Before Ghostwatch there was another British TV programme which was massively controversial. One which not only fooled audiences across the nation, but scared them senseless as well. It was only shown once before falling into the forgotten realms of popular cultural ether. That programme was Alternative 3, a hoax science documentary made for ITV by Anglia TV.
Alternative 3 was broadcast in June 1977 as part of Science Report, a genuine strand of science TV; except here there was nothing genuine about it. Barring the presenter Tim Brinton (a well known face of the time, and a former Tory MP) everyone featured was an actor which should have been clear to viewers when they saw faces like Shane Rimmer, best known for being the token American on a number of British shows from Thunderbirds to Doctor Who and Coronation Street. But people were fooled, and scared enough to call in complaining which sparked a small outcry in the national press.
The programme was an investigation into the UK’s brain drain; something that was a real concern in the 70’s as skilled people were leaving the UK (then a fairly broken and ruined nation for a variety of reasons) to go elsewhere. But during the course of their investigations they discover scientists and other skilled people are not just leaving to go to say, Australia, but are vanishing off the face of the Earth. During the course of the programme’s investigations they discover the missing scientists are part of a joint USA/Soviet Union plan to populate Mars after discovering there’s US/Soviet bases on the dark side of the Moon. The surface of Earth was becoming uninhabitable with the oncoming second Ice Age, and climate change which forced global elites to consider three options.
The term ‘Alternative 3’ came from the third alternative posited by this secretive team. The first was a decimation of the planet’s population, the second the building of underground shelters to stay in while the climate corrected itself, and the third to leave Earth to travel to Mars to colonise it. Each alternative meant vast swathes of the population would be left to die while the elite of the world remained safe. The third option is the one the Americans and Soviets go for, and also it’s revealed that the two countries made a joint landing on Mars in 1962.
Of course, the entire programme was a hoax. Scheduled to go out on the 1st April, it couldn’t get a national slot for that time so went out in June, somewhat spoiling the April Fool’s prank it was. Broadcast with a presenter who was known and respected, with an argument which outwith of the April Fool context convinced hundreds of thousands of viewers in a hoax that was compared to Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds hoax.
As a programme Alternative 3 works brilliantly. Using a mix of stock footage, and carefully shot segments which mirror the style of documentaries of the time the show managed to scare people, but this is such a finely made hoax that its easy to imagine people being convinced in 1977 when the tricks of the media were less known that they are today. In fact, it’s impossible to imagine how such a hoax could happen today, which in no way detracts from such a finely made hoax. There’s even a superb Brian Eno soundtrack which later turned up on his Music For Films album the year later in 1978.
Like Ghostwatch, Alternative 3 was complained about yet fell into popular culture in this time before video recorders were even affordable or available thanks to the novelisation which was then considered to be actually real. It’s possible to trawl through the internet and see site after site which considers Alternative 3 to be part of some amazing global conspiracy which Anglia TV had got wind of and were trying to warn us. Total bollocks of course, but that’s conspiracy theories for you.
Also like Ghostwatch, it was impossible to get a commercially available copy of the programme as it was only broadcast once in the UK, though it was shown in countries elsewhere. For decades the only way you’d be able to see Alternative 3 was dodgy copies in various levels of unwatchability. A DVD was finally released in 2007, 30 years after that only broadcast. Alternative 3 played an essential part in the growth of the popularity of conspiracy theories, as well as programmes which used the format of television to subvert viewer expectations of what television could be. This was carried on with Ghostwatch, and then with properties like Chris Morris’ Brass Eye. That aside though, it works still as an effective scary conspiracy thriller made to look like an ordinary ITV documentary. Because of that it’s an important, and hugely fun, piece of television history.