Monsters; Amiable, Intelligent and Daft as Brushes

Nigel Watson
Magonia 30, August 1988

This title is taken from a Daily Mail preview of a television documentary about unidentified flying objects (UFOs) and it refers to the UFO experts included in the programme. Certainly there was a good deal of justification for such an attitude since the hour-long Out of this World documentary, broadcast by the BBC on 10 May 1977, did portray UFO experts as harmless cranks.

The very beginning of it shows two men, reminiscent of the Peter Cooke, Dudley Moore comedy duo 'Dud and Pete', ambling across fields and hills with what looks like a Buck Rogers ray gun. Their bizarre search for UFOs with this exotic device was used as the cover illustration for that week’s edition of the Radio Times.

By featuring these two characters so strongly the audience was primed to expect a collection of nutters giving voice to silly beliefs that do not conform to scientific concepts, or even everyday notions, of reality. This tactic was even more devious when we consider that the UFO experts featured in the rest of the programme had never heard of 'Dud and Pete'. Indeed, it is suspected that they were actors used to brighten up the opening of the programme.

As might be expected in a subject area like UFOs there are a fair number of publicity seekers and/or people who have very unusual points of view. It is legitimate to feature them and Hugh Burnett’s documentary has no qualms in presenting the 'holes in the poles' hypothesis (which posits that UFOs come from the centre of the Earth) and the activities of the quasi-religious Aetherius Society.

Unfortunately, even if the voice-over narration explained that there are people who have carefully and scientifically examined the evidence for UFOs the effects of the opening sequence would still contaminate the viewer’s mind.

By featuring these two characters so strongly the audience was primed to expect a collection of nutters giving voice to silly beliefs that do not conform to scientific concepts, or even everyday notions, of reality
The editor of what at that time was the world’s most respected UFO journal, Flying Saucer Review, certainly felt that he had been “sent up”. In his capacity as editor, Charles Bowen, and two editorial consultants, Gordon Creighton and Jonathan Caplan, were each interviewed for an hour. They did not know which parts of these interviews would be used or their context so they were understandably distraught when: “We heard how wives and daughters, convulsed with laughter, had rolled helplessly out of their chairs, and how others had, in disgust, switched to another channel after suffering the first few minutes (of this documentary).” (1)

What made things worse was that they had regarded Hugh Burnett as a serious producer, likely to present the subject in a reasonable fashion. Having seen a previous documentary of his on the Loch Ness Monster, they expected a similarly thoughtful treatment. At a time when the texts of 39 UFO programmes broadcast by Radio France-Inter were translated into English (2) and the Spanish air force was making its UFO files available, Charles Bowen suspected that the BBC (perhaps due to government pressure) was covering up the truth about UFOs.

John Rimmer, the editor of the still-respectable MUFOB journal (now titled Magonia) was more pragmatic about the programme. He observed that “Television is an entertainment medium and, sadly for us, nutters on hilltops are far more entertaining than 'serious research' … As far as television is concerned, ufology is on a hiding to nowhere, and it’s because of showbiz, not sinister silencers!” (3)

Yet, the documentary did seem to start out as a serious attempt to examine the UFO subject. Jenny Randles, a UFO researcher and writer, noted that:
My first contact with Hugh Burnett was in July 1976, when he first mooted the idea of the programme, having had lunch with Charles Bowen and others at Flying Saucer Review. Since then we have been in constant communication until late 1976 (during filming) and on and off ever since. Last summer he spent a few days in Manchester with Peter Warrington and myself. We both found him sincere, interested and dedicated towards producing a straightforward film. Right until screening I would have been quite sure we would be treated fairly. On the Friday before transmission I had a long conversation with him, and he was able to discuss very knowledgeably theories of UFO origin. There is no doubt that he did his homework.” (4)
The original programme was meant to be 45 minutes long but it was extended to 60 minutes. Rather than use this time to include interviews with two American UFO experts who were in Britain at that time (5) or with the French Minister of Defence who in the Radio France-Inter broadcasts had shown an interest in the subject, the programme preferred to concentrate on the more sensational activities of the Aetherius Society. This consisted of the group’s disciples praying to a box on a hilltop. Rather than a sinister cover-up it seems that Hugh Burnett needed to get away from talking heads. The antics of the more sensational groups helped liven up the show even though they undermined the very enterprise of examining sensibly and rationally a subject that has baffled thousands of people since World War II.

The very title of the programme, Out Of This World, referred more to the people featured in it rather than to UFOs and aliens from ‘out there.

The end result of this programme and many others like it, is that anyone who is at all interested in pursuing this subject (or is already pursuing it) is branded by association and implication with the “lunatic fringe”. In addition, anyone who might see a strange object in the sky is more likely to refrain from reporting it for fear of ridicule.

Rather than use ridicule the next major BBC television documentary on UFOs included experts who were confidently able to explain the UFO cases featured in the programme.

This time the producer, John Groom, seems to have had a bigger budget than Hugh Burnett since most of the interviews were shot in the USA. His justification for this was that there are no UFO experts in Britain. Before its screening on the night of 18 October 1982 in the Horizon series, part of 'The Case of the UFOs' was seen by the British ufologist Paul Devereux. He was not too impressed; he said that:
I had a conversation with the producer, John Groom, and I am afraid it became a little heated. He is an Oxbridge Beeb type, very superior, confident that he alone sees the whole UFO biz clearly and when pushed feels there is no objective reality to the UFO phenomenon but patronisingly thinks that the fact that many people do think so is of interest itself.” (6)
In the USA the documentary was re-edited under the supervision of a sceptic and was broadcast in the Nova series slot on the night of 12 October 1982. In an article in Flying Saucer Review, Dr J Allen Hynek pointed out that footage that tended to support the importance and validity of UFO cases was glossed over or totally omitted. (7) Certainly the British version was similarly criticised for containing explanations and theories that ufologists were all too well aware of. (7)

Hynek stated that “We need a documentary that fairly presents the nature of the UFO phenomenon, its global occurrence, and portrays the witnesses as something more than gullible fools; a documentary that will examine what is observed, by whom, where, when, and which will present fairly, in the time allowed, a sufficient number of cases, each representing hundreds of documented cases like it.” (8)

As far as I know, no such documentary has been made. There are several reasons for this. In terms of economics it is hard for a producer to shoot material in several countries that might give a fair indication of the global nature of UFOs. Given the fact that most television documentary units regard the subject of UFOs with contempt, scepticism, or as irrelevant, it is very difficult to actually make such a programme within one country anyway.
Whether or not we believe that UFOs and little green men are visiting our planet the treatment by the television medium has been far from fair
Being a visual medium, such programmes will feature any movie film or photographs of UFOs even if ufologists do not give much credit to them (or are willing to do so in order to get on to television). Although there are a considerable number of well-documented cases it is difficult to present them on camera. A witness describing their experience to an interviewer does not provide much visual excitement or interest.

If the experience is re-enacted the problem of constructing special effects to reproduce what was seen can prove beyond the producer’s technical and financial resources. In the end it is far more interesting to show the more eccentric people who build wonderful UFO detectors or psychically charge mountains even if they are totally unrepresentative of the people who are mainly interested in studying this subject. (9)

Whether or not we believe that UFOs and little green men are visiting our planet the treatment by the television medium has been far from fair. Partly this is due to the allegiance to the styles and forms that are believed to be 'good television'.

At the root of the problem is the belief that television should be the guardian and bastion of knowledge. Television perpetuates the myth that science is all knowing and understanding. This is maintained via such programmes as Tomorrow’s World which shows the direct application of scientific principles to everyday situations. In more abstract and problematic areas of scientific research, documentary series such as Horizon usually show how scientists propose to answer these questions via their existing research programmes and projects.

The scientist, or more often the teams of scientists and researchers who are busily beavering away in their laboratories, rarely directly address the television audience. Instead, television personalities mediate their knowledge to us (e.g. Patrick Moore has been the spokesman for astronomy and related subjects since the 1950s on British television) or experts become 'entertaining' personalities themselves (e.g. Carl Sagan, Mary Beard and Brian Cox). Such tactics hide the complexities, controversies and ignorance of science.

Many of the people investigating UFO cases believe in the principles of science, and advocate more scientific research into the subject. Indeed, in the past few years more scientists have shown a lively interest in the matter and have conducted research in this field. But because this work has not been incorporated into the larger body of scientific concepts and beliefs it maintains its loony fringe status. Television usually reflects this status and, as we have seen, highlights and exaggerates its loony aspects.
As a consequence it reinforces the dominant ideology of our society and culture. This underlying ideology extols the virtues of science and technology which is the product of rational, logical, sober thinking, and clinical production processes. (10)

Although the efforts of the Aetherius Society are “funny” to the scientific and rational UFO investigators and researchers, as well as to most viewers, we should understand why this is the case. The ironic and contradictory point is that a belief in flying saucers is a type of religion that venerates technology. (11) At the same time it is a reaction against human science and technology – the atomic bomb, pollution, etc.

The majority believe, or are meant to believe, in the great oracle of truth and wisdom: television – whereas those ridiculed by it believe in a greater technological and scientific force – the flying saucers.

Notes and References
  1. Bowen, Charles. “Alarm Bells Ringing”, Flying Saucer Review (FSR), Vol. 23, No. 3, 1977, p. 2. See also: Bowen, Charles. “That BBC Documentary”, FSR, Vol. 23, No. 1, 1977, p. 6
  2. Bourret, Jean-Claude (trans. Gordon Creighton). The Crack in the Universe, Neville Spearman, 1977
  3. Rimmer John. “Notes, Quotes and Queries”, MUFOB New Series, No. 7, 1971, p. 14
  4. Randles, Jenny. “Out of this world – or out of his depth?”, Northern UFO News, No. 37, 1977, pp 1-2
  5. One of these was Dr J. Allen Hynek who was used by Steven Spielberg as a consultant for his film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Indeed the title was inspired by Hynek’s UFO coding system.
  6. Randles, Jenny. “Up and coming”, Northern UFO News, No. 97, 1982, p. 3
  7. Hynek, J. Allen. “Nova and UFOs”, FSR, Vol. 28, No. 3, 1983, pp 2-3
  8. Randles, Jenny. “Glimmers of light on the horizon”, Northern UFO News, No. 98, 1982, pp 1-2
  9. This type of lust for sensation was particularly evident when I attended the recording of a programme about out-of-the-body experiences on 19 September 1984. The set featured a mock Grecian temple and the presenter in a bright pink dress spent several minutes revealing a garter on her leg to a photographer (presumably for newspaper and magazine publicity). The session began with the playback of a video tape of a woman singing a banal song that repeated the title of the show 'Do you believe it?' The rest of the programme consisted of relatively straightforward and sensible interviews and discussion about the subject. Obviously somebody thought that the bitter pill of facts needed sugaring! Fortunately, as far as I know, the programme was never broadcast. See: Northern UFO News, No. 109, 1984, pp 2-3.
  10. Television itself is a manifestation of the great power of science and technology.
  11. Erich von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods, London, Corgi, 1971, and other God was an astronaut type books make this point abundantly clear. Basically UFO believers want to transcend human science, whereas UFO investigators/researchers want to incorporate this belief into the scientific mainstream.