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The Eagle Has Landed (1973)

The Eagle Has Landed

Broadcast just four years after man first walked on the moon, The Eagle Has Landed is a darkly comic, disturbing parody of the US Apollo space programme, which had brought about that landmark event. Writer David Edgar's one-off comedy-drama, the title of which refers to the lunar module from 1969's historic Apollo 11 mission, satirises public fascination with the moon landings and brings space travel down to earth with a bang.

The Eagle Has Landed was made by Granada Television and broadcast on Wednesday 4 April 1973 (ITV, 11:10-11:45pm). It was part of Late Night Theatre, a platform for experimental writing and new talent. The programme gave Edgar his first opportunity to write for television (the story was originally conceived as a play, performed at Liverpool University) and Zo her fourth TV appearance. (The image on this page is a publicity photo of her, from around the time The Eagle Has Landed was shown.)

Pathway to the stars with a twist in the tale

This 'moonshot with a new twist in its tale' (in The Stage's words) must have been an exciting project for Zoe, as a young actress beginning to make her mark on TV. The Eagle Has Landed is often unnerving, but the atmosphere seems to have been rather more light-hearted off-camera. Zo remembers laughing a great deal while working on the programme, in which she plays a dippy hippy, Alice, in a flowery frock and lashings of lilac eye shadow.

The Eagle Has Landed presents a vision of space travel, by turns humorous and nightmarish, in which politicians, the military and powerful businesses collude against an unsuspecting public. It follows the progress of the (fictional) Apollo 18 mission, which is little more than a cynical marketing exercise sponsored by a bread-making company. Buy Alabama Mama loaves for 'the crust with a thrust,' says the announcer, glibly, at the rocket launch.

The programme juxtaposes the increasingly bizarre behaviour of two American astronauts Bill Johnson and the unnamed Lunar Module Pilot with the reactions of a family watching them live on TV, in the apparent safety of a London suburb. From the confines of a drab TV studio, suave presenter Roger (who clearly knows nothing about the science behind moon landings) and his nerdy colleague, Basil, a space travel expert, provide a running commentary on the mission.

'They're flying new paths across the heavens!'

This TV-show-within-a-TV-show device enables The Eagle Has Landed to poke fun at low-budget, pseudo-scientific documentaries, as exemplified when Basil ropes Roger into re-enacting the astronauts' journey with a cheap model of the moon and toy spacecraft. 'Could you just orbit, Roger?' Basil snaps, frustrated by the presenter's failure to enter into the spirit of the occasion. Roger's quizzical looks at the camera suggest the point of the exercise is lost on him.

At first, Alice's Granny is the only member of the family who is eager to follow Apollo 18 on TV. The elderly lady is a space travel buff her detailed technical knowledge outshines Basil's as she complains about the mission's delays and 'pings playing up on landing'. She is also the only character to view space travel with a sense of wonder. 'They're flying new paths across the heavens!' Granny exclaims as she watches the astronauts.

Bored Alice is unimpressed by the footage: 'But Gran, that's a really bad scene! There's selected highlights from the Velvet Dream Machine concert on the other channel.' Meanwhile, Alice's anxious mother is less concerned about Apollo 18 than the fact her husband, George, has not come home from work yet.

From moon landing to Moon Show

The mood in the household quickly changes, however, when the astronauts embark on their moonwalk with a difference. In a surreal turn of events Bill and the pilot dive headlong into The Apollo 18 Moon Show (a TV-show-within-a-TV-show-within-a-TV-show!), complete with a keyboard wrapped in gold foil to match the lunar module. Their lunar expedition is just an excuse for cheesy light entertainment; the wonders of the universe must play second fiddle to adverts from companies wanting 'a lunar plug' (in Basil's words) and viewers' song requests!

By now, Alice and her family are so engrossed in the spectacle of the Moon Show that they fail to recognise the threats implicit in astronaut-cum-presenter Bill's words, when he suddenly launches into a nationalistic speech (with musical accompaniment from the pilot, of course). With the eyes of the world upon him, ex-military man Bill seizes his moment in the spotlight to boast about his country being 'the first to break the chains that tied men to their planet', before ranting and raving about his desire to put his own people 'before the lives of the enemy'.

'This is really very heavy,' says Alice, in her hippy drawl, as a US TV news journalist, Gerry, conducts what he describes as an 'historic, on-the-spot interview' with unhinged Bill. 'Beyond belief,' she adds, her eyes glued to the TV screen. When Alice's father finally returns home and announces he has been made redundant from his job at a local factory, his relatives are all too distracted by the Moon Show to pay attention to his terrible news. Their fascination with the astronauts' antics on this space-age variety show blinds them to urgent problems at home.

Danger lurking in Alice's front room

Bill and the pilot continue their strange mission as they travel back to Earth and arrive at the family's home! 'That's wild, that's fantastic!' gasps Alice, when she finds the astronauts in her modest front room, still in their spacesuits. She and her relatives gawp at Bill and the pilot sitting on the sofa, just as they had gawped at the Moon Show. Clearly in awe of these unexpected guests, George stutters that it is 'a great privilege and honour' to meet them. His wife pours the tea and echoes his words, parrot-fashion. 'All in a day's work, ma'am,' says Bill, smoothly.

As Alice crouches on the floor, looking up at the astronauts admiringly, she announces: 'I'm really into sun-worship. Have you ever been to the sun?' Oblivious to the terrible risks involved in venturing too close to this hot ball of plasma, dim-witted Alice adds, 'I think the sun's where it's at, man.' Her comments, which vaguely amuse Bill and the pilot, suggest that she like her relatives is incapable of recognising or responding appropriately to danger.

Although Alice gradually realises that the astronauts are intent on 'hustling' the family for money, she and her relatives are charmed by the visitors' 'march of progress' rhetoric and too much in awe of them to resist their demands. The family is sleepwalking its way to disaster.

Don't question the moon men's plans...

When Bill and the pilot embark on the final stage of their mission, the family's fate is sealed. The astronauts claim to be 'ambassadors for peace', but with a sinister glint in their eyes they coerce Alice and her relatives into handing over their money and possessions even George's meagre redundancy pay in order to help fund further space exploration. 'And the war,' adds Bill, darkly, which brings to mind his earlier threat to fight against an unspecified 'enemy' of his countrymen.

The pilot's suggestion that some of the money will help 'the poor guys in the Third World' rings hollow. In the astronauts' disordered moral universe conquering the stars, military might and self-interest take priority over alleviating human suffering.

As if brainwashed by Bill and the pilot, Alice and her relatives lose all sense of reason, willingly giving up everything they own. 'We mustn't question the moon men, dear,' Alice's mother serenely tells her husband as their home is stripped bare. The doomed family utterly fails to comprehend the grim reality of its situation, even as the relatives are lined up against the wall in the front room and forced to submit to the astronauts' 'Civilian Pacification Experiment'.

'It's too much, man,' mutters Alice, as Bill and the pilot reveal the awful nature of the CPE. Still in the TV studio, Roger and Basil, unmoved by the family's plight, are looking forward to Apollo 19.

Cast

Bill Johnson ... Weston Gavin
Lunar Module Pilot ... Lon Satton
Gerry/Voice of Apollo ... Al Mancini
Voice of Houston ... David Healy
Spokesman ... John Sterland
Roger ... Roland Curram
Basil ... James Warrior
Granny ... Madoline Thomas
Alice ... Zo Wanamaker
Mother ... Mary Chester
George ... John Moore

Crew

Writer: David Edgar
Director: Colin Cant
Producer: Peter Eckersley
Script Editor: Jonathan Powell
Designer: Tim Farmer

Notes

Unexpected visitors who spell disaster for a household also feature in the next TV programme in which Zoe appeared, Between the Wars: 'The Silver Mask' (which was broadcast in 1973 too).

Press coverage

'It was about as gentle as [George Orwell's dystopian novel] 1984; but a great deal funnier on the way,' The Stage quipped about The Eagle Has Landed. 'The cast were splendid,' the newspaper emphasised, praising the comedy-drama as 'a fine satirical piece [...], well observed and executed with skill'.

Related links

BFI: The Eagle Has Landed programme details


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