Big Finish are celebrating their twentieth anniversary (yikes!) with a new line of original, download-only stories. Though these stories don’t tie into any pre-existing properties, they are stacked with familiar Big Finish talent breaking out into new formats. The first of these is ATA Girl, a four-story box set (inasmuch as anything digital can be a “box set”) about the female pilots of the Air Transport Auxiliary during World War II. The whole set is the brainchild of Louise Jameson (Doctor Who’s Leela) who directs all four episodes; Helen Goldwyn (who appeared in my first Big Finish story, Storm Warning) produces; she also writes alongside Gemma Page, Victoria Saxon, and Jane Slavin (the latter a staple guest actor in the Fourth Doctor Adventures); and John Dorney of course turns up, here in the capacity of script editor.
Each disc of ATA Girl is a standalone story focusing on a different ATA pilot, though a number of characters appear in multiple stories, and one of the set’s nice touches is that main characters in one story appear in the background in others, making them feel like fleshed-out people. All the stories here are strong, but my favourites were probably the middle two, Dancing with a Spitfire by Victoria Saxon and Flying Blind by Helen Goldwyn. In Dancing with a Spitfire, a group of American women join the ATA and have to put up with disdain from the British pilots, especially the daredevil Second Officer Mina Lauderdale (Claire Wyatt), the most glamorous and most famous of the ATA women. Jess Robinson’s Jeanette finds herself bearing the brunt of Mina’s wrath, but what soon emerges is a genuinely touching tale of two women who can’t be who they want to be, even in the loosened confines of the Air Transport Auxiliary. The ending is joyous, in its way.
Flying Blind focuses on the character of Judith Heathcote (Nathalie Buscombe), nicknamed “Mum” by her fellow pilots because she has a toddler back home. Judith’s husband is away at war, but she also has more than one dark secret even though the youngest of the ATA pilots, Susan De Wynter (Lydia Piechowiak), thinks Judith has it all together. Flying Blind is an honest, harrowing story, with a couple scenes unlike anything I have ever heard in a Big Finish audio — and it’s all the better for it. Buscombe is astonishing.
The stories are all presented as the reminiscences of Amelia Curtis (Alicia Ambrose-Bayly), who threads through all the stories, and comes to prominence in the final one, Slavin’s Grounded. In the present day, Amelia has a daughter and granddaughter who complain she never talks about the war; 70 years ago, Amelia is actually liberated by the war. A common thread of all the stories is the freedom the war brought these women, the freedom to take on the roles they wanted to take — especially the freedom to fly. For many, the only time they can truly be themselves is when they’re in the air, and there’s something tragic in the fact that only a war can let that happen. In the present day, her daughter Rose is played by Louise Jameson in a small role. Louise is good, of course; Louise is always good, and though I love her as Leela, ATA Girl acts a showcase for her considerable talents in both acting and directing.
Other prominent recurring characters include Lucy Pickles as “Widdley”, whose gung-ho, vicar’s-daughter attitude I really enjoyed throughout the set, and Kate Copeland as Pauline Gower. Most of the characters are fictional, but Gower (the “Ice Queen”) was the real head of the women’s branch of the ATA, and I liked the way Gower was woven in and out of these stories until she — like a number of other background characters — is suddenly brought into sharp focus in Grounded.
The production is up to the usual Big Finish standard, and I enjoyed Howard Carter’s musical theme — but it did bother me that almost every episode had a scene where the characters were at a dance club and complained that the music was too loud, but there was hardly any music playing at all!
In Jan Struther’s 1937-39 serial novel Mrs. Miniver (about the years leading up to WWII), the protagonist complains that it takes wartime for the nation to behave its best: “I can think of a hundred ways already in which the war has ‘brought us to our senses’. But it oughtn’t to need a war to […] make us talk to each other in buses, and invent our own amusements in the evenings, and live simply, and eat sparingly, and recover the use of our legs, and get up early enough to see the sun rise. However, it has needed one: which is about the severest criticism our civilisation could have.” Similarly, it oughtn’t have needed a war for these women to obtain the freedom they so desperately desired, and yet it did, and ATA Girl is a stirring, touching tribute to them, one of the best things I can remember Big Finish doing.
ATA Girl isn’t just about women doing jobs normally reserved for men, it also is an example of it. The director, producer, and all four scriptwriters are women — a hugely unusual ratio in Big Finish, whose main Doctor Who range has 237 releases, only six of which are solely written by women (a whopping 2.5%). It shouldn’t have taken a war for these women to be allowed to fly, and it shouldn’t have taken a story about women at war for Big Finish to have a story that employed women outside of the recording booth. But it did.
ATA Girl (by Gemma Page, Victoria Saxton, Helen Goldwyn, Jane Slavin; starring Alicia Ambrose-Bayly, Anna Andresen, Matt Barber, Nathalie Buscombe, Kate Copeland, Helen Goldwyn, Louise Jameson, Claire Wyatt) was released by Big Finish Productions in April 2018.