“THIS is your Captain speaking…”
The boarding pass arrived this week for the London preview of Pan Am, a drama series landing on BBC2 later this year.
Taking off on ABC in America tonight (Sunday).
With the opening episode shown to a group of British journalists, including me, last Wednesday evening.
Update: Pan Am starts at 9pm on Wednesday Nov 16 with the second episode at 9:45pm.
My story on the series is below, followed by my transcript of our post-screening transatlantic chat with series creator and executive producer Jack Orman.
Who had some interesting things to say about the process of bringing Pan Am to the screen.
It’s a visually glossy and gorgeous show that expertly taps into the excitement of the 1960s’ jet age.
Promising to bring some much needed escapism into recession-hit homes – having been sold to over 100 territories around the globe.
It won’t win any awards for heavy duty drama.
But after viewing this “pilot” episode, I certainly wanted to see more.
If nothing else it will certainly bring some sparkle, fun and the odd Martini to those dark winter nights.
FASTEN your seatbelts for a high-flying new TV drama leaving easyJet and Ryanair in its slipstream.
Hollywood actress Christina Ricci is one of the stars of Pan Am, set in the glamorous jet age of 1963.
She plays purser Maggie Ryan in the days when stewardesses were on the cover of Life magazine and Martinis flowed at 35,000 feet.
Landing on BBC2 later this year – and in America this Sunday – Pan Am will also feature the 1964 “British Invasion” as the iconic airline flew The Beatles to America.
It claims some Pan Am stewardesses – “a new breed of woman” – were recruited as spies by British intelligence during the Cold War.
Series creator Jack Orman maintained: “Pan Am flew all kinds of government officials.”
He said The Addams Family, Sleepy Hollow and Grey’s Anatomy star Christina, 31, was more than ready for take off.
“Christina called us. She read it and liked the time period and the character of Maggie.”
Sold to over 100 countries, the production secured the rights to use the classic Pan Am logo and name.
Originally known as Pan American Airways, the airline went out of business in 1991 after turbulent business losses.
It was also the target of terrorists, including Pan Am Flight 103 in December 1988, destroyed by a bomb over Lockerbie in Scotland, killing a total of 270 people.
Q&A with Jack Orman – creator, writer and exec producer:
“The show started with Sony and Sid and Nancy Ganis getting the rights to the name and logo for Pan Am. And they called me pitching a show which was essentially Pan Am stewardesses in the Sixties. I stopped that after about 30 seconds and said, ‘What do you mean? You want to do a global period exterior show?’ And they said, ‘Yes.’ And I said, ‘You’re crazy and I’m in.’ It was a lot of fun from the very beginning.
“My job was to really contain it more than anything else. As you know, Pan Am was an international airline and so we were going to fly all over the world. And I specifically wanted to set it in a time period where the world was about to change drastically. The first commercial transcontinental flight for Pan Am was in 1958, launching what we refer to as the jet age, which then became a symbol of a forward thinking pioneering spirit. And I decided to set the show in 1963 because change was in the air. In America we had a changing of the guard, a changing of a generation in government and the pot was about to boil over socially and politically. The Sixties as we know it came a little later in the decade, so we can really transform the show, if it’s a success, over a significant time of change.
“From a production point of view, it’s been a blast and very challenging. Whenever we go anywhere we don’t just need Sixties’ period cars, if we’re in Rome we need Italian period cars. We’ve been in Jakarta…our wardrobe production design, prop departments have been very, very busy. And it’s a lot of fun. It’s this very external wish-fulfillment epic show and yet a lot of it is still in the details of the period. We’re really excited. It’s getting a lot of publicity here. It seems to be trending very well, we air on Sunday and we’re quite hopeful for the show.”
What was the most difficult piece to find?
“When I wrote ‘brand new Boeing 707’ it didn’t occur to me that they don’t exist anymore. And you can’t just build one. There was part of that plane set that was old fashioned carpentry and a lot of it was restoring it. We had to have different pieces…we were in the Mojave Desert looking at scrap pieces of galley and cockpit. That’s a real cockpit, that’s real pieces of galley. And it was more of a refurbishment than a build. That was a big undertaking and thank God we went to series because we had to do that for the pilot and we just kept it for the series.
“I don’t think we could have done this show five years ago. The CGI technology was there but it wasn’t as efficient as it is now. We use computer technology quite a bit in the show to sell the vastness of the world.”
“One of our executive producers, Nancy Hult Ganis was a Pan Am stewardess. Her time was a little bit later in the late-Sixties. But she arranged for me to meet with 20 stewardesses of that era all at one time up in San Fransisco. And I had an afternoon session with these ladies. After about 20 minutes they started to loosen up and tell me stories and contradict themselves…just go back to just a wonderful time in their lives. So that added a lot of texture and interesting nuances of what the job was really like, from them. And then I did the same with the pilots. I had a whole afternoon with a bunch of former Pan Am pilots of that era. Then we did specific research once I’d wrote the story.
“The big takeaway is that travel was completely different and their job was completely different. They were really hostesses. They needed to be college educated and speak several languages and really represent the airline and, to some degree, represent the United States. It was at that time, 50 years ago, a coveted position for a young woman. The job has changed over the years, certainly. But there was a certain glamour in it. And what they kept on saying over and over again was their sense of adventure. It was the time of their life, it was their coming of age, and they got to do it all over the world.”
Did they feel like “a new breed of woman” as in the first episode?
“They didn’t define their ambition. I don’t think they even called it ambition. But that’s what it was. They just wanted something bigger than their immediate surroundings.”
Anything in research that particularly shocked or surprised you about this era and Pan Am at this time?
“What was interesting to me really is that they got jet travel right the first time. In 1958 they did this first transcontinental from New York to Paris and it’s about the same time it takes to fly now. They (BA / Air France) did the Concorde but that didn’t really pan out as a commercial enterprise. And they went bigger with the 747s but they eventually came back down to the size of planes they used in the early Sixties. So it was really quite stunning. There weren’t that many crashes early on and the switchover from prop planes to jets, commercially, was pretty smooth.
“In terms of the time period, it’s interesting…we in the writers’ room go through this whole process after we write a script saying, ‘Now has anything really crept in here from our our venacular that just wouldn’t be right?’ I used the term ‘re-invent myself’ for something at one point and had to go, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t think re-inventing yourself was an idea in the 1960s.’ So we have a researcher in our writers’ room all the time to stop and say, ‘No, wait a minute, that didn’t exist yet.’ But more importantly it’s really about stopping ourselves and when we’re dealing with these brushes of history, make sure we’re approaching it with a point of view of our characters, not having the benefit of history and a certain mindset at the time. People didn’t really share their feelings or their insecurities. I don’t think they even knew they had insecurities. They just operated in a certain behaviour.”
Is there any evidence that Pan Am air hostesses were recruited as spies by the British security services?
“There’s no direct evidence, although Nancy, who was there, strongly intimated it to me. To me it was a natural extension. In the pilot you see that mission they had to Cuba, ferrying these Bay of Pigs prisoners back to the United States and that was actually true. And Pan Am flew all kinds of government officials, heads of state. When Beirut needed to be evacuated, it was Pan Am that went. They had a very, very cosy relationship with our State Department. And as I was conceiving the pilot I just kept on asking, ‘Ok, where is the backbone? Who’s calling whom from the Pentagon to Pan Am?’ These women, sometimes in the cases of Cuba or what not, were sworn in as Second Lieutenants in the United States Air Force so they’d be protected by the Geneva Convention. So it just seemed to me to be a natural extension of that. Especially because there was a lot of people travelling and couriers and what not.”
Good time to launch this show against the backdrop of a recession? An escape to a more glamorous era? Will that be one of the attractions?
“I think it will. It was a more glamorous time period. Every decade has their own sense of glamour. But it’s certainly nostalgic. Not only was it a period of growth but it was also a period where we were looking towards the future. It was the Space Race. You go to Disneyland and you see Tomorrow Land. All those concepts were products of the
1960s. We had a strong pioneering spirit at that time and living in a world in which the future was better. I think people will respond to that. I don’t want it to feel like now is not a good time to live or our future is not as promising. But one of the most important things just from a commercial television point of view is to present an audience with a world they’d like to live in for a while and explore. And there’s not a lot of this on television. And then if I can popualte that with interesting characters…hopefully we have a chance to make some successful television.”
How tempt Christina Ricci to this project?
“Christina called us. She was interested. She read it and just liked the time period, liked the character. Maggie is a bit of a scrapper, and she liked that. She has an undefined ambition. So she fits the part perfectly and was really excited about doing ensemble television. She said to me, ‘She’s a set rat.’ She just loves being on set, loves acting. And the movie she was doing was allowing her to spend 35 per cent of her year doing that. And doing a series, she worked close to 80 per cent of her year. So she’s loving it.”
Comparisons with Mad Men?
“There’s another show here in the States, Playboy Club, and we get asked the question a lot. I think just because there are two new Sixties’ shows. Certainly if you look at Mad Men, which is a very interesting, introspective, behavioural character study, it’s approach and general sensibility is different. It does take place in the same era and I think that’s why people are comparing them. But as shows – we’re a blue sky, epic, wish-fulfilming, nostalgic…they have the nostalgia but it’s much more character driven and internal.”
Bay of Pigs is featured in the first episode. What other historically significant events can we expect to see later in the series?
“In the third episode, we set our show around Kennedy’s trip to Berlin in June of 1963. His ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ speech.
“We touch upon the Mercury 7 launch, the final launch of the Mercury programme. We touch upon Martin Luther King’s civil rights speech. We have an episode in and around Rome…so we do have these brushes with history, which is a lot of fun. Especially because we’re a global show. What we’ve been trying to do is, again, approach them from our specific characters’ point of view. And their mindset at the time. They could be wrong. Small references – Ted’s attitude about Castro in 1963 that he’s never going to last. That was the sentiment at the time but clearly not the case.
“It’s no secret that the British invasion was brought to our shores by Pan Am in February of 1964. The Beatles came over in a Pan Am aeroplane. So we are going to touch upon that.”
You have an exciting soundtrack?
“We’ve been talking about that all summer. How to afford the soundtrack. We’ll figure it out.”
The look of the show?
“It’s ambitious for a reason. The second episode we go to Paris. The episode after that Berlin, the episode after that Jakarta. And it’s still very exterior. We have a great production team and the richness of the colour…the whole idea behind the look of the show was something I was calling Kodachrome Lite – these big colouramas there used to be in Grand Central Station. We had saturated colour and high contrasts. We took the contrast down a little bit and softened a bit. But we wanted that bright Pan Am blue and we’re continuing with that look. It does have quite a bit of scale to it.”
How much is it costing?
“A lot. Sony is really investing heavily in the show. Just the idea of this global period and external. Right there is a lot of money. And then we’re shooting ambitious scripts. It’s a big bet but so far it’s paying off.”
How do you reflect on what eventually happened to Pan Am?
“There were some de-regulation issues. Certainly terrorism. The idea that the style of travel…travel being an experience – but there were a myriad of reasons. The de-regulation and some significant tragedies were part of it.”