Rupert Cornwell: US takes a flight back to a simpler, happier time

Out of America: A new TV drama chimes with the nation's need to escape its troubles

Share
Related Topics

What better escape from America's troubled present than the blue-globes logo of yesteryear? Yes, Pan Am is back. Not, alas, at your local airport, but as the subject of a new ABC TV drama series that starts over here this evening.

The Sixties are all the rage on American TV right now. There's Mad Men, of course, dealing with cynical advertising executives and adored by the critics, whose fifth season is scheduled to begin next spring, while last week Playboy Club – set in Hugh Hefner's eponymous Chicago establishment – opened on NBC. Neither, though, is such an unabashed wallow in nostalgia as Pan Am.

The capers on Madison Avenue play off the prejudices and crassness of the era, while Playboy Club comes across as far-fetched and a bit seedy. Pan Am, however, is a golden-hued paean to the past, recreating the legend of an airline that in its heyday set the standards for the Jet Age, an international ambassador for an America that, back then, the world by and large still loved.

I certainly did. Of the countless flights I have taken, one of the few that lives in the memory was when I was barely 20, between Vienna and Brussels. It was a routine European hop that lasted barely an hour – except that it was the first leg of a Pan Am flight bound for New York, a foretaste of an exotic and unknown land beyond the seas. I was desolate when I had to get off in Brussels. Not for a dozen more years would I finally make it to the US for the first time.

And in television's Pan Am, that legend is reborn. The show's pedigree is evident from the credits alone: the director is Thomas Schlamme of The West Wing fame, while the producer, Nancy Hult Ganis, once worked as a Pan Am stewardess (as flight attendants were known in those more glamorous times).

The promotional clips promise future episodes of "passion, jealousy and espionage" six miles up, and the first one, featuring the inaugural Pan Am Clipper flight from New York to London, and one of the stewardesses agreeing to an assignment on the side for US intelligence, does not disappoint.

But sin and skulduggery are not really the point. Pan Am is above all escapism to happier times. "Declinism" is punditry's favourite topic, and recent days have only added to a sense of national drift: news of a surge in the poverty rate, fresh evidence of a dysfunctional political system, a stock market freefall amid fears of a double-dip recession, and a pervasive sense that the balance of power is tilting irretrievably to Asia.

Not so back in the early Sixties. The White House was a 20th-century Camelot and opportunity seemed boundless. While Pan Am was projecting the American dream to five continents, Mao was inflicting famine and cultural revolution on China. The civil rights and women's movements may have been in their infancy, but a youthful new president convinced everyone that in the US, the generational torch was indeed being passed.

In those days flying was expensive but fun. Pan Am's New York hub was still called Idlewild, departure lounges felt like cocktail bars, you could buy a ticket and board a plane at 15 minutes' notice, and today's bleak security gauntlet was undreamt of. Back then, the journey was part of the thrill of travel, to be relished as much if not more than arrival at one's destination. And for the fictional Pan Am, at least, it was sexy too.

The stewardesses with their pearly teeth and switch-on smiles, were fashion models of their day. The TV series lovingly re-creates that vanished Pan Am, of wholesome, curvy girls in their trim, blue twill suits cut a fraction below the knee, with spotless white gloves and matching handbags. The show's trailers make no bones about the experience: "On boarding, the passenger is met by the international beauty and grace known as the Pan Am stewardess."

The grace and beauty, of course, were strictly controlled by the company. Girdles were obligatory, hairstyles were closely monitored, while Pan Am etiquette was drummed relentlessly into every new recruit, who had to have solid educational qualifications and speak at least one foreign language. But however sexist these restrictions, the job came with a freedom denied to women in earth-bound "normal" life.

The stewardesses travelled the world, and once on the road they could run their lives much as they pleased. The fictional Pan Am, needless to say, makes that point at every turn. Apart from the airborne Mata Hari, one of the girls is a closet bohemian, while another is a beauty queen and runaway bride seeking to escape the tedium of married life: "I'm not looking for a husband, I'm looking for adventure," she says. The ladies may be sex objects, but in a slightly less obvious way than Playboy bunnies.

The whole is deliberately infused with an optimism and sense of possibility that today's down-at-heel America is in grave danger of losing. Schlamme himself has said he wants to give Pan Am a patriotic feel, "as if to say," he told an interviewer, "this is what we were able to do in America – and we still can." Any similarity with remarks by the current real-life occupant of the West Wing is of course purely coincidental.

Things didn't end well for the real Pan Am. Air industry deregulation and major business mistakes hit the company's bottom line hard. As the most famous American airline, it was also a natural target for terrorist attacks, culminating in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing of Flight 103.

Three years later, it went bankrupt and was bought by Delta, which shut Pan Am down for good in December 1991. The airline's once famous headquarters on Park Avenue is now the MetLife Building, and the Pan Am name and logo ended up with a privately owned railway company in New Hampshire. But on the small screen, at least, the good times roll once more.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Administrative Assistant / Order Fulfilment

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join a thrivi...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

Recruitment Genius: Production Operative

£13000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to a period of sustained an...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Syria's Kurds have little choice but to flee amid the desolution, ruins and danger they face

Patrick Cockburn
A bartender serves two Mojito cocktails  

For the twenty-somethings of today, growing up is hard to do

Simon Kelner
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering