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  • 1920'S MUSIC PLAYS

  • In Britain in the 1920s and 30s, a revolution took place

  • that would change forever our perspective on the world.

  • Driven by a spirit of Modernism and adventure, dashing pilots and daring

  • socialites took to the air, pushed back boundaries and forged new links across the globe.

  • Air travel was born.

  • It was clearly the mode of travel of the future.

  • It was bright, fast, sophisticated... It had all kinds

  • of allure attached to it that was extraneous to the idea of flight.

  • Caught in the grip of the Great Depression, life on the ground was bleak,

  • but in the air, the first passenger flights gave birth

  • to a decadent high-life that flew in the face of economic adversity.

  • For two glorious decades, Britain ruled the sky and ruled it in style.

  • When you look through diaries and autobiographies and photograph albums

  • of the most affluent people from the 1930s, travel is dominant.

  • It was all so new that people expected the kind of experience you'd get in the Ritz.

  • They expected it to be as they imagined a luxurious experience would be,

  • partly because they paid so much to do it,

  • but partly also because it was so new and exciting.

  • This was a time where flying was a passport to fantasy and adventure

  • for the wealthy passengers and pioneering pilots

  • who soared above the clouds, a world away from the low-budget, no-frills airlines of today.

  • This is the story of the golden age of British aviation, and of how

  • the original jet set shaped air travel for generations to come.

  • When the First World War began, planes had been in the sky for just 11 years.

  • Once scoffed at by generals, by the end of the war,

  • they were offering different and exciting opportunities.

  • Just before the end of the First World War,

  • there is a whole series of questions asked about what is British aviation

  • going to look like at the end of the First World War?

  • Can we use the surplus aircraft and the skills of aircrews

  • to create a Civil Aviation Organisation?

  • By February 1919, Britain's first Department of Civil Aviation was formed

  • to oversee a burgeoning new industry,

  • as the first independent airlines started to transport cargo across Europe.

  • But soon these flights were to carry passengers as well

  • and first on board in July 1919 was a Lancashire businessman, Colonel William Pilkington.

  • The very first commercial flight was a businessman,

  • a man from Pilkington Glass, no less, who had read in the newspapers

  • that it was going to be possible to fly to Paris.

  • So he phoned up Air Transport and Travel and said,

  • "Can I have an airplane to take me to Paris?"

  • And they said, "Well, I suppose so."

  • Anyway, Mr Pilkington turned up at Hounslow, had a wonderful trip to Paris.

  • The pilot stayed overnight with them, and he flew back the next day.

  • Six weeks later, in August 1919,

  • the world's first scheduled international service was launched,

  • between Hounslow Heath and Paris.

  • On board were several brace of grouse, some Devonshire clotted cream

  • and one paying passenger.

  • But in these so-called stick and string planes, built for fighting,

  • there was little in the way of creature comforts.

  • The earliest planes, despite at the time

  • seeming like something from the future, were actually very primitive.

  • I mean, they had three or four controls.

  • They had to fly blind a lot of the time.

  • Ventilation was through holes in the cabin, effectively.

  • And the seats were just the sort of seats you might have at home.

  • So they were very primitive.

  • Toilet facilities were really just a bucket with a curtain round it.

  • It wasn't terribly private, but it was at the back of the aircraft

  • and all the other people were looking forwards,

  • and there was so much engine noise and vibration that nobody would

  • hear anything unless you had a particularly upset stomach.

  • But by the mid-1920s, developments in aircraft design and technology,

  • much of it spearheaded by British companies such as Handley Page,

  • de Havilland and Armstrong Whitworth, were to produce

  • both beautiful and innovative aeroplanes.

  • In 1923, the Government decided to merge four

  • small struggling companies into one major subsidised airline.

  • Imperial Airways was to be Britain's official air link with the rest of the world.

  • Getting Britain into the air and showing that Britain was abreast

  • of modern technology was a statement about modernity. It was a statement about technological prowess.

  • And that was really important cos the Dutch were starting to do this,

  • the Americans were doing this, the Germans were getting in on the act.

  • So Britain really had to do it in a sense, in order to hold her head high.

  • Imperial Airways, really they were pioneers, like the pilots who worked for them.

  • And I think, to some extent, they really didn't know.

  • It was like space travel in the 1950s and 60s.

  • It was all so new, they had to work it out as they went along.

  • You can tell, too, from the name - Imperial Airways -

  • they felt that this was a way to make the Empire, which still existed, smaller.

  • Diplomats could travel around,

  • so it was part of that move

  • to ensure that the empire remained stable.

  • Most of the people who travelled were diplomats and government people. No-one else could afford it.

  • As Britain's ambassador in the air, Imperial Airways was set for its maiden flight to Paris

  • on the auspicious and the unfortunate date of April 1st, 1924.

  • In true British style,

  • the pilots all decided to go on strike,

  • so Imperial Airways didn't actually get itself into the air

  • for a little while after the date of its formation,

  • but if you're going to do something properly, start with a damn good strike, you know, it's very British.

  • On 24th April 1924, Imperial Airways finally took off

  • as it made its first flight to Paris.

  • Within a year, the airline was also operating services to Basil, Brussels and Cologne, from its new

  • base in Croydon, where a small grass airfield had been transformed

  • into Britain's major airport.

  • After the horrors of the First World War, life was moving to a different

  • beat for the bright young things of the roaring '20s.

  • And they were quick to see the attractions of air travel,

  • despite the limitations of the early passenger planes.

  • This was an airliner of the period, lumbering to our eyes, but astonishingly efficient.

  • Already we had airports.

  • This was Croydon, bright, gleaming new field for London.

  • The tower, the passenger reception, customs area, control,

  • weather section... Yes, the pattern was already there,

  • and it was all working as smoothly and safely as taking a bus.

  • # Happy feet I've got those happy feet... #

  • Not only did the high flyers wish to travel to exciting locations,

  • they wanted to do so at a pace that suited their modern lifestyle.

  • # When they hear a tune

  • # I can't control the dancing, dear, To save my soul... #

  • This quickening of the pace, which is metaphorical as well as

  • actual, is one of the interesting things about the inter-war era.

  • The kind of platinum shinyness of life, the rapidity,

  • the idea of going places very fast.

  • # Cos I've got those hap-hap-happy Ba-da-da-da! #

  • Speed was an essential part of it.

  • Chroniclers of the time make the point that the moneyed

  • young man or woman about town lived life in a kind of perpetual transit.

  • If you went out to dinner, you didn't just do it at one restaurant -

  • you trailed around the West End by taxi from one to another,

  • and then back to somewhere else to finish the evening off.

  • Air travel, newly arrived on the social scene, was an essential extension of this,

  • in that if you could get to Paris in a couple of hours

  • to sort of extend your social life over there,

  • this was immensely congenial to the young person with

  • too much money and not enough to do with their spare time.

  • But for the young and wealthy, speed was not the only requirement for modern travel.

  • If they were to go by plane, they had to do so in the comfort

  • and style to which they had become accustomed,

  • on five-star ocean liners.

  • Ocean travel was one of the most luxurious things

  • that man could be exposed to.

  • It set new standards for catering, accommodation and entertainment.

  • People were expecting to have this level of comfort and luxury,

  • and so, gradually, Imperial Airways

  • began to realise that they could court more custom

  • by offering the trappings of comfort.

  • These people are boarding an airliner, to be the first ever to view a motion picture in mid-air.

  • To compete with the luxury liners, Imperial Airways experimented

  • with ways of entertaining their passengers.

  • And in 1925, even introduced the world's first in-flight movie.

  • Two years later, the airline launched its Silver Wing service to Paris.

  • Expensive and exclusive, this was the original first class air travel.

  • Flying today is about moving maximum numbers of people for minimal cost.

  • During the 1920s, it was the exact opposite.

  • Travelling by air wasn't just about getting from A to B as fast

  • and as painlessly as possible -

  • the process was part of the pleasure because it was so luxurious.

  • # It don't mean a thing If it ain't got that swing... #

  • When you were planning to fly, you notified

  • the airline when you wanted to fly,

  • they sent you a ticket and they would usually send a limousine

  • to come and collect you from your home.

  • And then you would go into the departure shed,

  • and there, certainly to begin with, it was essential that

  • the aircraft wasn't too heavy,

  • so they weighed your baggage and they also weighed you.

  • Baggage allowance was 30lbs - less than most airlines permit today -

  • but additional luggage could be sent ahead on a separate flight.

  • Everything was geared towards giving passengers a first-class service, including a stress-free check-in.

  • From getting out of your car to getting on to the aircraft

  • was no more than eight or nine minutes.

  • For £11, an average monthly wage, the wealthy got to enjoy luxury travel to Paris

  • on a state-of-the-art, three-engined airliner,

  • whilst revelling in the new experience of taking to the sky.

  • And people would begin to look out and see the countryside going past.

  • And they'd say, "My God, I'm flying."

  • And there was the sense of being like a bird.

  • It was a wonderful, exciting, euphoric experience to go and fly.

  • And it was a euphoria in considerable style.

  • With its Silver Wing service, Imperial Airways offered all

  • the trappings of the luxury ocean liner,

  • including the first airline steward.

  • For the steward, it was gloves, a white jacket. They represented the airline,

  • and they represented this luxurious experience,

  • so they had to look the part. I mean, they had to be immaculate.

  • The steward on board would set up a table,

  • or part of the chair in front as the table, with a tablecloth,

  • a full complementary set of cutlery,

  • matching glasses and napkins, possibly even a rose in a vase.

  • The food was predominantly kept warm.

  • It had been pre-cooked, either at the airport or had come from some rather stylish restaurants,

  • but it still had to be served in a manner. So meat would be plattered.

  • Vegetables would go into tureens, and it would be spoon and fork service the whole way through.

  • You would expect the same service on Silver Wing as you would perhaps get at Claridges.

  • Most of the stewards had all served apprenticeships as waiters.

  • And waiters then knew everything about food.

  • They could describe a dish.

  • And if they were wine waiters, they could describe the wine.

  • And it was a profession.

  • And everything in those days was all silver and all bone china.

  • It was really something.

  • The main course sometimes consisted of a rib of beef.

  • And it used to go on to the trolley, and you used to carve it.

  • Put it onto the plate, with the vegetables.

  • That was it. Sweet was exactly the same.

  • It was served sweet with whatever you wanted, champagne and everything else.

  • And cheese and biscuits. And eventually coffee and liqueurs.

  • That was a first-class meal service.

  • Although the dining service was first class, in other respects, the flights were still basic.

  • The planes could only fly during the day, and still didn't have any seat belts.

  • And one particularly important in-flight facility was in desperate need of an upgrade.

  • Toilets started out being rather primitive,

  • but they did become an essential feature

  • of the airliner quite early on.

  • And they were made rather primitive right up until 1930,

  • with the introduction of the big H.P.42 biplanes.

  • They did have proper washrooms with water and a basin

  • where you could wash your hands.

  • The Handley Page 42 represented a huge step forward in civil aviation.

  • Not only did it provide a proper washroom - it had the interior of a first class rail carriage.

  • The H.P.42 also became renowned for its remarkable safety record.

  • In doing so, it helped restore the faith in commercial aviation after an Imperial Airways plane

  • had ditched into the English Channel in 1929, claiming the lives of seven passengers

  • and prompting calls in the press for flying to be restricted to adventurers and fighter pilots.

  • I mean, these planes had to be wrestled through the air.

  • None of the controls... were power controls.

  • It was all manual,

  • so it was difficult, it was hard work.

  • And it was dangerous. The planes weren't as good as they are now,

  • but the pilots were amazing. There should've been far more crashes than there were.

  • The first men to fly commercial airplanes were fighter pilots from World War 1.

  • But over time, many of them were replaced by a new generation of flyers - men whose style and grace

  • created the iconic image of the dashing airline captain.

  • One such pilot was Ron Valentine, from Plymouth.

  • In an illustrious career,

  • he was to break several aviation speed records,

  • and fly VIPs, from the Queen to Charles de Gaulle, around the world.

  • My husband was taken up as a small boy by his father.

  • And he said that from that minute onward,

  • he was absolutely sold on the idea of flying.

  • The first flying he did was the Silver Wing service

  • to Paris, and...

  • they had some very interesting passengers,

  • because it was very much a luxury flight then.

  • Oh, people like the Aga Khan, and minor royalty and so on.

  • And he said the stewards all loved the Aga Khan