wed 19/06/2024

Pan Am, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

Pan Am, BBC Two

Pan Am, BBC Two

Trolley-dolly soap stretches the bounds of credulity

Definitely not Ryanair: (left to right) Maggie, Kate, Colette and Laura usher in the Jet Age

This is a very odd series. Even the BBC seem to be wondering what on earth they're supposed to be doing with it, since after the Wednesday night airing of these first two episodes Pan Am is moving to Saturday evening, with a Thursday repeat. 

Effectively it's a giant posthumous commercial for the glory years of America's most famous airline, rendered as a mixture of tacky corporate promo film and feather-brained soap with patently fake sets. It's 1963, and we zero in on a group of wonderfully glamorous Pan Am hostesses in their figure-hugging blue uniforms as they prepare to fly out of New York on the inaugural flight of the Pan Am Clipper Majestic. I guess it must have been Idlewild airport, since (as all plane-spotting pedants will know) it only became JFK on 24 December, 1963 (Pan Am Boeing 707, pictured below).

When we saw the stewardesses being weighed and checked to make sure they were wearing girdles, you could have been forgiven for thinking they'd invented that bit, but not so. Come Fly With Me, the documentary about the history of Pan Am shown last weekend on BBC Two, confirmed that this blatant size-and-shape-ism was part of the airline's culture. Scenes of Pan Am aircraft rescuing Cubans from Havana after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion were also based in historical fact, and the show's developing subplot about the airline allowing itself to be used as a tool of American foreign policy was by no means without factual foundation.

But such politically charged issues have been turned into mere fluffy backdrops for Pan Am's interweaving yarns of romance and family dramas. We meet the Cameron sisters, feisty Kate (Kelli Garner) and pin-up sibling Laura (Margot Robbie), who has made the other girls seethe with jealousy by getting her photograph on the cover of Life magazine, over the headline "Welcome to the Jet Age". The sisters are at daggers drawn with their controlling mom back home in Connecticut, because Laura ran away on her wedding day to sign up with Pan Am, and Kate wholeheartedly encouraged her.

Laura had suddenly felt an icy chill and a sense of existential dread (she didn't say it was existential, but I knew what she meant) at the prospect of spending the next five or six decades in wedlocked servitude to boring old fiancé Greg. The theory is that travelling the friendly skies with Pan Am is, or was, every girl's daydream, a wonderland of exotic locations, personal liberation and lots of dishy pilots to have affairs with. In fact, it looks about as emancipating as being a James Bond girl and (as Christina Ricci's Maggie discovers) can involve hand-to-hand combat with drunk, lecherous businessmen in the First Class cabin. Nonetheless, Kate Cameron got to make a righteous speech about it to her mother, who had accused her of behaving this way out of "dissatisfaction".

"Dissatisfaction?" snapped Kate. "I rode an elephant in Bangkok last week. I watched the sunset in Patagonia the week before... You don't even have a passport!" Mom looked as if she was about to send her daughter to the vet to be de-clawed.

Seemingly uncertain where to pitch the show, the creators have lobbed a bizarre espionage angle into the mix. Blonde and supposedly dreamy pilot Dean Lowery (Mike Vogel) has been getting it on off-piste with Bridget Pierce (Annabelle Wallis, pictured right with Vogel), yet another photogenic crewperson, but she's suddenly gone AWOL. Meanwhile Kate has been approached by a chap called Richard Parks who works for US intelligence, and he wants her to undertake covert ops for Uncle Sam, since being a globe-trotting Pan Am gal gives her the perfect cover story. Bridget, we learn, was an undercover agent herself and helped to engineer Kate's recruitment, but Bridget's cover has been blown and she has to go and live in Kansas City under a new name. Dorothy, perhaps.  

Maybe it's all an ill-conceived homage to classic Sixties shows like The Man from UNCLE or The Saint. The thing I like most about Pan Am is the way they show you a life-size photograph of Big Ben or the Eiffel Tower to tell you you're in London or Paris, and then you watch a scene shot on a studio set with plywood walls and prop furniture. If you're looking for disbelief to suspend, there's an endless supply of it here. 

It's a giant posthumous commercial for the glory years of America's most famous airline, rendered as a mixture of tacky corporate promo film and feather-brained soap

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I loved Pan Am !

I really enjoyed the series and was sorry it got cancelled.

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