Who knew a documentary about aviation history could be this much fun?
Justine Clarke is host of SBS series Australia Come Fly with Me because, “I’m fascinated by flying.”
And who can blame her? Big toys, a sense of adventure, the wide blue yonder and achieving the impossible. Clarke is positively beaming as she boards some wild jalopies in the name of filmmaking, but her enthusiasm is infectious.
To be strictly absolute WildBear Entertainment’s 3 part series looks at a the turbulent history of Australian aviation as 2020 marks 100 years of civil aviation. Yet what it unravels is a brilliantly researched history of pioneers, gender wars, discrimination, and social freedoms.
“What happened in the air shaped Australia on the ground,” says Clarke.
Rolling out chronologically, episode one focuses on landmark achievements when men who dared to dream, flying from London to Australia in The Great Air Race of 1919. PM Billy Hughes had offered £10,000 for the winners (Spoiler! Keith and Ross Smith) -but 4 of 6 teams crashed.
There were other landmark achievements: Charles Kingsford Smith & Charles Ulm flying a Trans-Pacific flight from the US; establishing the Royal Flying Doctor Service; Qantas; female pilot Nancy Bird Walton; invention of the blackbox flight recorder. The first episode is full of black & white archival footage of great planes, enthusiastic crowds and moments in time.
Producers have gone to great lengths to find historians and people connected with stories to personalise these achievements, balanced by Clarke’s awe as she takes to the skies in planes such as a 1938 Empire Flying Boat. Vilma Jackson was just 11 when she flew to the UK in one of these, while a former hostess recalls flying so low she could see the cities of Singapore & Bangkok from a bird’s eye view -not simply from above the clouds.
As an SBS series it also takes extra time for social change. Yingia Guyula explains how missionary Harold Shepardson assisted First Nations people to fly; former Qantas hostess Patty Coleman
recalls a gender war with early male stewards; and in Episode 2 Fred Schier will remember what it was like for gay men working in an industry dominated by straight men (yes really).
Episode two is particularly wild when it embarks upon the jet set era. There’s colourful ‘modern’ footage of fashions, liberation and grand aeroplanes. There’s a spirited sense of fun from the interview subjects who talk about mile high clubs and candid experiences in other countries.
“Sex, drugs and rock & roll, and I loved every minute of it!” says ex-Ansett hostie Susan Jones.
I have to say I’m also impressed at the production commandeering vintage (and working-order) planes into the skies with Clarke aboard. Such scenes would not come cheap for any series, let alone one by SBS.
Fasten your seatbelts for a delightful maiden journey.
Australia Come Fly with Me airs 8:30pm Wednesday on SBS.