Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Airport (1996-2005)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Airport (1996-2005)
BBC1, 2/5/1996-21/7/2005
97 x 30 min, 4 x 60 min edns in nine series, colour
Series ProducersJeremy Mills
 Bridget Sneyd
 Claire Paterson
 David Russell
 Nick Catliff
 Edwina Vardey
 Michael Houldey

Narrators: John Nettles, Liza Tarbuck; Participants include: Alison Stuart, Jeremy Spake, Karen Jones, Russell Clisby, Steve Meller

Show full cast and credits

Life on the front line at Heathrow, the world's busiest international airport, getting an insider's view from the check-in staff, security guards, customer service staff, baggage handlers, customs officers, celebrity photographers...

Show full synopsis

Until the mid-1990s, the behind-the-scenes documentary was a relatively prestige television format, purporting to offer genuine insights into a hidden world. The form could be controversial, as in The Police (BBC, 1982), but critics generally accepted the producers' serious intent. 1996's The House (BBC), which lifted the lid on the Royal Opera House, saw the beginning of a transition, with a deliberate foregrounding of personalities, and especially personal conflicts, for their dramatic effect; audiences were hooked. Airport, screened later the same year, saw the balance tip still further in favour of entertainment.

In the highly competitive multi-channel environment of 1990s television, the discovery that docusoaps, as Airport and its successors came to be described, could generate large audiences in peak-time for a fraction of the cost of the comedy or drama that conventionally occupied that slot, was a revelation for broadcasters. The schedules were soon bulging with docusoaps of all kinds.

Airports can be desolate and uncomfortable places. Passengers are transformed into lost, stateless refugees, their identities locked in their tickets and destinations. Airports are the scenes of countless mini-dramas - lovers and families divided and reunited, lives abandoned and new lives begun, tempers stretched to breaking point - as well as issues with wider implications - the smuggling of drugs and other contraband, illegal immigrants, refugees seeking asylum.

While Airport gladly laps up such opportunities for drama, for the most part Heathrow offers a stage for entertainment rather than a subject for investigative inquiry. It is on the performances of its characters that the series really depends, and its soap-like narrative structure provides a platform for the creation of genuine stars. Airport gives us the magnificently camp Jeremy Spake, the Aeroflot supervisor, just as Driving School (BBC, 1997) later introduced the irrepressible Maureen, and Vets in Practice (BBC, 1997-2002) gave us the dashing Steve the status of eligible bachelor.

The best docusoaps present an eye on a world we can usually only glimpse, and vicarious experience of glamorous or extraordinary jobs: a celebrity photographer snapping Mick Jagger, a security officer coping with drunken passengers and the combined problems of tens of millions of passengers a year, airport staff handling the Queen's travel arrangements. Despite accusations of triviality and superficiality, not least from infuriated documentarists, Airport has not only endured but spawned a subgenre of its own, alongside imitators Airline (ITV, 2004-) and Bristol Airport (ITV West, 2004-05).

Anamaria Boschi

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. President Clinton (2:24)
2. Air traffic restrictions (3:04)
3. Searching for drugs (0:41)
4. Air France (1:42)
Complete edition: (29:02)
Airport (1934)
Driving School (1997)