Alternative 3 was allegedly the last in a series of informative science shows broadcast under the banner of Science Report, a factual series of serious science documentaries that were produced by highly respected science reporters. Intended as an April Fool’s joke and planned to be broadcast on All Fools Day 1977, the spoof documentary could not find a full network slot for 12 weeks. Because of this, it went out on Monday 20 June, with simultaneously transmissions in a number of other countries which included Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Greece, and Yugoslavia. As a result of many viewers missing the “joke” it was perceived as a factual report and as such caused an uproar in the National Press and prompted many angry viewers to jam the switchboards of television companies across Britain. Today, over forty years after Alternative 3 was shown, hundreds of conspiracy theorists maintain that it was based less on fantasy and more on reality.
The programme was made by Anglia Television, a company with an unrivalled and highly respected reputation in making factual science and nature shows. Since 1961, Anglia had produced the award winning series Survival, a series of nature documentaries that was one of the UK's most lucrative television exports with sales to 112 countries that included (for the first time ever for a British series) China and Russia. So with such high repute it was no wonder that there was great interest in Alternative 3. To give the show extra authority, it was presented by former ITN newsreader Tim Britton and used a cast (mainly) of relatively unknown actors.
The programme began with a report that the producers had originally planned to make a documentary about the 'brain-drain', where British scientists were leaving the country to find higher-paying jobs abroad. "That film was never completed, because our enquiries led us into some strange and unexpected byways, and they, in their turn, led uniformly to a blank wall. A blank wall below where I'm standing now, at the car park of Terminal 3 of London's Heathrow Airport," says our intrepid reporter. During the course of their investigation, they had discovered that many of the scientists they sought to interview hadn’t just left the country. They appeared to have mysteriously disappearing from the face of the Earth itself.
During those investigations, reporters had discovered that, years earlier, scientists around the world had come together to discuss the problems of a growing population, a lack of natural resources and an eventual environmental catastrophe that would ultimately lead to life on the planet being unsustainable. In response, they came up with three alternative plans:
Alternative 1 - Stop all pollution immediately and blow two huge holes in the ozone layer. This would allow excessive UV light to reach the earth and millions would die of skin cancer.
Alternative 2 - Immediately begin digging underground cities for the Elite (The "New World Order") - the lucky ones deemed worth saving - and let the teeming billions perish on the polluted surface.
Alternative 3 - Build spaceships and get the Elite off the planet - to the Moon and Mars. Kidnap and take along some "ordinary" people for use as slave labour. Use "mind control" techniques to control them. Leave the remainder of humanity to face its own consequences.
The reporters had, through determined investigative journalism, seemingly discovered a vast global conspiracy involving Russia, the United States government and NASA. Through interviews with supposed astronauts and scientists, the documentary pieced together evidence that revealed that the Soviets and Americans, working together, had reached Mars as early as 1961, that the Apollo Space Program had been nothing but a publicity decoy to conceal the true purpose behind NASA's numerous rocket launches, and that scientists were now being abducted to work on the Moon and Mars.
The 60-minute programme included secret filming, conversations between astronauts and mission control, animated diagrams, and real news footage from around the world showing the impending consequences of environmental issues at a time when Climate Change was not as high on everyone’s consciousness and the term Global Warming had not yet been coined. It was, in retrospect, quite a marvellous piece of pseudo reporting.
The tension is heightened further by reluctant interviewees fleeing from outside broadcast cameras, too scared to talk to the media and refusing to make comment when asked specific questions. There’s the story of a missing senior university lecturer, the unexplained disappearance of Doctor Anne Clark – a solar energy research scientist who had previously been interviewed for the programme, and an interview with the parents of a young Airforce engineer who had recently left the Royal Airforce where he worked on 'Special Projects.' The parents tell the reporter how their son went missing after allegedly leaving for Australia to go to work for an electronics firm. When they investigated further, there was no trace of him living at the address he had given.
Immediately the show finished, switchboards at television stations across the country, almost entirely reminiscent of the storm that Orson Wells’ 1938 radio broadcast of ‘War of the Worlds’ had caused across the United States, were ringing with calls from either terrified or angry viewers. The Daily Express newspaper reporting on their front page the very next morning stated that: Thousands of viewers protested in shock and anger over a science fiction “documentary” put out by ITV last night. From the moment that “Alternative Three” ended at 10pm irate watchers jammed the switchboards of the Daily Express and ITV companies to complain.”
The national press, despite its front-page coverage had actually been in on the joke from the start. Pre-publicity from Anglia had asked for them not to give the game away prior to transmission. And largely they all agreed. But the following morning, on what can only be assumed was a ‘slow news day’, every newspaper in the country had their own headline. ‘Storm Over TV’s Spoof’ wrote the Express, ‘TV Terror’ screamed the Scottish Daily Record. However, television critics were quick to defend the programme with comments such as “deft and engaging”, achieving a “rare feat of giving television drama an extra dimension”, “convincing and imaginative”, and “an ingenious piece of work - one of the best sci-fi offerings since Quatermass.”
Throughout the programme the tell-tale signs of a hoax are visible. Shane Rimmer (a well-known actor who had appeared in the James Bond film series and supplied the voice of Scott Tracy in Thunderbirds) played the part of a fictitious astronaut, Bob Grodin, who – according to the documentary was Neil Armstrong's companion on the first moon landing. Scientist Dr. Carl Gerstien, who had tried to warn the world of the impending disaster, was played by the well-known actor Richard Marner, later to be a familiar face on television as Colonel Yon Strohm in the British sitcom ’Allo Allo’. The fictional Alternative 3 culminates with the reporter decoding the video tape which ‘confirmed’ footage of the joint US/USSR mission to Mars in 1962. As the credits role at the end of the mockumentary, the cast list is shown, as well as the originally intended date of transmission. And yet some were so convinced by the show that they refused to believe it was not real, even after its producers announced that the entire thing had been a joke. And it didn’t end there.
There are still those who are convinced that the programme, skilfully written by award-winning screenwriter David Ambrose, subversively reflects reality. It has continually inspired hundreds of conspiracy theories about secret space missions and bases on the Moon and Mars. In 2001, British hacker Gary McKinnon (accused of hacking into 97 United States military and NASA computers over a 13-month period between February 2001 and March 2002) claimed to have found astonishing evidence that such an out of this world program really does exist. Hacking into top secret Pentagon military computers, McKinnon claimed he found a crew manifest file detailing ‘non-terrestrial’ officers. When Sphere books published Alternative 3 by Leslie Watkins in 1978, there were tales of the first run being pulped on Government orders and clandestine buying up from wholesalers and retailers by secret agents of all available unsold stock. Of course, none of this is true and the book is still available today through Amazon, having gone through numerous reprints with ‘additional material’ added (see link below). The programme is also available on YouTube.
The director of Alternative 3, Christopher Miles (the brother of actress Sarah), has said that at that time (1977), no other programme had made people more aware of the threat to the ecology of the world. “More perhaps, than a lot of earnest documentaries on the subject.” Whilst David Ambrose, who was as surprised as anyone to the reaction to Alternative 3, has sage advice for us all. “The answer is, beware of the media. There is an obligation on every viewer to sift the evidence being fed and then to make up their own mind if they accept it. My advice to viewers is ‘keep your wits about you.’
Published on February 3rd, 2021. Written by Laurence Marcus for Television Heaven.