself’. Our previous heroines in Learning To Fly and How To Build A Plane had moved out of their comfort zones. Now we needed to follow their example!
We turned to my nephew for a first-hand account of life in a care home and he described the 12 hour days, the tenderness, courage and resilience needed to fulfil the duties, and the emotional toil taken out on the staff, patient, overstretched, exhausted. Part of the daily routine for all the regular care home workers but very new to those from completely other worlds.
So a central theme started to evolve for us whilst making this film, that of transferable skills, the journey overnight from a life in the skies or on the stage to the care home, the supermarket, the screen.
Over to Suzanne to explore this theme further:
“I’ve been on furlough since April and have used my skills to volunteer with the local council. They were looking for Empathy, Willingness, Time…and a Caring Nature. I shopped for two elderly people self-isolating and befriended a lady who desperately needed someone to talk too. She helped me as much as I helped her!”
EMMA CHRISTOPHER, Cabin Crew, Virgin Atlantic
“In January I decided to redo a TEFL course…Before I finished…lockdown happened (and) part of the course went online. I panicked. My tech skills were minimal. Being furloughed meant I had time to focus on learning the skills to complete the course online.
A week after finishing I was volunteering in a Zoom English class for local refugees who didn’t have access to formal classes. Now I am also working with a lady who is a refugee living in Greece, hoping to make it to Britain. And two other ladies, working 1-1 in Stoke. These are all unpaid but I have been able to do this thanks to the furlough scheme.
As my husband has no work at the moment, I am making extra money teaching English to kids in China.
I have seen this crisis in our theatre industry as a time to step back and take the opportunity to spread my wings a bit. Something that is difficult to do when you work full time and care for a family.
The best thing is, now I know I can do these things I can combine my new adventure with working at the theatre when they find a way to make theatre happen. “
SARAH THORNE, Costume Department, New Vic Theatre, Newcastle Under-Lyme
A BURGEONING FRIENDSHIP
Before I started writing this blog, I put a post out on social media asking for examples of transferring, learning or sharing skills in order to volunteer or maintain existing work over the pandemic. It seemed like fate when these two stories lit up my inbox.
Aviation and Theatre – two industries severely affected, yet filled with positive, brave professionals determined to stay relevant and connected despite the crisis.
Our heroine Jade, in How To Land, is just such a soul.
She is drawn to a 94-year-old resident, June, at the Care Home, where she now works.
Through their burgeoning friendship, we see each woman reinstate the other’s wings. They probe, challenge and delight one another uncovering an intimate side, not shown to many.
For me, the strength of the piece lies in its honesty. Both writer Anna Reynolds and director Rosamunde Hutt, were keen to give each woman her “edges”. Jade and June state their opinions, snap, flourish, tease and reveal nerves and vulnerabilities under the skin. Without this we wouldn’t believe them. It would be a ‘nice’ story instead of a muscular one. A ‘pretty’ friendship instead of a rich exchange. It would be ‘polite’ instead of rigorous & therefore inspiring.
STEPPING INTO ANOTHER’S SHOES
Fear. Rigour. Bravery. Muscle. Truth. Joy.
All these words reflect what it’s like to take on a new role and learn a new skill. And both our heroines in How To Land do this during a global crisis.
Anna’s terrific script, along with hers and Rosamunde’s insights meant we were on a journey of discovery together, finding Jade and June and bringing them off the page and into life.
THE SET UP
In case you’re yet to watch How To Land, the set-up is this:
There is one actor. Me. I play Jade, she talks to the camera, telling the spectator about her new job and her favourite resident, June. We imagine June to be off to the side of the camera, but Jade voices her, telling the audience what she says and does. I (the actor) change my voice, to reflect when June is talking and then switch back to Jade’s voice when Jade takes over the narrative again.
At specific moments, Rosamunde (director) asked me to use a classic “storytellers” technique, where the narrator almost becomes the character she is describing.
In addition to this, we explored different “eyelines” and “points of focus” to further clarify who is talking when. We hope it’s clear as you watch?!!
* an eyeline is where I am looking – e.g. to the right of camera and straight ahead
* a point of focus is what I am looking at.
June is an imagined member of The Air Transport Auxiliary; founded at the beginning of WW11 and thanks to the remarkable efforts of Pauline Gower MBE, open to women by 1940. Both female and male pilots played an esteemed role in the war effort, ferrying planes to air bases all over the UK, ready for RAF pilots to take into battle.
Here is a short introduction to Pauline Gower, in her own voice!
In How To Land, we learn that through a pact made with her father, June not only learns to fly aged 14 but also joins Pauline Gower’s team when she turns 17.
As a modern actor, I need to mentally and emotionally put myself into June’s reality: 1940, 14 years old. Female. What did the world allow for me? What would the world expect of me? What would it mean to ask my father, the landowner, the patriarch and a WW1 veteran if he would let me fly his old biplane? I mean, “Gutsy” doesn’t even come close!
The brilliant writing also gives insight into June’s father. He throws down the gauntlet: “Alright Junie,” he says, “if you can repair it, you can fly it”.
And she does!
As an actor, I read this exchange between Father and Daughter and ask myself the following questions:
How did June manage to repair a plane? Who would have helped her? Where would she have got parts? Tools? Knowledge?
How did June manage to repair a plane? Who would have helped her? Where would she have got parts? Tools? Knowledge?
How did June manage to repair a plane? Who would have helped her? Where would she have got parts? Tools? Knowledge?
And then, just like the other actors in the Nothing On Earth: Shorts, I went on a treasure hunt, researching:
– Videos of old biplanes being repaired and taking off.
– Youtube interviews with the original ATA Girls (Female Air Transport Auxilary Pilots).
– BBC World Service podcasts on Spitfires.
The latter led me to Beatrice Shilling OBE– a female engineer in the 30s/40s, who fixed one of the major flaws in the Spitfire engine – facing a lot of challenges and obstacles due to her sex. In my backstory – (history) – for June, I made Beatrice one of her role models.
All of this helped me imagine a rich and truthful world for June.
Through this research I discovered Joy Lofthouse. A real life ATA Girl, born 14/2/1923 died 15/11/2015.
I fell in love and printed an A4 colour picture of her and pinned it opposite me wherever possible.
This made for a good fixed eyeline and point of focus. It made Jade (me) feel like she was actually talking to someone. I had a scene partner!
Through watching our wonderful Géhane Strehler playing the Aviatrix in Learning To Fly and my discovery of Joy Lofthouse I felt a strong sense of younger and mature June.
Here’s an interview with Joy:
Here’s a picture of one of my filming set ups:
And here’s my picture of Joy next to one of Géhane in Learning to Fly.
I used the exact same skills to find the character of Jade.
I researched footage on “A Day In The Life Of Cabin Crew” & “A Day In The Life of A Care Home Assistant” and was in awe of both sets of professionals!
I asked myself: where has Jade come from and where is she now? Which of her former skills transfers over? What pushes her boundaries?
Both Anna and Rosamunde asked: “what does it look like when Cabin Crew morphs into Care Home Assistant”. How do the worlds merge?
I wrote a list of contrasting smells and textures and went around my house feeling materials and sticking my nose in different bottles to get those stark differences into my sense memory.
Disinfectant Versus a Fragrant lipstick
PPE & Scrubs Versus Tailored jacket, heels and a soft smart shirt
Woolly socks Versus 10 denier tights
Tea Versus Gin – (To be fair, you do get both on a plane!)
I also compared the realities of working in the same venue, every day with landing in different countries for overnight stays, with very little notice.
Along with the contrasts came crossovers: patience, emergency medical knowledge, people skills, caring for unwell and/or vulnerable passengers, intense, pacey training, long hours and a warm camaraderie among the teams.
We began to wonder if the biggest contrast between the two worlds lay in intimacy. In a care home staff are washing, changing, cleaning, feeding and lifting another human being in 12-hour shifts, daily. A care home is intimately connected to illness, fragility and of course mortality. While a Cabin Crew member is a resilient, rigorous professional used to long shifts and stamina, this intimate care would be a new, challenging and quite understandably scary experience. Especially when your training is minimal and done at record speed.
While we do not explore this side of Jade’s role with June, we do uncover an emotional intimacy between the women. The slower pace of a Care Home allows for this. They spend private, sometimes silent hours with one another. listening, hearing, watching, waiting and eventually probing each other to speak.
While we must celebrate the human instinct to remain spirited in a crisis, it is perhaps important to acknowledge the feelings of grief, anxiety and loss over these turbulent times. We would like to pay tribute to all professionals in all industries who have offered so much and to so many, despite personal challenges and upheavals.
I would also like to pay a personal tribute to the Creative Community. The generosity, affection, resilience and indomitable spirits among my colleagues and friends have been remarkable.
Thank you for watching and reading. It is a privilege to have your time.
To end, a final quote from my Head of Acting at Drama School. Two words I associate with Hilary Wood: Imagination and Anarchy. I think Jade and June would approve, don’t you?!
“I have acquired the skill of teaching on Zoom, everything I normally teach in the room”.
HILLARY WOOD, Head of Acting, The Lir, Trinity College Dublin, previous Head of Acting at The Webber Douglas Academy
Everyone has a story to tell, let’s keep finding new ways to share them.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?”
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 EarthShort: 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!