A paranoid hoax:
The enduring terror of
Graham Williamson revisits 1977’s fictional hoax, Alternative 3. ‘One of the most intoxicatingly, terrifyingly paranoid programmes ever broadcast on British television…’
Alternative 3 was an April Fools’ hoax, broadcast on Anglia Television and presented as part of a documentary strand called Science Report. April 1st 2021 does not mark its thirtieth anniversary, or its fortieth, or its fifty-seventh. This is because, in one of the most astonishingly unfortunate incidents in television history, strikes had led to scheduling changes, meaning it couldn’t be aired on April 1st. It aired instead on June 20th 1977, in the middle of a famously hot summer that the film itself seemed to predict.
It is often pointed out that Alternative 3‘s end credits, as well as including a full cast list, include the date ‘April 1st’, so the clues were there to be picked up. Personally, I find it easy to sympathise with those who were already panicking by that point, as Alternative 3 is one of the most intoxicatingly, terrifyingly paranoid programmes ever broadcast on British television. It begins with a montage of missing people, before presenter Tim Brinton – a newsreader who would become the MP for Gravesend two years later(!) – acknowledging that this is not Science Report’s usual territory, but this story was simply too important to sit on.
Brinton slides past the question of what, exactly, Science Report‘s usual territory is. Most articles on Alternative 3 say, as I have, that it was ‘presented as part’ of Science Report, rather than an episode of Science Report. In fact, Science Report never existed: the BFI’s comprehensive site lists two American documentary films but no British TV series by that name, and even the most outraged newspaper articles from the time don’t stop to question what a respected documentary strand is doing airing such irresponsible nonsense. Brinton says the name of the show with such casual authority, you accept it must exist – an early warning tremor of what is coming..`
Brinton claims Alternative 3 began as a piece about the ‘brain drain’, a real-life phenomenon of the 1970s where more and more British scientists were being lured away from underfunded British labs by foreign investment. This, at least, is not a lie. Writer David Ambrose’s initial idea was that the brain drain was being used to cover up the assassination of scientists who were privy to a terrible secret program. As to what that program would entail, Ambrose had no idea until one afternoon’s lunch with director Christopher Miles.
Miles spotted a newspaper headline about the first pictures from the Viking probe, and suggested the final piece of the puzzle: ‘So what if all those missing people were actually going to Mars?’ From here, the story fell into place in a brisk two hours, with Ambrose and Miles repurposing recent news stories with the glee of real-life conspiracy theorists. Extreme weather events? Evidence of the coming climate disaster that had spooked the world’s governments into banding together to colonise Mars. The apparent fizzling-out of the Soviet Union’s space programme? Clearly, they were putting all their resources into Martian missions.
From these ominous fragments, the titular Alternative 3 emerges: a conspiracy of all major world governments to ferry the global elite to our nearest planetary neighbour before Earth becomes uninhabitable. It’s a wild yarn, but Miles, Ambrose and Brinton present it with utmost sobriety. It has the odd stiff performance, but it survives this thanks to the ambient starchiness of 1970s television documentaries as a whole; fans of hauntology and Look Around You (UK, Tim Kirkby, 2002-2005) will get a kick out of it. Brinton’s presentational style – saying half a sentence in the studio, then picking the thought back up on location – is also wonderfully of its time, the kind of thing that was briefly elevated to high art by James Burke in Connections (UK, Mick Jackson, 1978) then parodied to death by Chris Morris in Brass Eye (UK, Michael Cumming, 1997).
All of these retro elements now feel casually persuasive, adding to the sense that this might be a real, half-remembered news story from the late ’70s. The image of the missing scientist Ann Clarke’s car, abandoned at an otherwise empty airport car park, is genuinely eerie. Not everything in Alternative 3 is as spot-on. Ambrose can’t quite resist giving his American characters some hard-boiled dialogue – ‘A fatal case of measles, know what I mean?’ – that clashes with the otherwise naturalistic speech. It’s a shame, too, that the traumatised astronaut Bob Grodin is played by Shane Rimmer – a fine actor, but a recognisable face who’d recently finished shooting a little film called Star Wars: A New Hope (US, George Lucas, 1977).
There are also some aspects that are ahead of their time. Brian Eno’s soundtrack prefigures his later work on the rather more reliable space exploration documentary For All Mankind (US, Al Reinert, 1989). The idea of American and Soviet governments coming together in the face of a potentially planet-ending threat, too, predates Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen. Miles’s direction is completely persuasive, a product of his belief that 1970s audiences were much more sophisticated than the ones who supposedly panicked on hearing Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds broadcast, and it would take a lot more effort to fool them. The problem with telling your terrifying story in a way that’s designed to make people believe it, though, is that they end up believing it.Apres Mars, le deluge. The front cover of the next day’s Daily Express led with ‘STORM OVER TV’S SPOOF’, with a smaller story about the apparent disappearance of Idi Amin. The Ugandan tyrant had, in fact, briefly gone into hiding following an assassination attempt, but here was yet another news story that seemed to be backing up Miles and Ambrose’s thesis – was Idi now on Mars? It wasn’t all negative; Richard Afton wrote in the London Evening News that the programme deserved an award. But a fuse had been lit. The aftermath of Alternative 3 would comfortably outlive the three-day outrage cycle of most controversial television.
Miles and Ambrose’s mailbag after the show aired was the first sign of trouble. After Richard Dimbleby’s famous ‘spaghetti harvest’ April Fools edition of Panorama – an acknowledged influence on Miles, so much so that he tried to get Dimbleby’s son Jonathan to host Alternative 3 – people sent the BBC letters asking how to grow their own spaghetti trees. Anglia’s tardy April Fools prank resulted in missives about UFO experiences, accounts of being followed by Men In Black and carbon copies of letters to then-leader of the opposition Margaret Thatcher asking her to pressure the government into declassifying files on Alternative 3. One man claimed to have tracked down the astronaut Bob Grodin, proving that the show was factual. It turned out he’d found a Bob Grodin in the phone book and was bombarding the poor man with demands to tell the truth about the Mars program.
Today, the media is – perhaps reasonably – wary of playing with paranoia to such a degree. Back then, the makers of Alternative 3 actively stoked the flames by commissioning a tie-in book from Leslie Watkins, which adopts a similar false-document style to flesh out Ambrose and Miles’s conspiracy theory. Compulsive and imaginative, it has a cult following all of its own, but there is another book that did more to keep the Alternative 3 story going. That would be Casebook on Alternative 3: UFOs, Secret Societies and World Control, a 1994 text by Jim Keith, author of Black Helicopters Over America and Saucers of the Illuminati.
Keith was an omnivorous paranoiac, and inevitably when he died tragically young in 1999 after a fall there were murmurs that THEY had bumped him off. Yet his embrace of every conspiracy theory going means that some of his information is correct, if only through blind chance. In Casebook on Alternative 3, Keith discusses Operation Paperclip, a real-life conspiracy where Nazi rocket scientists were smuggled to America in order to work at NASA. He also accepts that Alternative 3 was produced as a hoax, while also essentially endorsing every idea contained within the film.
This is easy to laugh at. During my research for this article, I found an archived page on the conspiracy site anomalies.net which somehow manages to take a deep dive into the controversies surrounding Miles’s film without mentioning once that it’s an acknowledged hoax. Yet Keith’s position – that Alternative 3 is a hoax that accidentally hit on a rich vein of suppressed truth – is not as absurd as it once seemed.
The film’s fictional list of dead and missing scientists now feels uncannily predictive of the real-life chain of suspicious deaths among employees of GEC-Marconi (now BAE Systems) during the 1980s. And is not the core horror of Alternative 3, the idea that the elite are about to colonise Mars and leave the rest of us to roast on a dying Earth, not the exact plan Elon Musk now publicly boasts about? Can it possibly be coincidence that Watkins’s Alternative 3 was published by the same publisher as Tony Collins’s Open Verdict, about the Marconi deaths? Or that Watkins himself reported from Idi Amin’s Uganda…
This is one of the disquieting things about rewatching Alternative 3 now: you wonder whether you’ve gone mad, or whether the world has.
Afton, Richard, ‘It’s a Fact, This Spoof Deserves to Win an Award’, London Evening News, June 21st 1977
Austin, Nick, ‘Alternative 3’, Fortean Times issue 121, April 1999
Collins, Tony, Open Verdict: An Account of 25 Mysterious Deaths in the Defence Industry, Sphere, 1990
Jones, Christopher, ‘Storm Over TV’s Spoof’, Daily Express, June 21st 1977
Keith, Jim, Casebook on Alternative 3: UFOs, Secret Societies and World Control, IllumiNet Press, 1994
Marshall, Steve, ‘The Making of Alternative 3’, Fortean Times issue 230, December 2007
Watkins, Leslie, Alternative 3, Sphere, 1978