On the occasion of what would have been her 107th birthday, Kathryn Van Beek chats to actress Alex Ellis about the experience of portraying one of New Zealand's greatest adventurers - Jean Batten.
“If you have an ambition you should go for it, even if it sounds ridiculous,” says local actress Alex Ellis. “Jean Batten was an Auckland teenager who, in 1930, decided she would sail to England, learn to fly a plane and be the first person ever to fly all the way to New Zealand. Ridiculous."
But Miss Batten did become the first person to fly solo from England to New Zealand... and she held that record for 44 years.
“Jean Batten was one of New Zealand's greatest adventurers,” Alex says. “She was also a mechanic, an engineer, and a brilliant navigator. But there was often an undercurrent of disapproval in articles written about her, and plenty of letters to the editor remonstrating against the folly of letting her fly at all.
“Jean always managed to look glamorous. Even after eight hours in a cramped cockpit she’d land looking as if she was stepping onto a Hollywood set. She always packed a nice dress for the photo opportunity!”
Various beaus helped financed Jean’s planes, and she was sometimes accused of manipulating men to get ahead. “We believe those stories have been twisted through time to make them sound more calculating than they probably were,” says Alex. “One of the perils of being a successful woman is that men will claim you used your charm – but you can't fly 13000 miles, solo, in a single engine plane, on charm. To be exposed to the elements for the distances she flew, in such a basic collection of canvas and wood, is a massive demonstration of will and endurance.”
Alex plays Jean in Miss Jean Batten, which will take to the stage once again at MOTAT in October. and she’s taken to the skies as part of her research. “I went up for half an hour in a Gypsy Moth and the pilot went through a few manoeuvres. To top it off, before we landed he looped the loop!"
Alex has previously played troubled 1940s starlet Veronica Lake in the acclaimed stage show Drowning in Veronica Lake. “The glamour of those eras is undeniable, but I think it is the social barriers these women had to battle against that is the most interesting aspect. Both Jean and Veronica had a wonderfully dry sense of humour too.
“It seems the opportunities are greater today, but the expectations to play it safe, to not rock the boat or challenge the system are just the same as they ever were. But Jean seems to have lived exactly the life she wanted, and that is an inspiration for us all.”
Miss Jean Batten is a joyous celebration of an independent woman who pursued her ambition with unqualified success. It’s a story of success against enormous odds and one that should resonate with everyone.
Watch the drama unfold at MOTAT beneath the wings of the majestic Solent Flying Boat at the Aviation Display Hall on Wednesday, 12 October from 7.30pm.
Buy your tickets to Miss Jean Batten HERE!