The new series Pan Am opens in 1963 when airlines catered exclusively for the rich.
At the time the airline Pan Am projected itself as the ultimate method of stylish, modern transatlantic travel—epitomised by the happy, unposed smile of a stewardess on the cover of Life Magazine.
The pilots were young and handsome and the stewardesses head-turningly glamorous.
But what the airline also represented was a way out of stifling social convention.
For some of the stewardesses it was an escape from their mothers’ role as wives.
These young women were middle class, highly educated, and often multilingual.
Some of the characters in the new drama see the job as a way to find a husband, but most just want to travel and be free.
The airline treats them with ferocious sexism. They have their fingernails checked and their weight too.
They’re meant to be physically attractive but not sexual, so part of their uniform is a girdle—that ridiculous elasticated corset that “preserved a woman’s modesty” by flattening her buttocks.
My mother, a stewardess in the 1950s, tells me the quickest way to lose your reputation and job was to go without a girdle. Presumably because it meant you could, at any moment, nip out for sex.
For all the glamour, the stewardesses spend hours on their feet serving passengers and pilots, and cleaning up.
But when they’re abroad they get to stay in smart hotels. They have their own friends and money.
The first episode is quite rushed, and the last 30 seconds are ludicrous.
But if it seems over the top—with a runaway bride, sisterly rivalry, lovers who turn out to be married, spies and the Bay of Pigs—it did mostly happen.
Behind the image of president John F Kennedy and first lady Jackie, symbols of America’s bright future, was the Cold War.
When the invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs failed, it was Pan Am who flew in a year later to collect the ransomed prisoners.
Christina Ricci’s character, Maggie, knows her Hegel from her Marx. She can’t help remarking on who was invading whom.
These women’s experience of oppression is the counterbalance to Pan Am’s stratospheric ambition of the 1960s—when they started a waiting list for future flights to the moon.
The programme is mostly well acted, although the makers could credit the audience with more imagination. We don’t need a flashback for every reminiscence.
But as my mum could testify, from the freedom and foreign travel to the very few passengers who tipped the crew generously, being a stewardess really could be fun.
It looks like this series could be too.
Pan Am is on BBC 2, Wednesdays at 9pm