APOLLO IN ASCENSION
This film is held by the BFI (ID: 117713).
Documentary on the choice of the Atlantic island of Ascension as a tracking station for satellites and rockets and its transformation.
‘Drab endless vistas of scree’ was Michael Orrom's first impression of Ascension Island, a bleak volcanic outpost in the South Atlantic Ocean, when he arrived there for the filming of Apollo in Ascension (1967). Orrom, a stalwart of sponsored documentary filmmaking, was commissioned by Cable and Wireless to document theinstallation of a satellite communications’ station designed to support the United States’ NASA Apollo moon missions (BECTU Interview, 1992).…
‘Drab endless vistas of scree’ was Michael Orrom's first impression of Ascension Island, a bleak volcanic outpost in the South Atlantic Ocean, when he arrived there for the filming of Apollo in Ascension (1967). Orrom, a stalwart of sponsored documentary filmmaking, was commissioned by Cable and Wireless to document theinstallation of a satellite communications’ station designed to support the United States’ NASA Apollo moon missions (BECTU Interview, 1992). The station would be used for all of the Apollo moon shots, as this barren, volcanic land became a modern communication centre for international space travel.
Cable and Wireless’ links with Ascension Island (part of the British Overseas Territory of St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha) date back to 1899 when, under its original name, the Eastern Telegraph Company, it had installed the island’s first underwater cable system linking it with South Africa and later the UK. From 1922 until 1964, Cable and Wireless was responsible for the day-to-day administration of the island, and the island’s population mainly comprised temporary telecommunications workers. In 1964, control of the island passed to an Administrator, who was appointed by the British Government.
Michael Orrom had previously directed three Cable and Wireless films: Call the World (1962), Ring Around the Earth (1964) and East West Island (1966), all of which were produced by Eyeline Films. However, by his fourth commission, ‘having had enough of being under Eyeline’s wing and bringing projects to them’, Orrom decided to produce independently as well as direct through his own company, Film Drama Ltd (BECTU Interview, 1992). It was an ambitious undertaking for a nascent production company and Harold Orton, a producer at Eyeline, tried to dissuade Orrom from ‘going it alone’. When Orrom proceeded with the pre-production, Orton publicly questioned Orrom's capabilities until the threat of libel action seemed to curb Orton’s diatribes. In the wake of this unfortunate wrangle Cable and Wireless decided to withhold production funds until Film Drama had delivered the first batch of rushes. Had Arthur Elton not stepped in and raised the initial finance through Film Centre, Apollo in Ascension might never have materialised. The resultant film was widely acclaimed and ran throughout Expo ’67 at the British Pavilion (held April - October in Montreal) as well as representing Britain at the Scientific Film Festival in Belgrade in 1968.
Whilst the construction of the earth station proceeded with military precision, the filming of it was beset by difficulties from the moment that Orrom and the Film Drama crew arrived on Ascension Island on 5 August 1966. Cable and Wireless imposed a dauntingly tight schedule, ordering that the station be fully operational by September. This deadline, coupled with the remoteness of the location, caused formidable logistical difficulties for the Film Drama crew. Furthermore, the volcanic island with its all-pervading lava dust created interminable problems for cameraman David Muir who had to spend hours cleaning the equipment. Progress was also drastically hampered when, whilst climbing out of a satellite dish onto 100-foot high scaffolding, Orrom sustained a serious back injury that rendered him incapacitated at the Georgetown Hospital for the remainder of the production. Orrom’s stand-in, John Crome, who had edited Ring Around the Earth, was flown in on an RAF training flight as replacement director and received a co-director credit for his efforts. Having completed the shooting on schedule, the crew returned to the UK to face the major task of editing 20,000 feet of 16mm footage, for which, Orrom, who was somewhat revived by now, appointed, in his own words, ‘the best editor around’, R.Q. McNaughton of Night Mail fame. Film Drama would go on to produce a further four films for Cable and Wireless.
Aimed at general audiences and for use in education, Apollo in Ascension functions on multiple levels. Its primary remit was to promote the activities of Cable and Wireless by recording the building of the earth station, championed as a landmark achievement in the company’s history. Sir John Macpherson, the Chairman of Cable and Wireless, emphasised the broader significance of this undertaking, when stating in 1965 ‘We are proud to be playing a part in the Apollo project…It…
Aimed at general audiences and for use in education, Apollo in Ascension functions on multiple levels. Its primary remit was to promote the activities of Cable and Wireless by recording the building of the earth station, championed as a landmark achievement in the company’s history. Sir John Macpherson, the Chairman of Cable and Wireless, emphasised the broader significance of this undertaking, when stating in 1965 ‘We are proud to be playing a part in the Apollo project…It means that Cable and Wireless will have demonstrated its ability to organise and operate earth stations for satellite systems wherever required, in any part of the world’ (The Times, 19 October 1965, 6). The film’s awe-inspiring opening of NASA footage of men floating in space brings to the fore the wider context of the earth station’s crucial role in the Apollo programme and, by implication, the sponsor’s position in the vanguard of technological achievement. It also positions Ascension Island, a British territory, as an integral part of the Apollo mission, and endorses a colonial rhetoric of British technological and industrial development within previously desolate spaces.
This sense of development is evident in Julian Glover’s impersonal classroom-style commentary, which gives a succinct overview of the island’s history – from the time when it was used as a dumping ground for victims of yellow fever to its contemporary hosting of space communication systems. The logistics of constructing a satellite tracking station in such a remote location are also explained, with the inclusion of enough specific information about the system’s design and construction to satisfy a technically interested audience and animated graphics to ensure that this complex information is accessible to all audiences. The trade journal Film User praised the film for harnessing its disparate elements – ‘a mixture of the modern and the historical’ – and suggested that the film should appeal ‘especially to sixth forms’ (Film User, July 1967, 6).
As with his other Cable and Wireless commissions, Orrom sought to apply one of his longstanding precepts that documentary should relate its subject to a wider social milieu. In an interview for the Cable and Wireless magazine, Zodiac he stated: ‘I have tried in the films to bring out something of the social implications of communications to the setting in which they belong’ (Zodiac, No. 9, 1974). In the film’s outline Orrom wrote of his intention to create a ‘general feeling of strangeness and remoteness about Ascension’ to be ‘stressed within the sequences themselves, incidentally to the main story. This will often be achieved simply by the photography, particular colour effects, odd shots of wildlife and so on’ (Orrom, 1967). The muscular task of assembling steel structures is offset by the long pan-shots of lava shapes and rock formations. The film shows the industrial development of a remote part of the British Empire, but, as in much of Orrom’s work, still emphasises the human experiences. ‘We selected and filmed the key parts of the operations, always trying to relate them to the people involved’, Orrom explained, as he highlights the camaraderie of the workers and scientists (paralleling that of the film crew) unified in their fight against the clock [BECTU Interview, 1992].
The film’s underlying remit to promote Cable and Wireless’ involvement in the moonshot programme locates the film within a wider publicity agenda on the part of the government, who regarded technological prowess as an integral means of augmenting Britain’s identity both at home and abroad in the wake of its decline as an imperial power. By the 1960s technology had become the greatest symbol of a nation’s international stature and military potential. Showcasing the construction of such a formidable communications structure on one of the remaining vestiges of Britain’s Empire may be seen as symptomatic of this political trend.
Katy McGahan (May 2010)
BECTU History Project interview with Michael Orrom by Norman Swallow, 3 March 1992, accessed at the BFI.
Film User v21 n249, July 1967, 86.
Orrom, Michael, ‘Introduction to Ascension Film Outline’, 1967, BFI Special Collections, Michael Orrom Collection.
The Times, 19 October 1965, 6.
Zodiac (Cable and Wireless Group’s Quarterly Magazine), No. 9, 1974.
- APOLLO IN ASCENSION
- Running Time:
- 29 minutes
- Production Countries:
- Great Britain
- ORROM, Michael
- Cable and Wireless
- Associate Director
- CROME, John
- Director of Photography
- MUIR, David
- McNAUGHTON, Richard Q.
- STEVENS, James
- GLOVER, Julian
- MUIR, David
- Production Company
- Film Drama