Last week Big Finish released ATA Girl, the first in the brand new Originals range.
The series, created and directed by Louise Jameson (Leela – Doctor Who) and produced by Helen Goldwyn, was inspired by one hundred and sixty-eight women who flew planes in the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) during World War Two. These women risked their lives ferrying vital aircraft to the fighter pilots without the benefit of radios or navigation. The planes frequently had mechanical issues and were shot at by both friend and foe.
This is a unique production from Big Finish. A full complement of female writers, combined with a mainly female cast, a female director and a female producer, creates a distinct portrayal of these courageous women. The stories never falter into melodrama but show the stoic strength of these independent and daring pilots. While there is some romance in the stories, it is kept to a bare minimum, and instead, the writers focus on the bond between these women and their challenges navigating a male-centred environment.
Do not expect a hero riding a white horse; the men in these stories are few in supporting roles. The harsh realities faced in the war are not sugar-coated: there is death, grief and regret but also joy, independence and joie de vivre. While these emotions are common to other tales from WWII, here it’s treated with a difference. These women are afraid less of losing the lives than losing their hard-won independence and purpose. They dread a future where they become invisible and lose their voice again. For many, their wartime experience was both the worst and best times of their lives.
Stoic and Strong
Jameson and Goldwyn take on hard-hitting women’s issues like sexual morality, unplanned pregnancies, lesbian relationships and the equality of women. They have stayed away from modernising these problems, remaining appropriate to the 1940’s throughout. The women of the ATA remain stoic and strong, handling themselves with both discretion and dignity.
This labour of love features four interwoven tales through the recollections of a fictionalised surviving member of the ATA. Amelia, played by Alicia Ambrose-Bayly, finds comfort in her autumn years by remembering friends gone by. As with many veterans, her stories have remained private even from her daughter and granddaughter.
Up in the Air by Gemma Page
‘Up in the Air’ is the first story in ATA Girl. Written by Gemma Page, the main researcher for the series, it introduces the scenario to the audience by following the induction of a new pilot, Daphne Coyle. A young widow unable to deal with her grief, Daphne joins the ATA to honour her husband who died in a damn-buster bomber mission.
She is stunned and a bit daunted to learn that she is expected to fly to destinations all over Europe. She battles nerves but becomes certified as a pilot after only 12 hours flight time. Daphne excels in flying and through it she is able to live again, face her grief and find her path. Even if that path is questionable, it is her choice.
‘Up in the Air’ is a bittersweet tale of independence, growth and personal courage mixed with heart-wrenching grief. The listener glimpses the day-to-day life and challenges of the ATA. But it also sets the tone: ATA Girl is a realistic and honest series. There will be no easy answers. Some broken things remain broken and some loose ends are never tied off.
Dancing With A Spitfire by Victoria Paxton
Second Officer Mina Lauderdale, ‘The Wildcard’, is the star of the ATA. A brilliant, beautiful pilot, she is the darling of the press and Dorchester party circuit. But when she clashes with an argumentative American pilot Jeanette, Mina faces what she wants out of her life.
‘Dancing With A Spitfire’ is a tale of its time but still relevant today. Though some listeners may not be satisfied with the conclusion, I personally found it very touching. Jeannette and Mina are of their time and they dared to be more than that. I came to admire both women and enjoyed catching glimpses of them in the other ATA tales.
Flying Blind by Helen Goldwyn
‘Flying Blind’ is another tale that addresses the difficult issues facing women in wartime Britain. Written by producer Helen Goldwyn, the story follows one of the original ATA pilots, Judith Heathcote. Judith is older than most of the other women and one of the few mothers in the group. Her husband is presumed dead and she joined the ATA to help the war effort. Due to her experience, she is a steady and calming influence on the young pilots. But she is trapped by convention and sees her life as joyless. After a series of decisions that Judith makes trying to find joy and freedom from convention leads her into a dangerous journey.
‘Flying Blind’ is difficult to fully review without spoilers, but suffice to say Judith’s path is one of regrets. Of the time she missed with her daughter. Of settling in life and marrying for safety. While she appears to be the strongest of women pilots, her lack of resilience and internal self-doubt drives her choices.
Grounded by Jane Slavin
‘Grounded’ is the last story in the series and brings things full circle by focusing on Amelia. Set in 1945 during the last few months of the war, the base is hit with an unexpected air raid. As bombers hit the base and surrounding area, everyone scrambles for safety. Most make it to the bomb shelter but a few including, Jeannette, Mina, Widdley and Amelia are stuck above ground and must fend for themselves.
This final tale is a story of change. The base reels with the impact of bombs and the losses that they cause. But there is even more loss to come for these women. This is the last few months of freedom for many of them as they move from a life of purpose and direction into society’s conventions. This is reflected in Amelia’s journey through this episode and her future life with husband Henry and her daughter and granddaughter.
ATA Girl surprised me with the depth of honesty and grit. It is a beautiful homage to the brave women of the ATA. The fictional characters created for these four dramas reflected the determined, brave and capable women, but as with all great characterisations, they are also flawed and imperfect. Amelia’s memories, just as this series, end on a poignant and a tragic note. These stories honour and remember the real women of the ATA. In the end, we are all just stories that are remembered.
An all-new Original series from Big Finish Productions, available singly or as part of the Big Finish Originals bundle
ATA Girl is a drama inspired by the real women of the Air Transport Auxiliary during WWII. From the UK and beyond, a hundred and sixty eight female pilots, alongside the men, transported a vast range of aircraft from the factories to the squadrons, sometimes flying in perilous weather conditions and without radios or instrument instruction.
One in ten ATA pilots died.
Told as a series of reminiscences from (fictitious) former pilot Amelia Curtis, the stories aim to honour these unsung heroes of WWII, whose shared passion for flying contributed so much to the war effort and who represented one of the first examples of ‘equality in the work place’ for women in the UK.
1.1 Up in the Air by Gemma Page
It’s March 1944 and young widow Daphne Coyne arrives at the Air Transport Auxiliary, having signed up to train as a new pilot. Already unsure of her decision, she is shocked to find that her estranged younger sister, Rebecca, has also joined the ATA, hoping for a chance of reconciliation. As Daphne grows close to her flying instructor, the injured former RAF pilot, David, and discovers an unexpected passion for flying, the two sisters try to navigate their broken relationship. But David has family trapped in Belgium and Daphne has a plan that could jeopardise all of their futures…
1.2 Dancing With A Spitfire by Victoria Saxton
In 1942, Glamorous ‘It Girl’, Second Officer Mina Lauderdale is enjoying her work with the ATA, flying her aircraft recklessly and living up to her nickname, ‘The Wildcard’! However, amidst all of the press attention, the partying and the endless flirting, Mina is secretly running away from an unwanted destiny. It’s only when she meets outspoken US pilot Jeanette that Mina finally begins to discover her true self and face up to the reality of who she wants to be.
1.3 Flying Blind by Helen Goldwyn
1942-43, Judith Heathcote has been with the ATA since the start and is one of the few mothers in the Corps. With her husband ‘missing presumed dead’ and her daughter living with her parents, Judith is beginning to question the sacrifices she’s making for the war effort. Seen as a maternal figure by many of her colleagues, it seems that Judith looks out for everyone but herself. So when a chance of happiness arises, she seizes upon it, only to find herself caught up in a series of events that propel her towards an unthinkable solution.
1.4 Grounded by Jane Slavin
It’s early 1945. The end of the war is closer than the pilots realise, but meanwhile there is an unexpected air raid to contend with. When the sirens sound at the ATA ferry pool, the women have to find a way to protect themselves and each other: some making it to the bomb shelter, whilst others are trapped above. Elsewhere, RAF pilot Walter (already traumatised by his war experience) has come to seek solace with ATA pilot Amelia. She and her best friend Widdley, do their best to comfort him, but with war still raging around them, they are reminded of losses suffered… and losses still to come…
PLEASE NOTE: ATA Girl contains adult material and is not suitable for younger listeners.
Written By: Gemma Page, Victoria Saxton, Helen Goldwyn, Jane Slavin
Directed By: Louise Jameson
Alicia Ambrose-Bayly (Amelia), Anna Andresen (Daphne), Matt Barber (Walter Richardson / Daniel), Nathalie Buscombe (Judith), Tor Clark (Rebecca), Kate Copeland (Pauline Gower), Oliver Dimsdale (David Stein / Cadet), John Dorney (Nurse Norris / Major Charlie Blackthorn / Roger), Amy Downham (Tilly / Operations Officer), Nigel Fairs (Freddie / Norman / Mr Thomas), Helen Goldwyn (Chile / Anna Leska / Elizabeth Bryant), Holly Jackson Walters (Felicity / Jackie Cochran / Billet Mate), Louise Jameson (Rose), Gemma Page (Dorothy Fury / Barbara), Lucy Pickles (Widdley), Lydia Piechowiak (Susan De Winter), Jess Robinson (Jeanette), Jane Slavin (Mrs Cook), David Warwick (Harry / Mervyn Symms), Matthew Wellman (Eric / Flight Captain Bryant), Claire Wyatt (Mina). Other parts played by members of the cast.
Producer Helen Goldwyn
Script Editor John Dorney
Executive Producers Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs