SIGHTS & SOUNDS OVER 30 YEARS

By Graham W. Birdsall

When the first ever episode of the X-Files appeared on our television screens back in 1993, producer Chris Carter and his virtually unknown screen co-stars, David Duchovny (Mulder) and Gillian Anderson (Scully), could barely have imagined where it would lead.

In less than five years the series has won-over millions of fans throughout the world, picked up numerous television industry awards, and elevated Duchovny and Anderson to heights of fame normally reserved for Hollywood starlets in the process.

The success of the X-Files, and that of similar programmes which delve into the realms of the unknown and paranormal, is in no part due to the almost insatiable appetite of the public at large to learn more about UFOs and other similar mysterious happenings.

Inevitably, X-Files episodes produce scripts where science fact clashes with science fiction. Historical accuracy and objectiveness is often thrown to the sacrificial alter, and apart from the frustration this brings to UFO researchers like myself, who cares?

Certainly not television moguls, who positively purr at the consistently high ratings achieved internationally by the X-Files. It is, without doubt, extremely popular among all age groups, especially the young.

You would be hard pressed not to find a picture of Mulder and Scully adorning the front covers of numerous glossy magazine titles when you next visit your local newsagent.

DOCTOR WHO?

Much has been said and written about the huge impact the series has had on audiences the world over. It’s hard to imagine, but back in the mid-sixties, television offered little to satisfy those of us who were curious to discover more factual information about some of life’s great mysteries.

There was a weekly diet of ‘Dr. Who’ (first screened on 23 November 1963 and whose fifth episode featured the Daleks, created by Terry Nation who died on 9 March this year aged 66) and the hopelessly unbelievable puppet characters of Gerry Anderson. Imaginations were, to say the very least, somewhat restricted.

There were exceptions of course and I do recall scampering behind the settee at home as bug-eyed creature from the American sci-fi series, The Outer Limits, (first screened on 16 September 1963) proceeded to consume all who stood in their path. Doubtless some pundit will now contend that my interest in UFOs can be firmly traced back to their science fiction inspired roots. Not so.

That interest was sparked by a personal sighting back in 1967. Returning home from school late one winter’s evening, I saw a brilliant oval-shaped object low in the sky above my parents home.

Half the size of a full moon, it moved very slowly over our house before I dashed through the living room and out into the back garden.

I immediately looked up – and the object was gone. I ran to the bottom of the garden in order to look back over the roof-tops in the direction from whence it came, but nothing.

The sky was clear, stars were visible, and to this day I can offer no explanation as to what the object was, or indeed, how it could possibly have disappeared in such a short spell of time. The rest is history.

I checked out a book on flying saucers by Brinsley Le Poer Trench sometime later, saw an address for the Oxford-based UFO organisation Contact International (UK) at the back, and thus began what has become a 30 year-long quest to seek answers to the phenomenon.

THE ARRIVAL OF COLOUR

From 1967 onwards, it would be fair to say that I began to seriously examine television and cinematic interpretations of extraterrestrials and the possibilities of life being ‘out there’ with a keen and often critical eye. Television images were transmitted in black and white in those early days, and made all the more ‘spookier’ in my opinion.

With the launch of a third television channel (BBC 2) came colour, and I would happily spend many an hour staring through the shop window of my local television store marvelling at floral displays and panoramic aerial shots of lush green pastures – even the test card of a young girl holding brightly coloured balloons stopped people in the streets!

I wondered if my reaction might compare favourably with those who saw moving images for the first time – how it must have been to see people actually physically ‘move’ when cinema was first introduced.

Even then, movie-makers were quick to advance their own ideas about what might exist in outer space. Some of the earliest efforts depicted man encountering extraterrestrials on the moon, but a film which did much to transcend all that had gone before was unquestionably 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Based on the Arthur C. Clarke best-seller, Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant interpretation of man’s first contact with intelligent extraterrestrial life was way ahead of its time. The reaction of cinema audiences was one of total awe and amazement.

INTENSE MOMENTS

While the special effects were stunning, what particular impressed me was the film’s total absence of any bug-eyed extraterrestrial creatures.

The movie had a big impact on me, much the same as Neil Armstrong’s historic first step on the moon on 21 July, 1969. I watched the moment ‘live’ on television having sat up half the night. The same set which had broadcast news of John F. Kennedy’s assassination six years earlier still managed to project grainy but discernible images and sounds of man on the moon.

It’s difficult to describe such intense moments to youngsters of a similar age today, suffice to say nobody back then imagined for one second that manned exploration of space would be restricted solely to the Apollo missions.

As public interest gradually faded, and less time was devoted to astronauts hopping around on the lunar surface, there was almost an inevitability about NASA’s demise.

Faced with domestic problems, a growing sense of unease about America’s role in war-torn Vietnam, the financial costs of the Apollo programme could no longer be justified and, to the regret of many, the US government brought manned space exploration to a sudden and abrupt halt.

The abiding memory of Neil Armstrong’s carefully chosen words as he stepped off the LEM will, however, never be forgotten:

“That’s one small step for Man. One vast leap for Mankind.”

There was a united spirit and sense of human achievement enacted at that precise moment. True, some critics thought it more appropriate for a United Nations flag to have been erected on the moon instead of a Stars and Stripes at the time, but it was an historic moment in every sense.

When it became apparent that further manned exploratory missions to the moon and beyond had been put on hold, my perceived images of seeing a huge space station in Earth orbit as depicted in 2001 flickered and died. The public’s love affair with NASA went into free-fall from that moment, and to my mind, will never regain the high moral ground it once so thoroughly deserved and enjoyed, so long as it continues to be dominated by military mandarins.

A love affair with NASA? Let me explain. During the Apollo programme there was little talk about anything else among classmates at school. Similarly, I recall the prospects of discovering life elsewhere was discussed enthusiastically by teachers and parents alike.

DEEP ROOTED PREJUDICES

However, there was absolutely no mention of the terms ‘flying saucers’ or ‘UFOs’. Indeed I kept details of my 1967 sighting strictly to myself – a classic case of being too fearful of the consequences if I were to share the experience with others around me. This particular youngster would have been pilloried by his boyhood pals.

It took me a while before I felt confident enough to publicly express my interest in the subject, though by the time Steven Spielberg’s hit movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind arrived at the cinema in 1979, I was a seasoned UFO investigator.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind not only tugged at the heart strings, but tore away deep-rooted prejudices that had previously existed among the public and media whenever the subject of UFOs had reared its head.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind was based to a large extent on credible accounts gleaned from specialist advisors such as the late Dr. J. Allen Hynek, head of the Centre for UFO Studies.

As numerous technicians marvelled at several UFOs hovering above Devil’s Mountain, a small, grey haired and bearded Allen Hynek made a cameo appearance when he offered a knowing smile before proceeding to light his pipe. It was a fitting tribute by Spielberg, who later went on to produce another blockbuster, ET: The Extraterrestrial.

Such films unquestionably helped to generate interest in UFOs. Contact International held a conference in Oxford shortly after Close Encounters of the Third Kind had been screened and crowds stretched right round the block to gain entry. Hundreds were left disappointed when the “House Full” signs went up.

There was no longer a reluctance on the part of people to speak openly about the subject, and many began sharing personal experiences with investigators like myself. To this end, I have no doubt whatsoever that Ufology benefited enormously from Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (regardless of the plot).

BBC CYNICISM

However, despite the valiant efforts of several UFO researchers to encourage news journalists to report the subject in a serious vein, much of the 1980s saw a familiar slant towards ridicule and abject cynicism.

Typical was the manner in which the BBC dismissed any suggestion that a UFO incident had taken place at RAF Woodbridge on 27/28 December, 1980.

Prior to that, the BBC documentary series Horizon, had debunked the entire subject and rubbished a highly publicised UFO incident at Kaikoura, New Zealand, on 21 December 1978.

When the Soviet News Agency Tass reported on some amazing UFO encounters at Voronezh in October, 1989, the BBC were quick to pour scorn on the credibility of the witnesses and of the news gathering techniques employed.

There seemed to be no end in sight to the familiar sight of UFO researchers and witnesses being portrayed as cranks and lunatics.

The name Patrick Moore often springs to mind when looking back to this period. In any debate, he could always be relied upon to trumpet the sceptic’s cause, and quickly denounce the very idea of there being any physical evidence to support the extraterrestrial hypothesis.

During one memorable BBC Breakfast Time debate, author and Ufologist Jenny Randles kept insisting there were such things as hitherto classified UFO documents. Patrick Moore, sat opposite, responded by saying that to even imply such a thing was the work of conspiracy theorists and cranks.

“Where are these documents? They don’t exist!” he proclaimed. Immediately behind him, and in full glare of the cameras, one such document featured on a screen.

Patrick and I have had several amicable run-ins down the years, and despite the fact he once labelled me “several sandwich layers short of a picnic” during one brief radio encounter (before I had uttered one solitary word mind) I remain a big fan of both him and his excellent Sky at Night television series. Given recent discoveries made by the Hubble Space Telescope, potential evidence of life on Mars and water on the Moon, Patrick has actually warmed to the prospect of witnessing an official announcement of the discovery of extraterrestrial life in his lifetime. I sincerely hope his wish comes true.

Much as I admire the man, there is little doubt that Patrick and others of his ilk, such as the late Carl Sagan, have proven to be Ufology’s sternest critics, but in 1987 a sea-change in attitudes swept this country with the publication of what was by far and away the most authoritative book ever written on the UFO subject.

A TURNING POINT

British UFO researcher and author Timothy Good brought us a literary gem in Above Top Secret: The Worldwide UFO Cover-up.

Thoroughly researched and referenced, it received rave reviews and quickly became a best-seller in this country and overseas. It displaced Peter Wright’s Spycatcher as the number one best-seller in Australia.

Although revised in the new and up-dated Beyond Top Secret: The Worldwide UFO Security Threat, I always recommend newcomers to the subject digest both titles before seeking information elsewhere.

Most journalists who reviewed ‘Above Top Secret’ were probably digesting information on UFOs for the first time, and their subsequent favourable comments told me that not only had the majority been impressed, but a turning point in media perception had finally been achieved.

As we entered a new decade, it was not the BBC or other terrestrial television channels that invoked further British public interest in UFOs, but a newcomer to the scene – BSKYB.

Given the scope of its ability to transmit via the Astra satellite over a dozen individual channels, SKY subscribers were treated to a variety of programmes such as Sightings and Unsolved Mysteries that had previously been aired in the United States.

For the first time, an ever-increasing audience here in Britain and Europe were able to see first-hand and continuing evidence of some of the best UFO incidents and footage gleaned from around the world.

Here were two programmes singularly devoted to exploring UFOs and other mysterious topics. Re-enactment’s using actors and sometimes actual witnesses, were often supported by photographs and footage, which together with computer graphics, brought a new dimension to the telling of this subject.

One further important development impacted upon Ufology around this time – the introduction of camcorders.

Although initially bulky and expensive, technological breakthroughs ensured that before long, camcorders were in the affordable price range of most people.

This had an immediate effect on programmes such as Unsolved Mysteries and Sightings. Increasingly strange and spectacular UFO footage began to emerge, making life somewhat uncomfortable for debunkers.

In Mexico, however, so much UFO camcorder footage was taken that it raised serious doubts as to their authenticity: How could such a poor and impoverished people afford to purchase camcorders, let alone capture so many remarkable images on film?

Leading Mexican UFO investigator Santiago Garza provided the answer while attending the 15th Leeds International UFO Conference last September:

“We are indeed a poor people, and that’s why the black market thrives. Camcorders come across the border and are very cheap to buy. Many people have them.

“They film all the time, especially outside. That’s why there are so many UFO’s captured.”

When SKY purchased the rights to broadcast first episodes of the X-Files, it seemed only a matter of time before one of the terrestrial channels would follow their lead.

The broadcasting channel which had done so much to help castigate UFOs and all things weird and wonderful were positively beaming when they secured rights. First, BBC 2, (which achieved record-breaking audience figures) and then BBC 1. Who would have thought it?

A CAUTIONARY NOTE

Much as I enjoy the X-Files, and much as I enjoyed the thrills and spills of Independence Day, I cringed when some leading American UFO researchers trooped off to Rachel and Extraterrestrial Highway 375 in Nevada, to help publicise the premier of Independence Day. There intentions were doubtless admirable, but the media-circus which followed was not the slightest bit interested in delving further into UFOs and Area 51.

The same can be said of the vast number of media researchers and journalists who cross our paths on an almost daily basis. To them, it’s just another story or production, and tomorrow they move on.

Despite this, we must continue to work alongside them and hope to influence those at the younger end to be more charitable to the subject in the future.

It is only right and proper that some journalists play ‘Devil’s Advocate’ and rigorously challenge all that we claim. Also keep in mind there are other organisations and notable causes who would dearly love to receive only a fraction of the publicity afforded to UFOs – we should never forget that.

Ufology has come a long way these last 30 years, and so too has the means via which information is disseminated to the public at large.

Youngsters today can browse for UFO data on the Internet, leaf through numerous books and magazine titles, obtain dozens of videotapes, listen to audio cassette’s, or tune into a host of UFO-related television programmes.

It was never like that in my day, but good luck to them. I just hope they spare a thought for their predecessors, who worked tirelessly over many years to ‘make it so’.

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