Pan Am: the airline drama that never takes off

The sad thing about the BBC’s glossy new import is that we need a nostalgia-trip to make air travel seem exciting.

David Bowden

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There’s been a lot of anger about advertising recently. For example, the Smiths-soundtracked John Lewis Christmas ad has got the Twitterati up in arms. The lifting of the product-placement ban on commercial British TV was met with wild predictions of doom. And last week, a perfume advert featuring a 17-year-old actress in Lolita-esque pose was the first to fall foul of post-Bailey Review guidelines on the sexualisation of children.

Even if, like me, you find it difficult to get your undergarments in a twist over advertising, you would have found it difficult to avoid feeling uncomfortable about the reverential treatment handed out to Pan American airlines on BBC2 this week. The saving grace is that the airline ‘bought the farm’ 20 years ago. The hagiography was all in honour of the launch of the BBC’s big new drama series, Pan Am, a stylish Sixties-set import clearly inspired by the success of Mad Men. It was also clear that the Beeb saw Pan Am as a suitable replacement for Mad Men, which has now been pinched by Sky Atlantic.

The verdict? Well, like the much-hyped homegrown The Hour earlier this year, the comparison does not benefit the actual programme. Focusing on a group of air hostesses on the iconic airline, Pan Am certainly rocks its smart presentation and revels in the bawdy and colourful nature of workplace relationships in the era before political correctness took hold.

Sadly, rather than replacing Mad Men, this served as rather a good advert for the marketing men (and women) of Madison Avenue. The AMC show has built its critical (if not mass audience) appeal on its sophisticated balancing act between fantasy and reality: the show has provoked ferocious debate among critics over whether we’re encouraged to desire or judge the lifestyles and values of the pre-baby boomer world and whether its glossy superficialities are a knowing homage to 1950s melodrama or simply a hollow postmodern repackaging of them.

The makers of Pan Am clearly get this dichotomy, but lack the magic to make them work off against each other. So we get plenty of pretty girls in tight uniforms having their bottoms slapped and hit upon by sleazy businessmen but – hey – these dumb broads read Marx and Engels, too! Barely a scene goes by without one character reminding us that this, after all, is a new liberated generation of women rather than a group of mere sex objects. Throw in what already seems a silly sub-plot involving spies and rescuing political refugees from Cuba – and the realisation that one of the show’s stars made her name in notoriously lightweight Australian soap Neighbours – and it’s clear we’re firmly on the trashier side of the entertainment spectrum.

It’s a shame, because the conceit behind Pan Am is potentially a fascinating one. As the show and the accompanying documentary Come Fly With Me (The Story of Pan Am) observed, the development of mass flight was a genuinely exciting one for young men and women alike – offering a unique opportunity to travel the world and expand their horizons without needing to go to war first. As Come Fly With Me showed, Pan Am’s strength as a company lay in becoming the brand synonymous with this ambition and aspiration: offering the seemingly exclusive luxury of air travel while ruthlessly and ferociously expanding the number of passengers it could carry.

While superficial, the documentary was canny enough to observe that Pan Am’s failure as a company lay in its inability to adapt efficiently to the more sluggish American economy of the 1970s. Oil shocks and uncertainty over US foreign policy (emphasised by the growing paranoia about terrorism and hijacking) made the airline an unwieldy dinosaur in the coming austere age of budget airlines and a more introspective worldview. What finally did for Pan Am was a botched move into the internal US market, along with the terrorist bombing of a Pan Am plane over Lockerbie in 1988.

The poignant point is that Pan Am the show can only nostalgically celebrate the aspirational confidence of an expanding economic superpower. Which is a shame because even though the role of ‘trolley dolly’ has been stripped of the kind of wide-eyed glamour presented here, there’s still the same clamour from young men and women to see the world and expand their horizons. They just have to do it under much tougher working conditions than the glamorous women portrayed in Pan Am.

For all its creaking dialogue and trashy sensibilities, the one triumph of Pan Am is that it offers a reminder that international air travel as one of the ultimate expressions of freedom and the desire to expand your horizons. Given the opposition to the third runway at Heathrow and the small-mindedness of the ethical tourists and staycationer crowds, it’s a shame that such an important message has been turned into this disappointing flight of fancy.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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