x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Blast from the past

ABC's new drama Pan Am, about the lives and loves of airlines staff in the 1960s, debuts in the UAE this week.

ABC’s Pan Am focuses on the lives of the airline’s stewardesses and pilots during the 1960s.
ABC’s Pan Am focuses on the lives of the airline’s stewardesses and pilots during the 1960s.

ABC's new TV drama Pan Am, about the lives and loves of airline staff, debuts in the UAE this week. Frazier Moore reports

Handily adjacent to the Steiner Studios lot in Brooklyn sits a cavernous storage shed now used for housing a key component of ABC's new series Pan Am: the jet plane.

The cast and crew refer to the space as not a stage or a studio, but "the hangar".

The life-size mock-up of a jet plane's passenger compartment is not going anywhere without wings or a tail, however. The "fuselage" set of the show's proud Boeing 707 is mounted on a platform 1.5 metres off the concrete floor It has been designed in period-perfect detail that harks back to the early 1960s - the dawning era of commercial jet flight when the luxury airline Pan American World Airways flourished and when Pan Am takes place.

On a recent shooting day, two dozen "passengers" - male extras crisp in their business suits, which is how men clad themselves for air travel in those days - queued to enter.

Also ready to board are the real stars of the show: the stewardesses, played by Christina Ricci, Kelli Garner, Karine Vanasse and Margot Robbie.

With its debut on OSN this week, UAE audiences got their first real look at the globe-spanning melodrama set during the Kennedy presidency, with all its romance, glamour and excitement for a new, ascendant age. There is also a bit of the cloak-and-dagger, as one of the stewardesses has been recruited by the government to be a spy.

"I had an image for the first episode of the show," says Thomas Schlamme, an executive producer who also directed the premiere. "The stewardesses' high heels clicking on the tarmac, with a little girl watching from the gate with admiration."

Schlamme says he knew the series would be received with misgivings that it was somehow sexist. As expected, Pan Am has been criticised for perpetuating pre-feminist stereotypes. "I want to turn the stereotype on its head," Schlamme says. "These stewardesses were really a fascinating group of people."

Garner stars as Kate, the adventurous spy-initiate.

"I feel like these are extremely modern women of their time," she says. "Although they might have had to be beautiful and serve men coffee, what they got from this opportunity was also beautiful and empowering." The castalso includes Mike Vogel and Michael Mosley, who, as the airliner's dashing pilot and co-pilot, hold forth in the cockpit.

While the programme is frequently compared to Mad Men, Pan Am is not a men's world.

"The voice of the show is very much that of the women," says Ricci, who plays the independent-minded Maggie. "You can't do a show about this period without involving the actual sexism that existed at that time. But the show doesn't glorify the sexism or revel in it."

That being the case, she says she's savouring her role - or, more accurately, her role-within-a-role.

"I get to play a character who goes to work and plays a different character when she gets there: 'Can I get you another drink, sir?' That's really fun for me."

The programme gets a lot of help from CGI: much of the multilevel Worldgate terminal, and even the 707's sleek exterior, are virtual, as is the sprawling tarmac, all of which are shot with green screen.

It fell to the costume designer Ane Crabtree to reproduce the stewardesses' uniforms (among the wide range of period clothing), with the challenge of reviving the signature "Pan Am blue" twill two decades after the airline stopped flying.

The blue was inspired by the ocean and the sky, mirrored in the Pan Am globe logo and in the world Pan Am served, she explains.

In the Pam Am premiere, the pretty Kate pops up on the cover of Life magazine for a story headlined "Welcome to the Jet Age".

Recalling the photo session for the dummy cover in midtown Manhattan, Robbie says she felt that not only had she stepped half a century into the past, but had transported a bit of the city along with her.

"While I was posing, I saw this elderly gentleman who looked like he was from the sixties, too, in his overcoat and brown hat," she says. "He did a double take...smiled and said, 'Ahhh, that takes me back'."

Pan Am is broadcast on Sundays on OSN. Check local listings for times.