Apollo Wives, BBC4
Ladette to Lady, ITV1
It wasn't easy being married to an astronaut, but 40 years on the wives are still glad and proud to have been involved
Sunday 12 July 2009
Four years before Armstrong and Aldrin touched down on the Moon, Stanley Kubrick outlined his own vision for the future, discussing his upcoming film 2001: A Space Odyssey. At the time, he suggested that the link between the Greek epic of his title and 20th-century space travel was based on a shared "concern for wandering and adventure".
But tuning in to the BBC's "Moon" season, which celebrates the 40th anniversary of the lunar landings, it seems that most of the associated narratives written into our consciousness (including Kubrick's) have little bearing on that classical reference. For although Odysseus's fabulous tales of derring-do in far-off places form the best-known part of Homer's poem, "The Odyssey" is really about domestic sacrifice. To be a wandering hero, you need a home to wander from, and someone to worry while you're gone.
It was that human theme that made Apollo Wives a welcome puncture in the romantic bubble. In a series of interviews with 10 women who have come no closer to outer space than boarding the odd aeroplane, I learnt more about man's journey to the moon than any number of archive moonwalk clips, specimens of lunar rock or expert analyses of the Cold War could impart.
As the wives of Nasa's Apollo astronauts, they were almost but, crucially, not quite at the centre of the action. Theirs was a close-up view uniquely tempered by the banal, irksome and sometimes painful realities of their own involvement.
The programme joined the impressively youthful bunch of septuagenarians at their own 40-year reunion party. They have been meeting since their Houston days, a kind of club for the wives of the original astronauts, or rather the first wives, since seven of the 10 had since divorced (an interesting figure when one considers that data gathered after the Gulf war showed a comparable divorce rate among pockets of US soldiers).
The divorces were not the surprise – it was amazing these marriages lasted as long as they did given the tales of endlessly absent husbands who couldn't say where they were going or when they'd be back; who fell asleep in their dinner when they finally returned; who were mobbed by groupies, like rock stars.
But it was an innocent comment that hinted at the real sticking-point for these relationships. "I'd look up at the moon," one said. "And even though intellectually I knew he was up there, I couldn't believe it." Her words summed up what was perhaps an unbridgeable gap of experience between two partners.
It is partly thanks to the relatively recent polyphonic approach to history that we can share in these intimate testimonies first-hand. But the archive shots that showed the wives smiling nervously on their doorsteps ("Like Stepford Wives," laughed one in retrospect), dutifully expressing pride in their husbands to appease an expectant media, were an uncomfortable reminder that the spotlight turned on these women at the time had more to do with modern appetites for the minutiae of celebrities' lives than an interest in alternative views of history. One might have expected bitterness at the years spent facilitating somebody else's dream, but almost without exception the women seemed grateful to have been a part of what they still view as a worthwhile endeavour.
When the widow of Roger Chaffee, one of three men killed in an explosion on the launch pad of Apollo 1, revealed that she received just $2,000 compensation, however, it was hard not to question whether everybody involved – from the astronauts to the several hundred thousand people who worked under enormous pressure to get the Apollo missions off the ground – had sacrificed more than they ought for a project that valued human life so cheaply.
Reality TV is all too fond of the journey metaphor, but thankfully nobody strayed far enough into hyperbole to describe the winner's transformation as an "odyssey" during the finale of Ladette to Lady. While The Apprentice is something silly pretending to be something serious, Ladette to Lady is the reverse. The title is misleading, for this is about something more valuable than turning girls who like a few pints into Tatler-worthy totty.
Nicole, a 21-year-old Sydney stripper (this season's twist was that the Ladettes were Australian) referred obliquely to a dark childhood that was doubtless responsible for her self-destructive angry outbursts at the start of the series.
Under the tutelage of Egglestone Hall's female staff (whose draconian exteriors were about as convincing as Nicole's attempts at RP), she learnt flower arranging, the precise depth of curtsey for Italian ex-royalty, and how to construct a 3ft tower of profiteroles. They were all educational decoys, however, because what she also discovered was that she could win attention and praise by means other than flashing her breasts or downing a pint of vodka. She left with more self-respect than she arrived with – and how many Big Brother contestants can say that?
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