REVIEW / The men who fell to earth bounce back

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The Independent Culture
AMONG the trusty cliches favoured by sports writers are those that give the reader some idea of how long ago it was that so and so last won such and such. If it was aeons ago, George V was on the throne; a bit more recently, and rationing was still in place; if it happened in the 1960s, the Beatles were at No 1. The cut- off point for such cliches is 1969, the year Neil Armstrong took one small step for mankind but a giant leap for journalese.

It seems preposterous that man's first walk on the moon should have become such a bench-mark: in terms of scientific achievement, it still makes all subsequent advances look trifling. But time has rocketed by since the moon landing for all but a very few - the Brazilian football team, say, or Ringo Starr, both of whom stopped work in 1970.

Take the 12 astronauts who have been there. One has got into paranormal psychology; another has seen Easy Rider and invested in a Harley-Davidson and headband; one has found God, another golf. In After One Small Step (BBC 2), five of them answered the question facing anyone who has undergone an experience that is, in their case literally, otherworldly: when you've been to the moon, isn't the rest of your life just one long falling to earth with a bump?

One expected a regurgitation of the woes suffered by Vietnam veterans - 'Meanwhile, back on earth, the all- conquering all-American was having problems adjusting to normal society': anything other than lunacy would be prosaic. In the case of Buzz Aldrin, it was always assumed that Armstrong getting there first must have planted a cankerous jealousy in his bosom; he's even portrayed thus in The Simpsons. But a weak cocktail of inherited depression and alcoholism was all he would admit to in this, his umpteenth interview for the anniversary celebrations. We met the gluey wife in whom he has sought solace, saw the matching monogrammed golf bags packed into cars with personalised number plates - 'Mars Guy' and 'Moongal' - and wondered how a man with such a prominent place in the history of the planet could now have such trivial preoccupations.

An astronaut can glance up at the sky and say, 'Been there, done that,' but some seem to have renounced even that privilege. Pete Conrad, the Dennis Hopper clone, appeared to be on a mission to embody the sterotype of the unsentimental, not to mention repressed, scientist. 'When I look at the moon now I don't think about it,' he said. 'I mean, sure, every once in a while I'll think, 'I went there,' but I'm not the type to look back.' He must be a wow at parties.

But then we met Al Bean, who paints astronauts for a living. This was the other end of the spectrum, an afterlife in which every working day consists of an act of reminiscence. He demonstrated how he sprinkled one canvas with moon- dust, and printed into it the heel of his moonboot and the butt of his moon- hammer. The 40 Minutes format to which David Turnbull's insightful film adhered can make anyone look like they're one planet short of a full galaxy, but in this case he had help. And to think these kookies boldly went where no man had gone before.

In a shameless act of niche scheduling, Paramedics (BBC 1) has been funnelled into the hole left by 999. There are echoes here of the moment when Doctor Who used to change identity: the old actor would play dead on the floor, while camera trickery faded out his face and faded in a new one. Paramedics is essentially 999 disguised as documentary: caring action men at work, with health and safety tips thrown in. Friday night is now accident and emergency night. Just like in the real world.

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