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

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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.

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