Apollo 11: A Night to Remember

Jun 21, 2009 on BBC FOUR at 10:00 PM

Summary

Using archive sound, satellite footage and film taken by the astronauts, Patrick Moore presents the story of mankind's first journey to another world. The task of telling Apollo 11’s story from a British angle is a challenging one, since most of the ... (more)domestic television presentation was not saved for the archives. However, Apollo 11, A Night to Remember, part of BBC Four’s Moon Night, has knitted together the remaining material into an effective two-hour documentary. Satellite pictures have been married up with amateur audio recordings, and linked with rarely-seen reports, background films, a couple of rediscovered studio clips, and some new explanatory pieces by Sir Patrick Moore, one of the presenters in 1969. The satellite images, which form the bulk of the programme, cover the main events in America, in the spacecraft, and on the moon. The source tapes are the BBC’s original 525-to-625 line live electronic standards conversions, but because they are derived from an international signal feed, they are lacking the domestic commentary and captions. However, it has been possible to reinstate much of the commentary from amateur off-air recordings, and thereby restore parts of the BBC’s television coverage. This technique has been applied in previous moon landing documentaries, but here it is used much more extensively than before, greatly enhancing the experience. The sound quality of the amateur recordings is not brilliant; usually it is perfectly intelligible, but occasionally becomes indistinct against all the interference from the space communications. A highlight of the programme comes near the start, when we can savour lengthy sections of what must be one of British television’s most compelling commentaries, as Michael Chartlon dramatically sets the scene at Cape Kennedy’s launch site, then guides us through the last 6 minutes of countdown. There are several technical glitches resulting from a poorish satellite link but these do not detract from the occasion. (Wobbly pictures from Cape Kennedy’s control room appear also on NASA’s recordings, so must have another cause.) The launch build-up also features James Burke demonstrating the rocket tower escape procedure, the first of several entertaining, but seldom-seen, colour film items that were played into the live programmes. The Burke / Moore Apollo 11 studio presentation, long thought to be totally missing from the archives, has acquired for itself a certain mystique, and a place among the top ten missing programmes. But now, perhaps for the first time since 1969, we can glimpse one of these famous broadcasts, made on 16th July 1969, as James Burke reviews the launch earlier that day. The minute-long clip, taken from BBC1’s Twenty-Four Hours current affairs programme, is a high quality, 625-line black-and-white video recording. The second of the recovered studio clips, 20-seconds long, is of much poorer technical quality than the first, and appears to be from an amateur recording. It shows Burke signing off for the night after a broadcast probably made in the early hours of Saturday 20th July 1969 (the days of the week are incorrect in the documentary). Michael Charlton’s contributions from Houston seem to have fared better in the archives than those of his London colleagues, and here we can view two examples: an interview with NASA’s George Hage shortly before the critical lunar orbit insertion manoeuvre on 19th July 1969, and a report to camera at 2am on 21st July 1969, about two hours before Armstrong steps onto the moon. It is hard to know why this colour material has been hidden away for so long, (although a very short Charlton snippet did appear in the film The Dish a few years ago). Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins made several telecasts live from the spacecraft on their outward and homeward journeys. Excerpts of these appear frequently in documentaries, but now we can gain a better insight, thanks to the inclusion of greatly extended sections, taken for the most part from video recordings, which tend to preserve the “live” feel of an event compared to film recordings. On fast-moving shots, you can sometimes see colour fringing caused by the Apollo TV camera’s mechanical system of colour encoding. Despite their blurred appearance, lingering shots of the barren moonscape, televised from the orbiting spacecraft the day before touchdown, are remarkable images, which benefit from being shown at length. The reinstated BBC commentary that accompanies them is a 3-way, transatlantic hook-up from Burke, Moore and Charlton. These lunar sequences, and the earlier telecast from Apollo, were carried live in colour by the BBC, although most people would have been viewing in black-and-white. As made clear in the narration, the programme sometimes departs from the live coverage seen in 1969. And so, for example, during Eagle’s descent to the moon’s surface, pictures from Houston are interwoven with clear extracts from the astronauts’ well-known LEM film. On the whole, this approach is used judiciously, even if it is not the authentic television experience. For reasons explained already, the scenes following lunar touchdown are without the striking captions originally seen by BBC viewers (e.g. “Americans on the Moon. Apollo 11 touched down 9.18”) but, as elsewhere, they have been reunited with James Burke’s comments. At mission control, we can pick out the commander going through his stay/no stay routine shortly after the landing. A long compilation of the actual moonwalk covers the major events on the lunar surface, including in full President Nixon’s “most historic telephone call ever made” to Armstrong and Aldrin. The president is shown inset in colour, though the live broadcast of this was in monochrome only. A strobing effect in some of the scenes is caused by the slow scan lunar camera signal, which required optical conversion to translate it to broadcast standards. One of the most dramatic parts of the mission, the fiery return to Earth, is a curious omission, and the splashdown features only briefly over the closing credits. Nonetheless, Apollo 11, A Night to Remember has given us our clearest understanding since 1969 of how British television covered the historic first moon landing mission, plus the hope that more missing footage might eventually be recovered.

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