Sex sky-high

Television - Turned off by couture, Andrew Billen finds liberation in a study of the air hostess

There is scarcely anything left to be said, but News from Number Ten (Saturday 15 July, BBC2) was a disaster for all concerned: Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair, the lobby. But the bad publicity it gave British politics is what made it a good film - in fact, a really good film; the funniest yet from Michael Cockerell and his producer Alison Cahn. It changed your thinking about Labour and spin: three years into power, you realised, and this lot couldn't spin a top. On Monday 17 July, a leaked memo showed that the Prime Minister had reached the same conclusion.

In contrast, the new series Boss Women (Mondays, 10.40pm, BBC1) did not even attempt to alter the prevailing assumptions about its first subject, Anna Wintour, the editor of American Vogue. Early on, I had half a hope for Christine Hall's documentary when - having been told that Wintour rises at 5.45am, plays an hour's tennis, greets her hairstylist a seven and is at her desk by eight - we saw "the most powerful woman in fashion" blearily pushing the wrong half of the swing-doors at Conde Nast House. But the camera caught no other slips. So, you thought that Wintour ("Nuclear" to wags) was chilly, efficient and ruthless, and that was how she had kept her job these past 12 years? This film proved you were right.

Not a single detractor was interviewed, although there was, surely, much to detract from. Wintour's management skills extend to holding extremely short meetings, making decisions - right or wrong - very quickly, and deploying that cheap one-upmanship tactic of walking away while your underling is still talking to you. But while she was tough with the little people ("Call Candy or Lauren - whoever makes it happen fastest!"), no one questioned her abject worship of celebrity, even though it ran to holding a party in Paris for the thuggish Puff Daddy. Her collusion with the fashion houses wasn't so much taken as a given as celebrated.

Given that, mostly, what we got from her staff was the adjective "incredible", we were at least fortunate to hear from the Voguette Plum Sykes, who proved a little treasure trove of unintentionally backhanded compliments. "She does press, but she never says anything," said Plum, who once upon a time was English scruff posh, but is now jolly grateful to be made to wax her eyebrows. Plum gave the game away when she explained that, while nobody would actually buy the designer couture in Vogue, by association people would spend $50 on a scent bearing a designer label. "We are creating the fantasy to sell the products," she told us. And there was I thinking that the advertisements were there to sell the products and that journalists were there to critique them.

But Wintour must have been delighted. The film lapped up the sweetly sinister story of her father Charles, the legendary Evening Standard editor, deciding when she was ten that she would one day be the editor of Vogue. As Wintour told us of her delicate work/home balancing act, the camera gazed upon photo-shoot quality pictures of her children and husband. That, at the time of filming, she was having an affair with a Texan millionaire for whom she would leave her husband was mentioned only at the end, and in the same reverent tones as the rest of the commentary, voiced by the Labour MP for Hampstead and Highgate, Glenda Jackson.

This programme was garbage because it fell in love with its subject - all those frocks! The first of Lowri Turner's new series, The Lipstick Years (Wednesday, 9pm, BBC2), on paper a much less promising event - just half an hour, and directly following on from the same presenter's lifestyle magazine Looking Good - refused to do so. Turner's account of the air hostess as icon through the ages was fresh, critical and intelligent. It was pop sociology, but pop sociology is one of the things television is good at. Her history lesson began in America in the Thirties, where United Airlines employed the first Sky Girls, trained nurses whose duties included literally tucking businessmen into their seats. By the Sixties, however, with the airlines competing for the business passengers, stewardesses became hostesses, uniformed geishas, although the uniform could vary. One extraordinary commercial for TWA advertised "foreign accent flights", including an "old English pub complete with serving wench". The innuendo of other campaigns was even more explicit. One offered its flyers a "Quickie" - in fact, a ticket machine. Most infamous was "I'm Mandy, Fly Me".

Although United now employs septuagenarian stewardesses and BA lifted its marriage ban in 1971, Turner argued that the taint of sexual availability had endured. I think she is right. A particularly loathsome journalist I once met boasted that a well-known Far Eastern airline had banned him from its flights after he had referred to its staff in print as "Little Brown Fucking Machines".

Knowing that mile-high sex sells, Richard Branson has installed double beds in Virgin upper class. Meanwhile, in economy, underpaid female stewards are expected to be experts in controlling overexcited male drunks. This succinct account of the "trolley dolly" was the most feminist thing I've seen on TV for ages.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London Evening Standard

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 24 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Miserable small-mindedness