Big Finish Review: ATA Girl

Big Finish is currently celebrating an uninterrupted twenty-year run producing audio dramas which in the main have been licensed adaptations of or expansions upon content from other media: principally television shows such as Doctor Who, Blake's 7, The Avengers and numerous others, but also interesting takes on literary or comic-book characters such as Sherlock Holmes, Dorian Gray, Judge Dredd and Luther Arkwright.

But in earlier years the company has been shy of releasing entirely self-generated productions which lack a pre-established audience from a television or literary source.  It can’t be a coincidence that in its anniversary year Big Finish are taking the plunge and producing a whole raft of wholly original drama series; Cicero, Jeremiah Bourne in Time (created by Nigel Planer), The Human Frontier and Blind Terror.  But the first to arrive is director/devisor Louise Jameson’s passion project, ATA Girl.

During World War II, the civilian pilots of the Air Transport Auxiliary enabled the Allied war effort by ferrying aircraft from the factories where they were built or repaired to the airfields where RAF combat pilots needed them.  From the early days of the war the ATA had a division of entirely female pilots (numbering 161 over the course of the war and nicknamed “Attagirls” by the press), operating from White Waltham airfield in Berkshire under the command of Pauline Gower.

These pilots, mostly in their 20s, inspired a generation of women (including this writer’s mother) with both their courageous deeds in the air and by becoming the first ever female workforce to successfully argue for equal pay with their male colleagues.  But their stories are rarely remembered now.  Jameson, assembling a largely female creative team befitting the inspiration, has set about to put this right.

The Synopsis

 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.

The Review

This review is spoiler-free.

The creators have indicated that their intention was to produce a ‘fictionalised celebration’ of the female pilots of the ATA, so although a number of real-life figures appear (or are referenced), the meat of the stories use fictional characters to explore the kinds of lives these women had.  As such, ATA Girl is really an anthology series with a large ensemble cast, each episode, in the main, focusing on one or two of the pilots.  Although there are a number of recurring characters who weave in and out, there are two major linking figures: the historical figure of Gower (the impactful, steely Kate Copeland), referred to as “the ice queen” by some of her pilots, but whose occasional harshness is motivated by genuine concern for her staff; and the fictional Amelia Curtis (the astonishing Alicia Ambrose-Bayly).

The real Pauline Gower, as seen in the 1940s, and the actor who plays her in ATA Girl, Kate Copeland

The series and its characters are framed as Amelia’s memories; we first meet her in her early eighties and the framing narrative progresses through her nineties, as her granddaughter Tilly grows from child to a university graduate with a fascination for her ‘Granna’s past.  But the elderly Amelia is a private and outwardly scolding individual, nursing painful memories: the 1940s find her as a serious, but caring and loyal 20-something who is always there, if she can, to catch her more impetuous colleagues – who take up more of the episodes' run-time than she does – when they stumble (or occasionally crash).

Over the course of the series the nature of the pain which has caused the older Amelia to withdraw into herself becomes heartrendingly clear, and Ambrose-Bayly, who plays her at all stages of her life (with perhaps the best example of acted ‘vocal ageing’ I have ever heard), makes the character utterly real.  Director Jameson’s cameo appearances as Amelia’s daughter Rose, and actor Amy Downham as Tilly, combine with Ambrose-Bayly’s performance to convey three women whose relationship is affectionate but not without the difficulties caused by unspoken pain and generational misunderstanding.

Louise Jameson has been one of British television’s most treasured actors since the mid-1970s, with key roles in landmark dramas such as Doctor Who, Tenko, Bergerac and EastEnders.  With such a pedigree, it’s unsurprising that in ATA Girl she has delivered a Big Finish original series that seems more than worthy of a place in the primetime TV schedule.  The current series which it most resembles, in terms of tone, is Call the Midwife; both series showcase a largely female cast in a British setting half a century or so ago, both series share at least one actor (Copeland), and both contrast the camaraderie of a group of women with the social challenges and often harsh choices with which they have been presented by their situations.

ATA Girl even has its own version of Miranda Hart’s ‘Chummy’ in Lucy Pickles’ Ridley (good-humouredly known as ‘Widdley’ due to her involuntary de-rhotacization).  An always-upbeat, self-deprecating vicar’s daughter, Widdley lightens any scene in which she appears.

Comparisons with Call the Midwife are not at all meant to slight ATA Girl: Call the Midwife is an excellent series and hugely popular, and ATA Girl would be a perfect successor to it in the Sunday night TV schedule (so long as the budget would run to the occasional plane crash as well as all the period costumes).  Another point of comparison with Call the Midwife is in the excellence of ATA Girl’s ensemble of female leads and the way in which they are able through their performances to ground the series in its historical period.

One suspects Jameson has led some kind of ‘1940s boot camp’ for her female leads, so expertly do they adopt the delivery and idioms of the time while always sounding like real people (and not actors imitating the style of other actors from decades ago); or perhaps more plausibly that this consistency, as well as the believable workplace interplay of the pilots, was a result of the mostly-female, multi-rolled nature of the production team (all of the writers, except Victoria Saxton, also appear in acting roles).

Having said that, there may be some criticism that the authenticity of the casting choices did not go so far as casting real French, Belgians and Americans in those roles, and the cast members who have to adopt such outlier accents are generally less convincing than those playing British; but then a low-budget production can only afford so much authenticity.  It must be observed too that the minority of males in the cast seem more mannered and less natural in their adoption of 1940s speech patterns than the women, but Jameson’s directorial focus will (quite rightly in this case) been on the females.

The story of the elderly Amelia is an effective thread that runs through all the episodes and provides useful historical context when needed, but the majority of each episode’s run-time takes place during the war, and in a way it is a shame that the stories have to continually cut back to Amelia’s modern life, as each of the 1940s stories would make for an excellent stand-alone play.

The first episode, writer Gemma Page’s Up in the Air, is an excellent introduction to the general set-up of the ATA, even though its setting in 1944 is chronologically after some of the later stories.  New pilot Daphne Coyne (Anna Andresen) arrives at White Waltham, having decided to volunteer for the ATA to regain the focus her life has lost since her fighter pilot husband went missing in action in Europe.  The person who makes Daphne most welcome is, naturally, Amelia, and it’s useful to get to know the other pilots as Daphne does.

I have to acknowledge there is an element that initially comes across as worryingly soapy: Daphne’s estranged sister Rebecca (Tor Clark) has unexpectedly also enrolled at the ATA, resurrecting their bitterness over a past fling between Rebecca and Daphne’s husband.  However, other events quickly, and realistically, force the sisters’ relationship to evolve beyond this.

Victoria Saxton’s Dancing with a Spitfire is the most light-hearted of the episodes, focusing as it does on the Amy Johnson-ish upper-class devil-may-care adventuress (and ATA poster girl) Wilhelmina ‘the Wildcard’ Lauderdale (Claire Wyatt).  The most effervescent of the pilots, Mina claims at one point that she wishes the war would never end because of the freedom she feels as a flyer; the story juxtaposes her against a visiting group of differently-brash American aviators.

There’s some charming (and educational) comedy as the different nationalities compare their engineering prowess, and run rings around a chauvinistic and lecherous male colleague (John Dorney).  But there is also action (with an actual plane crash) and a note of thwarted romance – a persistent theme of these stories being how the war, combined with the social conventions of the time, has played havoc with these characters’ personal lives.

The next episode, Flying Blind by Helen Goldwyn (also the series’ producer), continues this theme but explores it in far darker vein.  Pilot Judith (Nathalie Buscombe) has believed her MIA husband dead for so long that she has been having an affair with Flight Captain Bryant (Matthew Wellman), who himself is trapped in a loveless marriage to the heiress whose money he depends on.  When Judith finally receives confirmation that her husband actually is dead after all – a nice twist as the listener has been conditioned to expect that the news will be that he is alive - it brings up a storm of both guilt and possibilities for the couple which lead to unexpected consequences.

Although the interweaved scenes featuring the elder Amelia seem in this episode to be rather incongruous, having no direct connection to the main narrative, as a standalone story Flying Blind is probably the most powerful episode in the collection.

The final instalment is Grounded, by novelist and actress Jane Slavin (who contributes a hugely engaging performance as kitchen-chief-turned-ARP-warden Mrs Cook).  By contrast, this is the episode in which the modern-day and the wartime sequences are most closely entwined, as the main narrative revolves around Amelia, her friendships and her life after the war.

It follows the escapades of several of the recurring characters during an air raid, with particular focus on Amelia’s attempts to help grounded bomber pilot Walter (Matt Barber), whose guilt over the innocent victims he may have claimed in his bomb runs has been magnified since his own family were lost in the London blitz.  Slavin juxtaposes several characters and their perspectives on the war, while mixing comedy, drama and ultimately tragedy, revealing the events that will haunt Amelia for the rest of her life.  It’s a fine end to the series and to Amelia’s story.

What is undoubtedly true about this series as a whole is that it does what all good drama is meant to do: make you care.  This might be the main worry for Big Finish, whose productions can usually trust their main characters command the loyalty of existing audience from previous incarnations; everyone here is presumably new to most of the audience (the cast is fairly unfamiliar too, with a few exceptions).

But a wartime drama, by its very nature, introduces its characters in extremis, and that means the audience gets to know them intimately and fast.  That’s very much the case here: by the end of the first episode, Amelia, Daphne, Rebecca, ‘Widdley’ and Pauline Gower have made an indelible impression, and each subsequent episode adds more names to that roster.

It’s easy to empathise with these characters’ emotional struggles, such is the scripts’ deft focus on life decisions with which any of us could identify.  Although at first glance the preponderance of romantic storylines would rival that of a daytime soap opera – and suggest a pandering towards a stereotyped idea of ‘women’s interests’ – what we have instead is a repeated exploration of how the women’s situation flying for the ATA brings a sense freedom but has also sharpened their awareness of a lack of happiness in their lives.

There is even a lesbian storyline – a perhaps predictable element of any drama with a predominantly female cast – which, after a long build-up, is brushed over with poignant rapidity as the would-be lovers realise that 1940s Britain would not tolerate such a relationship to continue in the open: “There’s no future in this,” one of them concludes.

Overall, especially as Big Finish’s first original drama series, ATA Girl is a triumph.  I initially described the production as Jameson’s ‘passion project’, which can seem to be a pejorative term, but passion is exactly the quality which defines the series.  Jameson and her cast have sought to re-create, and pay tribute to, a group of people who did exist and whose courage and determination shaped the lives of others.

Almost every element of the production shows this passion and authenticity, from the writing and performances to the sound design (which excels both in the obvious areas – such as the immersive flight and air-raid sequences – to the airy outdoor atmosphere created when characters are talking while on the air field or in the nearby lanes).

Although the production team have indicated they’d like to produce a Series Two – presumably focusing on an all-new bunch of pilots, and for sure there will be many more characters and stories to explore from the legacy of the ATA – this series feels like a complete product and is utterly satisfying as such.  Despite the harrowing nature of some of the storylines, the world created by the series seems so real that it is a pleasure to slip into.

ATA Girl is not just a history lesson, but a fine drama that feels searingly alive, and it’s among the best work that Big Finish have done for some time.  I would wholeheartedly encourage anyone to give it a listen.

ATA Girl is available now to purchase exclusively as a download from the Big Finish website.

The Extras...

Although ATA Girl is not available on CD (presumably to minimise the cost risk of producing content without a proven audience), the download does include the hour or so of behind-the-scenes interviews common to the bonus disc in Big Finish box-sets, and it’s a fascinating listen, as Jameson, her writers and cast explain the inspirations behind the series and the research that went into it.

Victoria Saxton has perhaps the most interesting insight of any of the writers – herself being a pilot who was trained at the series’ principal setting, White Waltham airfield.  I’m tempted to listen to her episode again in the knowledge that its technical details are written from experience.  The cast interviews, too, yield some unexpected insights.  Claire Wyatt, who plays the extroverted Mina with almost uncanny conviction, is revealed to be a serious and thoughtful person quite unlike her character.

Meanwhile, Lydia Piechowiak (who plays Susan De Wynter, the youngest of the pilots, with an infectious enthusiasm which is utterly endearing) unexpectedly explains how her affinity for 1940s mores has been bolstered by her experience as a burlesque dancer!

The lead is naturally taken by Louise Jameson and Helen Goldwyn who explain in modest terms the process by which ATA Girl was brought to life.  Their cast are uniform in their praise of the series’ concept and the scripts – and rightly so.  Jameson and Goldwyn should be proud, and I hope they get to fulfil their intention to produce a second series.


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