Last Night's Television - Baby Beauty Queens, BBC3; The Time of their Lives, BBC4; Moonshot: the Flight of Apollo 11, TV1

Stellar tale is a blast
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The Independent Culture

Despite unavoidable exposure to all the hype around the 40th anniversary of the first moon walk (the Armstrong rather than the Jackson version, that is), you, like me, might have to admit that you didn't know how Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin got his nickname. I had assumed that something as cool sounding as that might have been picked up at space school or something, a reference to his speed on a buzzer-based reaction test or at picking up moon rock. Maybe something to do with anti-gravity, you know. More prosaically, I learned from Moonshot: the Flight of Apollo 11, it stuck because his sister couldn't pronounce "brother" properly, a fact that was slipped into a dramatised conversation during this engaging and very human account of the flight of the Armstrong-Aldrin-Collins mission. Back in 1969, when the Apollo 11 story was as hot as the sun, we got boffins such as James Burke and Patrick Moore telling us about the mysteries of afterburners, re-entry to the earth's atmosphere and anti-gravity. Now we get the tittle-tattle.

Apart from a few moon nuggets about the testy Aldrin-Armstrong relationship, the film didn't break much in the way of new ground. All the usual bits of the story were duly assembled for lift-off – Kennedy's pledge, how to go to the loo when you're in orbit, "one small step" – but they were put together so skilfully and beautifully that this familiar tale was given a certain freshness, even urgency, perhaps because it contained so much about the mundanities of the boys' rivalries, hopes and fears. Archive footage, dramatisation and computer-generated effects were melded together seamlessly. Admittedly, we all know it had a happy ending, but the actors and directors still succeeded in injecting the story with some dramatic tension, as in the scene where the astronauts accidentally snap one of the crucial switches while they're on the moon's surface, a clumsy-looking toggle rather like the ones you used to see on Minis. The astronauts had to improvise a pen to replace it (I had to do the same on my Mini, so I too know how traumatic these things can be, Buzz). Had the biro not worked as effectively as the original switch, the Apollo tale would have been very different and very tragic. Instead of tempering America's image, even then tarnished by the excesses of Vietnam, America would be seen today even more as Icarus, overreaching herself then as now, never learning from her mistakes, that sort of thing. Planting the Stars and Stripes on the moon would be seen as an act of imperial brutality, the space equivalent of driving a Hummer though an Afghan's front door. You got the impression that Armstrong and Aldrin, like naughty schoolboys, were almost too embarrassed to tell Mission Control in Houston what they had done, albeit by accident, and so earth was none the wiser.

Death was never far away from the thoughts of the spacemen and their wives, though Mrs Aldrin evidently made an especial point of banishing it from domestic conversation. At the Mary Fielding Guild, a retirement home for the "active elderly" in north London, however, it is, as one of the staff there put it, "part of their lives now". Many of the intellectually inclined residents seen in The Time of Their Lives were already well past the statutory retirement age when Aldrin and Armstrong were frolicking up there on the moon, and Hetty Bower met her husband Reg when he joined the Labour Party and she issued him with his membership card – in 1926. The views of this 102-year-old on death were arresting enough – "I have had enough" – but her denunciation of Tony Blair's war on Iraq was more powerful than anything I have heard from the lips of a mere politician. Like the Apollo story, it was a familiar litany, but when you deliver it with the power that this centenarian punched with, it suddenly becomes compelling once again.

Which just leaves me a little space to warn you that, like grey squirrels and Krispy Kreme donuts, another American threat to our way of life is about to overcome us: the American baby beauty pageant, a world of £400 frocks, fake tans, eye liner and lipstick for the pre-teens. Baby Beauty Queens followed the stories of three hopeful tots on their way to win the Mini Miss UK contest, an idea dreamt up by a former model named Pam Boon, who really ought to know better. It made for painful viewing. The anguish of the children at the end of their ultimately futile bid to win the contest was bad enough to witness; the disappointment of the parents was even uglier. The word "pushy" doesn't come within a lunar orbit of describing how desperately ambitious these mums were, and the motive was apparent. As little Madison put it on her "Believe Board", "I will be a famous model and make lots of money". Or, as seven-year-old Sasha from Staines poignantly said, she wanted to win because her family is "skint". I wonder what they'll make of it all if they ever get to Hetty Bower's age.