Last Night's Viewing: Pan Am, BBC2<br />Rich Hall's Continental Drifters, BBC4

 

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The Independent Culture

It's one thing to make a film about the glamour of the Sixties; it's quite another to make it as if the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties had never happened. Sadly, Pan Am – a new series that has been widely compared to Mad Men – turns out to be as cluelessly ingenuous as the small boy who features in its opening shot, gazing with awe through the windows of the Pan Am Worldport. To be fair to its writer-producer, Jack Orman, he's not making any comparisons himself: Mad Men, he told an interviewer recently, is "much more character-driven and internal". What he means by this, I think, is that if you remade Mad Men with Ken and Barbie dolls in all the major roles you might actually notice the difference. With Pan Am, it would be touch and go. Men wear hats, people smoke, the cars have fins: that's where the similarities between these two series begin and end.

It has all the psychological depth of a school story in Bunty. A group of female friends jib against discipline – in the form of the Rosa Klebb-like supervisor who weighs them in to ensure they haven't strayed from their target weight – and share their troubles with one another, whether it's over-protective mothers or boyfriends who show up for a transatlantic flight with a wife and child in tow. And while hemlines might be rising, for the moment consciousness clearly is not: "With a face like that, you'll find a husband in a couple of months," says one of the stewardesses brightly to Laura (who's actually run away from the altar to see the world). The sexism of the show is partly period set-dressing, of course, but it's also unwittingly absorbed, so that at one moment the show can be detailing the humiliations of being treated as in-flight eye-candy and at the next parading its stars for inspection in slow-mo, like a waterless synchronized swimming team.

If you were being charitable, you might allow for the possibility that all this is cheekily knowing. The glamour of the era lies partly in its vintage style but also in those exotic social attitudes, and Pan Am doesn't intend to furrow its brow about how benighted everyone was. It simply pretends it was a sort of innocence, instead. You'd have to be very charitable indeed, though, to explain away the crass scene-setting as nothing more than retro-chic. We know we've arrived in Italy, for example, because we get comic opera on the soundtrack and a Roman street filled with honking motorists, Vespas and men gesticulating wildly at one another. London is Big Ben, double-decker buses, cobblestones and a very strange kind of London pub, which has linen on the tables and shots being poured at the bar, American-style. If a pearly king and queen wandered past you really wouldn't be surprised.

Sadly, charitable is the last thing you feel like being. The story-lines are so silly (one of the women was recruited as a spy in the first episode) and the characterisation so shallow (we know that Maggie is brainy because she exchanges small talk about Hegelian dialectic with her beatnik roommate) that you're unlikely to make it more than halfway through the first flight without wondering why it's taking so long to get to the destination. Then you begin to wonder whether it was ever going anywhere in the first place. I'd rather travel Ryanair.

Rich Hall's Continental Drifters was also about dreams of flight, but was far more rewarding. An essay on the American road movie it was enlivened by stylish direction (Hall filmed in the back of a truck, so that the landscape unrolled behind him), lateral thinking (I've never heard The Wizard of Oz compared to Apocalypse Now before) and Hall's florid impatience with the failings of the world, which at one point saw him railing against "roadside zoos where shrieking hypoglycemic children stuffed jelly beans into the nostrils of terrified ungulates". Excellent.

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