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' Athens News' puts its head in the clouds...


Dear diary,

Today I infiltrated the world of Greek television as well as that of the airforce! What girl would ask for anything more than to be surrounded for a full seven hours by testosterone-driven, handsome men with courage, creativity and brains? And who needs Tom Cruise in Top Gun when you've got Socrates Alafouzos in Aerines Siopes?

For a start, the latter is a real person, not a scientology freak, far taller than a fire extinguisher and kind enough to baby-sit this perky journalist at the filming location for MEGA channel's mega-successful new TV series.

The idea was mine, and how was I to imagine, dear diary, that a multi-talented and professional theatre, film and television actor such as Alafouzos would take my proposal seriously? The plan was to visit the real airforce base location in Tanagra - where the parts of the series about the professional and personal lives of five sexy, smart and (yes!) sensitive fighter pilots is shot - and get a taste for how it all happens.

But I came away with more than I'd bargained for. It starts when we arrive at the airbase and Alafouzos almost immediately changes into his character, Orestis Panagiotou's, uniform.

Suddenly, he becomes one of them, and spot the odd one out! As we sit outside the base's cafeteria on a large, light-drenched balcony with benches overlooking the endless runways and fields, another man in an identical uniform appears and they warmly greet each other. After, I ask very cleverly, "Who does he play?" and Socrates laughs at me (for the first of many times that day, I'm sure.). "No, he's a real pilot!"

The base is engulfed in silence inside and out. Apparently, this is because the noise-blasting, roaringly loud flying exercises were by then over, and you know how when something really strong has hit the atmosphere its absence is more palpable? So this is a place that goes from window-shatteringly fortissimo to a meditation-idyllic hush, serene bird-chirping and all. A sharp contrast with enough metaphorical largesse to represent the overall life of the pilots who work here, since their work makes their being pend, daily, in the nanosecond between life and death.

Upon first entering the airbase one comes across a wall covered in framed photographs of proud, grinning pilots that were and are standing upright and firmly holding their helmet against their hip exactly as the characters of the series do in the promotional clip that got Greece 's audience tuning into MEGA at 9.40pm every Friday night.

Real and make-believe pilots keep coming and going, and I start to have genuine fun trying to differentiate between the two. Alafouzos, who is here for the umpteenth time, is twice mistaken for a real pilot by another from afar. That's until a crew from MEGA's Prive programme, a tele-magazine which features the rich and famous and Greece 's other glitterati or talented individuals, turns up to interview him and his fellow actors for their next slot. Their filming takes place in a colossal rust-coloured hangar where six metallic fire-breathing monsters rest their wings. There, Alafouzos and another charismatic and prominent actor from the series, Costas Kazanas, are interviewed standing proudly before the silver Mirages. Drifting around the grounds I stop to gossip with the mechanics. "Yeah, we watch the series! It's great! It's not actually like our real lives here, but it's very good nonetheless, and it's fun to see the place where you spend your every day on TV!" says Nikos. "They (the crew) do sometimes kind of get in the way when we're really busy, but generally we love having them around." I'm reassured he does as he soon brings out his 28.5 children out of nowhere to greet the actors, pose for photographs together and get their autographs.

Suddenly, I see one of the actors standing messiah-like in the smiling sunlight flanked by sweet adoring children and Aris the dog, the base's bouncingly affectionate mascot.

Kazanas, who in real life looks even cooler, more sleek and tougher in a Humphrey Bogartish way, than his plucky womanising character in the series, stares out into the silent gulf as he sips his "quadruple" Greek coffee and squinting, smokes his cigarette. I ask him how different this project is to anything he's done before. "Completely," he answers, "I've played in four or five Festival (art) films - you may have heard of Telos Epohis?" (The End of an Era, Antonis Kokkinos' 1994 success.) Kazanas also starred with great aplomb in Dimitris Athanitis' 1997 No Sympathy for the Devil. "Yet I find this role very different to all the other ones," he continues, "perhaps because it's very closely based on a particular breed of people, and because I'm aware those people watch me portraying them and we associate when we're here." He tells me that, like Alafouzos, he has in essence brought his character to life via thorough research; talking with and studying the behaviour and environment of pilots, and then adding his own inventive touches. "The atmosphere here [at the base] is unique," he says, "it's really quite an experience." Dimosthenis Papadopoulos, who plays the fourth pilot of the series - the one Kazanas' character is closest friends with - was unfortunately unavailable for comment. From one moment to the next it becomes cold-to-the-bone, and what better than a real pilot to join and entertain us with "battle tales" as we sip steaming cups of strong coffee? The lads (members of cast, production and the authentic pilot) huddle together around the wooden bench and light-heartedly discuss work (acting as well as flying) and it becomes as clear as fascinating that the actors are constantly soaking in information to use further on in creating their characters.

There's no awkwardness between them as the down-to-earth pilot talks about his uniform (they ask whether he gets a cool-cat leather jacket in winter), and explains how his ribbed, white T-shirt functions as a means of preserving body temperature for an extra 20 minutes in case they land in the sea. They admire his large and bulky "Italian-made" boots as he gets up to tie his shoe-laces, and although he's clearly lapping up the attention he doesn't appear big-headed.

Then, the songs of the jungle (women-jokes) commence. I switch off so as not to seem nosy but I catch a gag about men only paying for a gal's dinner if she's "a sure thing". I refrain from enlightening them, dear diary, by revealing that most women will only expect to have their dinner paid for as recompense, if their date is not the sure thing. It's all very familiar and cosy, yet there are no cameras and no reasons to play roles.

"You don't present us as we really are!" an officer shrieks facetiously as he thunders by, "you make people believe we all live in elegant homes and drive pricey cars and have beautiful wives whom we have enough time for!" We chortle at this, and he turns to me, the sample female of the group: "I mean, would you ever marry a pilot?"

"It depends on the man," I respond. "Are you sure about that?" Er... "Yes, why not?" I chuckle, crossing my fingers under the table. "But we do like the series!" he adds as he takes off. "It's a dramatic television series," shrugs Alafouzos, "we can't exactly be real about everything." It's an unfortunate fact of life that even the most astounding things in life need to be embellished on screen, otherwise they quickly lose their lustre. Completely out of the blue, the scene is chaotically cluttered with women, men, children, cameras, technical equipment and food. The remaining cast and crew are back and it's dinner time. Now everyone's famished after a demanding day of shooting and there's yet more ahead. Director Errikos Anagnostopoulos sits at our bench and wolfs down his meal, eager to finalise the day as productively as possible. The air is buzzing with conversation and laughter in true Fellini style, but it's just a charged interlude. Lights, cameras and mikes are set up and people start disappearing off to make-up. I follow to the interior, where scenes will be shot along the corridor. I stay in make-up for a while as my guide Alafouzos is sprayed, brushed, patted and blended, ready for his next scene. His much-talked-about eyes shimmer with grace as a ripple of laughter pours from his throat at the proverbial time-pressed urgency of the situation.

I'm in the way. And although everyone here is far too polite to tell me to move it, dammit! (thank God because being among thesps only brings out the dangerously unabashed spirit of a drama queen in me). Anagnostopoulos is totally tuned into the scene and, as he charges around, I find the gall to inquire where, on this very narrow corridor, I can go to catch the action without being detrimental to the production. "Go to the very end of the hall!" he quips sternly, but with a half-smile on his face because I'm so obviously lost.

I follow the orders (being in a military environment brings back the value of quasi-forgotten discipline) and am pleased to discover he's directed me to the room where he, script-writer Ada Gourbali and the producers sit pouring over the monitor. I perch myself by the door frame. A mobile phone rings during an otherwise faultless scene and the director explodes with anger. My eyes glaze over as I watch Alafouzos repeatedly walk down the corridor, slipping off his sunglasses and placing them into his left shirt-pocket and coming across Costas Apostolides. The actor, who most recently starred in Antenna channel's TV series Epithymies and has extensive experience in theatre and film, plays Andreas, also a senior pilot who is sufficiently chummy with Orestis to offer him pearls of wisdom on his crumbling married life (no wonder it's stormy! His wife is a hysteric! -)

The evening ends at a nearby taverna chomping on paidakia (lamb-chops) with Alafouzos, Apostolides, the latter's old friend, who is a real pilot, and his wife. Thrilled at the chance to finally indulge in some girl talk, I tell her about the previous conversation with the airman who asked me whether I would ever marry a pilot. She nods knowingly and relates that "every single time my husband flies I need to receive a call from him telling me he's OK until I can relax. We have two children, and when you have a family, it's even harder to deal with the fear."

The pilot - who says some in his profession actually grow increasingly, rather than less, afraid of flying with time "though will continue flying for as long as they can because they love it so much!" - is bombarded with more flight-related questions by the actors and myself, which he patiently answers concisely: "What is black-out? What is red-out? How does the body react when the air-pressure gets too high? What is a black hole?"

The actors compare their field with his by explaining the crucial importance of precision, improvisation, instinct and skill required in their own work, and the pilot in turn listens intently. We drink wine and feel dizzy with a refreshing joy for life and all it provides - if you risk to soar into it. The chance to savour the practical science as well as the inexplicable magic behind our existence and to experience somewhat effortless, yet rewarding, days like this is a drum we're pleased to dance to.

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