Local drama looks at Jean Batten, the 'Greta Garbo of the skies'

Kate Elliott as Jean Batten

Kate Elliott as Jean Batten

Many words and phrases have been used to describe Kiwi aviatrix Jean Batten. 

Ambitious, beautiful and a little mysterious, she was known as the 'Greta Garbo of the skies'.

During the 1930s, when many women were preoccupied with family, Jean was undertaking daring solo flights – and breaking records and hearts along the way.

Jean Batten (Kate Elliott) waves to the crowd in the one-off Kiwi drama Jean.

Jean Batten (Kate Elliott) waves to the crowd in the one-off Kiwi drama Jean.

Jean, a one-off drama, looks at key moments in her life during this decade, including her ill-fated romance with Australian pilot Beverley Shepherd.

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It stars Kate Elliott (Shortland Street, Bliss) in the title role with Michael Whalley (Field Punishment No 1, Pirates Of The Airwaves) as Beverley. Miranda Harcourt (Gloss) appears as her mother Ellen. 

Jean, who was born in Rotorua in 1909 but shifted to Auckland a few years later, had a close relationship with Ellen, especially after her marriage to Jean's dentist father collapsed.

It was Ellen who arranged for Jean to have flying lessons and the pair spent a great deal of time overseas together.

"The story goes that Jean's father had wanted her to be a pianist," says Elliott.
"She was a brilliant pianist and a dancer all through her childhood, and her father didn't want her to go to England to learn how to be a pilot. He didn't think it was the right job for a woman. 

"Jean and her mother sold the family piano behind his back and said Jean was going to a music academy. But instead she went to flying school. He ended up finding out and he cut her allowance off."

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But flying didn't come cheap. 

In the drama, it is suggested that Jean may have charmed men into parting with their money to fund her aviation ventures.  

"There are multiple sides of Jean, like any interesting character throughout history," says Elliott.
"If this character was a man he definitely would never have been called a gold digger."

As preparation for the role Elliott researched Jean's life and says she isn't entirely happy with the way she is depicted.

"I read a couple of biographies about her and I feel like maybe they're quite unfair," says Elliott.

"Like lots of women, especially of that time, she was portrayed as being maybe promiscuous and not a nice person. I think she was simply fearless and quite ruthless in her pursuit of excellence. I think that when you're an athlete of that ability, then you do what it takes to win and that's what she did."

It was noted that Jean was beautifully dressed and made up when being photographed after some of her notable flights. But Elliott says there was a very good reason for Jean to change her attire after solo flights.

"You've definitely got to get changed into something," she says.

"In no way was it glamorous.  You're boiling hot, you're sweating and you're doing your business out of a chute in the bottom of the plane. Sometimes you pee yourself."

In 1934, Jean was introduced to Beverley Shepherd by a mutual friend at a Sydney aerodrome bar. The pair hit it off.

"The cool thing about him is that he was as equally ambitious as Jean," says Michael Whalley.

"His ambitions were set on becoming a commercial pilot so they met around the aerodrome. She met her intellectual match with him and he was the one who eventually won her heart. 

"I think that was the way he was able to challenge her and not pander to this supposed heroine who carried around this golden aura around her.

"Though he respected that and was attracted to her, it was their intellects that matched. She was attracted to the way he was able to challenge her and not crumble."

Whalley, a Kiwi actor who has been living in Australia for the past seven years, believes Beverley was the love of Jean's life. However, the romance ended when he was killed in a plane crash in 1937.

"She never really recovered after that," says Elliott.

Jean, who died alone in a Majorca hotel in 1982 from complications caused by a dog bite, never married or had children.

"I don't think anybody knew the real Jean Batten," says Elliott. "I think there were multiple real Jean Battens and that's what she needed to do to achieve what  she did."

Jean, TVNZ 1, Sunday.

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 - TV Guide

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