- Alternative 3 (A3) was a 1978 TV Drama
Featuring A Science Documentary Team'S Investigation Of A Conspiracy Between
The Superpowers To Plant Colonies On The Other Planets. Many viewers took
it for a factual documentary. A later novel by Leslie Watkins based on
the screenplay, extended the confusion and enshrined A3 as a major strand
of modern conspiracy theory. In FT64 (1992) We published what we knew of
A3's genesis; now Nick Austin, who commissioned the A3 book, reveals his
part in a crank classic that has fooled thousands.
- Of course, Alternative 3 (A3) - the TV
documentary and the book - was a joke, a hoax, a spoof, a put-on, whatever.
No one in their right mind could have seen it as anything else, whether
at the time of the original television transmission on 20 June 1977 or
when the paperback book was published nine months later, in March 1978.
- The TV company concerned - Anglia TV
- had, after all, told the media in advance that this edition of Science
Report had originally been intended to go out on 1 April. (Certainly the
preview note that I had seen in the Sunday Times of the weekend before
had made this point.)
- And the internal evidence of the programme
itself - after the first few minutes - was pretty conclusive.
- I was working at the time as editorial
director of Sphere Books, the paperback imprint of the Thomson Organisation
book-publishing operation that was subsequently sold on to Penguin Books.
(In a later deal, Sphere was sold separately by Penguin to none other than
Robert Maxwell: get your teeth into that, conspiracy theorists.) Before
Sphere, I'd worked at Panther Books, an imprint of Granada Publishing which
had a market-leading science fiction list and a nicely commercial non-fiction
line in what we called, perhaps unkindly, 'crank cosmology': Ancient Mayans
and Aztecs buzzing around in flying saucers, UFOs launched from huge subterranean
bases beneath the polar ice caps - that kind of thing. While Sphere already
had a respectable science fiction list at the time I joined, I was concerned
to develop for the company a line of crank cosmology titles similar to
Panther's. Then as now, they were useful and reliable money-spinners for
publishers too often plagued by expensive marketplace uncertainties.
- So when Murray Pollinger - the respected
veteran literary agent - phoned me on the morning of 21 June 1977 to enquire
whether I'd seen Alternative 3 the previous evening and, if so, whether
I'd be interested in commissioning a book version, I jumped at the chance.
On the face of it, this might have seemed a bit odd. After all, it was
clear that the TV programme was going to be a one-off and that the tabloid
furore it had predictably generated was going to be a three-day wonder
at best. Even though the book would not have to be written entirely from
scratch - there was already a TV script to provide a basic framework, obviously
- it would have to be fleshed out considerably and written fast. To publish
it properly would mean a nine-month gestation period between TV transmission
and book publication.
- On the face of it, I was looking at a
TV tie-in to a one-off programme that had been transmitted nine months
before publication. Hardly the stuff of cutting-edge pulp-biz commercial
savvy, you'd think. And, in the normal run of things, you'd be right. But
there was something definitely different about A3 as a book proposition:
I was convinced that the sheer outrageousness of its concept gave it 'legs'
that would ensure a viable and financially rewarding life for it in its
own right. Fortunately, I was able to get my Sphere sales and marketing
colleagues to agree and I duly entered into negotiations with Pollinger.
- Mr. Pollinger - whose saturnine good
looks and classy accent could have easily got him a part as a senior MI5
or MI6 agent in any of the classic espionage movies, or TV series - had
lined up an experienced British journalist, Leslie Watkins, to do the novelisation
of A3. Mr Watkins was then working on the Daily Mail and was already the
author of several well-received thrillers. Once the deal had been struck,
he set to work with consummate professionalism and delivered the text of
the book version to me comfortably by the due date of early autumn 1977.
As one might expect, his typescript needed the barest minimum of editorial
work and went almost straight off to the typesetter.
- The cover blurb and inside first-page
copy was a joy to write: "Life on Earth is doomed... horrifying full
story behind the explosive TV documentary... most astounding and frightening
conspiracy ever... full awesome horror... the grim bite of terrible truth
- a truth which is sure to be denied," etc. I realised at the time
that the original back-cover categorisation - "World Affairs/Speculation"
- was a bit cheeky but what the hell, I thought, why not get into the goddamned
spirit of this thing?
- At this point I'd better admit that my
motives in taking on the book version of A3 were mixed. They weren't just
commercial; ever since I'd first read the late, great Terry Southern's
The Magic Christian in the mid-1960s I'd wanted a chance - just one chance
- to take part in a Guy Grand-style prank. Those of you who've had the
pleasure of reading The Magic Christian - a short novel with a natural
built-in appeal to most Fortean Times readers, I'd imagine - will recall
that 'Grand' Guy Grand is an outwardly gentle billionaire who loves to
spend huge sums of money on 'making it hot for people' by staging a succession
of truly outrageous large-scale practical jokes.
- A3 seemed to me to offer the best chance
I'd ever be likely to get to participate in a hoax of truly Guy Grand proportions
- the best thing of its kind since Orson Welles's War of the Worlds radio
broadcast [see FT120]. How could I resist? I couldn't, of course.
- March 1978 came and with it publication
of the Sphere edition of Alternative 3 at a cover price of just 95p - pretty
standard in those days for a regular rack-size paperback, 240 pages long
and with no illustrations. The most recent edition (1994) was published
by Warner Books, the main paperback imprint of Little, Brown (UK), the
company that acquired Sphere and a number of other Robert Maxwell publishing
properties in the chaotic wake of Maxwell's disappearance. At the time
of A3's original publication, no particularly special effort was made to
promote it. Then, as now, publishers' big marketing budgets were reserved
for major lead titles and that spring Sphere had more than its fair share
of bestsellers to look after - Close Encounters of the Third Kind (coincidentally
- or was it? - the movie opened in the UK that same month) among them.
- I had been looking forward with keen
anticipation to a flood of letters from the green-and-purple-ink brigade
in the weeks following publication of A3 and was disappointed and puzzled
when, apparently, this failed to materialise.
- I say 'apparently' because I learned,
a few weeks later, that there had indeed been a deluge of letters and phone
calls from 'concerned members of the public' but my zealously protective
secretary - whose first job in publishing this was, God help her - had
been concerned not to bother me. She considered, reasonably enough, that
this was a bizarre overkill response to just one of our new titles in a
busy season; so she fielded the input of impassioned queries, pleas for
more information and suchlike with heroic patience.
- Finally, the pressure had become too
much for even this stalwart operator (who went on subsequently to a distinguished
career of her own as a commissioning editor). She turned to me for some
background detail on the book, the better to cope with the ongoing hassles
of dealing with callers and correspondents convinced either that Sphere
had daringly exposed a monstrous conspiracy by the government against its
citizens or, somehow, was actually part of that same conspiracy. Or both
at once. I was mightily relieved at this evidence of the desired response.
- I was also delighted when, within weeks
of publication, those rumours that have since become an integral part of
the A3 mythology began to feed back into the Sphere offices. The lock-up
garage "somewhere in North London" stuffed with printers' packs
of the first edition... the pulping on government orders of that same first
printing... the clandestine buying up from wholesalers and retailers by
secret agents of all available unsold stock (new vistas of lucrative no-risk
publishing began to reveal themselves to me)... wondrous stuff, all of
it. Crazed, delusional - but pure magic, all the same - and, it cannot
be too strongly stressed, genuinely spontaneous. Sphere had neither the
time nor the resources to generate this kind of widespread whispering-campaign
marketing effort. Anyway, there was obviously no need to.
- The only unwelcome 'governmental' attention
that came Sphere's way because of A3 took the mind-numbingly tedious form
of a couple of (not very serious) threats of legal action from some provincial
local authority Trading Standards Officers. These gents, acting as a result
of protests lodged with them by members of the public who had failed signally
to enter into the spirit of the affair, took exception to the use of the
back-cover categorisation "World Affairs/Speculation". They claimed
that this was a blatant misrepresentation of what was clearly a work of
fiction. My basic publisher's reflex response - deny any and all liability
- came swiftly into play here. But an even more basic reflex (to do with
discretion as the better part of you know what) also kicked in: on future
A3 reprints the categorisation was changed - in a deliberate attempt to
confuse the issue still further - to "World Affairs/Fiction".
(This has been changed again, sensibly enough, to plain "General Fiction"
on the current Warner Books edition.)
- My main attempt to enter, personally,
into the spirit of things backfired badly and reflects absolutely no credit
on me. A couple of months or so after A3's first publication, a letter
on official headed paper from an address in Dublin arrived at the Sphere
offices in Gray's Inn Road. Its complaint was essentially the same as that
made by the Trading Standards Officers - namely, that the back-cover categorisation
was grossly misleading. More seriously, the writer of this letter claimed,
it (the categorisation) could cause alarm and distress to those of the
proverbial nervous disposition - elderly folk, for example. Whereas the
writer himself was (of course) able to see A3 for what it was - a clever
piece of fiction - nonetheless he was concerned for those of his constituents
who might not be able to make the same distinction and who therefore might
become upset at the horrific 'facts' exposed.
- And so on. Fair enough point, when you
think about it. The trouble was, I didn't think about it. Not hard enough,
anyway. I showed the letter around the office to my editorial colleagues.
"What the f-- does he mean, 'my constituents'?" I asked.
- One of my long-suffering co-workers raised
his eyebrows in mild disbelief at this (perfectly genuine) display of crass
ignorance and pointed to the two letters - TD - after the writer's name.
"Come on, Nick," he chided gently. "Surely you..."
But I didn't know these initials stood for Teachta Dála; he was
the Irish equivalent of a member of parliament.
- "Live and learn, eh?" says
I. "Well, looks like we've got a live one here. Pity he's not one
of our own Westminster bastards but I guess he'll have to do."
- I returned to my cluttered desk, tucked
my tongue firmly into my cheek and drafted a reply in which I rejected
the TD's assertion that A3 was a work of fiction. I wrote that, while Sphere
had not received one word of complaint or denial from any British government
source about the book concerned, this silence was in itself ominous. Could
it not be that, even now, the covert agencies accused in A3 were preparing
'terminal retribution' (I was particularly proud of that phrase, for some
reason) against those responsible for their exposure?
- This was bad enough. Worse was to come.
While my colleagues clustered nervously around, I borrowed a lighted cigarette
from my secretary and burnt a curving row of carefully spaced 'bullet'
holes across my reply to the TD. Finally, feeling that a crowning touch
was required - dredging up hazy memories of Ian Fleming's Live and Let
Die ("Which finger do you use least, Mr Bond?") - I nicked the
tip of the little finger of my left hand with my penknife and smeared a
few drops of blood around the simulated bulletholes. My editorial team-mates
backed nervously away to their own desks. "That should shut him up,"
I cackled, waving my reply around to dry the blood before folding up the
mutilated document and sealing it into an envelope.
- How wrong I was. The subsequent silence
from that particular quarter was indeed ominous - and relatively brief.
The next thing I knew, the affronted TD had written directly to the head
of the Thomson Organisation, Lord Kenneth Thomson himself, to complain
in surprisingly restrained terms about the gross lack of respect to his
position that I had displayed. He was right: I had behaved excessively
and there really was no excuse. (I'd have felt less contrite if it had
been a Westminster MP on the receiving end of my 'wit', though.)
- With a heavy heart, I drafted my letter
of resignation, thinking of myself as the only genuine A3 victim and that
by my own hand - or by my own little finger, at any rate. But I had not
counted on the tolerance and friendship of Sphere's then managing director,
the late and much lamented Edmund Fisher. Edmund would have none of my
attempt to resign. He wrote directly to the TD concerned, explaining the
spoof nature of the whole A3 business and presented my behaviour as an
over-enthusiastic and sadly misguided attempt to carry its spirit over
into real life, behaviour that warranted admonishment rather than dismissal.
- The TD's reply to this civilised defence
of the indefensible was wonderfully magnanimous. Accepting all Edmund's
points, he went so far as to say that, on reflection, he took heart from
the incident because it showed that there was room for a sense of humour
within the outwardly impersonal and monolithic Thomson Organisation! A
truly Irish response, in the best possible sense.
- A3 has been through at least seven reprints.
It remains in print over 20 years after its first publication - possibly
because it is the only version available, since there appears never to
have been a commercial video release. The original TV programme and the
book have generated an article once before in Fortean Times - FT64 (September/
October 1992) - and other pieces in journals as diverse as New Scientist
and The Unopened Files. There has even been Jim Keith's Casebook on Alternative
3: UFOs, Secret Societies and World Control (IllumiNet Press, 1994).
- Why a clever hoax, openly admitted to
be such by its creators, should continue to exercise the fascination it
so obviously does the best part of a generation after its first appearance
is beyond my feeble powers of analysis and explanation. After my woefully
misjudged attempt to add my personal touch to the developing A3 mythology,
I just sat back and enjoyed the sales.
- Additional material by Jane Watkins and