Updated: Feb 25
At 5.06pm on Saturday 26 November 1977, several million British viewers to Southern Television watched in amazement as the sound of the national ITN early evening news, read by Andrew Gardener, faded away to be replaced by a creepy, distorted voice delivering a remarkable message for nearly six minutes. The event prompted hundreds of telephone calls from concerned members of the public. Winchester police said some people were very frightened by the hoax message and said that they even sent an officer to calm down one woman.
The message claimed to be a communication from an entity identifying itself Vrillon (or sometimes reported as Asteron, Asta, Gramaha or Gillon), representing a body called the Ashtar Galactic Command (or in early accounts The Intergalactic Mission). The essence of the message was simple; we humans had to give up our warlike ways and embrace a more peaceful existence… before it was too late. The predictable stuff aliens keep telling us. (The extended transcript is here.) By the time the message ended, the news had finished. It was followed by a scheduled cartoon and normal transmissions resumed. This intriguing event was widely reported in British and American newspapers.
The timing of the intrusion, being just after the start of the early evening bulletin, rather than during entertainment programmes, assured a significant audience of serious, well-informed viewers.
Later that evening the TV network apologised for “a
breakthrough in sound” for viewers in southern England. Despite reports that “UK government agencies were frantically trying to block the signal” nothing of the kind occurred. An embarrassed IBA (the commercial broadcasting regulator at the time) launched an investigation. They soon realised how the hoax was achieved, but not who did it.
The above video is widely assumed to be a recording of the event. But it isn’t. It’s an interesting, but inaccurate re-enactment despite its visible date stamp. At the start of the video you can hear the Saturday night ITN news being read by Andrew Gardener (although sometimes identified as Ivor Mills), yet the person in shot is Cliff Mitchelmore who is shown presenting the Southern Television regional news programme “Day By Day”. Cliff Michelmore didn't present this programme until about 1980 which was broadcast weekdays only at 6pm. Three reasons why the video is not genuine.
The video also shows the vision being severely disrupted, but during the event this was not the case. And of course there was no transcript visible on screen at the time either, the text of which didn’t emerge until some years later.
Despite these facts, this clumsy video re-enactment is still peddled as proof that the Ashtar Galactic Command were indeed behind this exploit simply because no hoaxers have ever come forward. There is also the widespread belief that it was too difficult a task in 1977 for mere humans to break into a TV signal like that.
So why would any galactic organisation bother to inform just the good citizens of Berkshire, Hampshire and bits Wiltshire of humanity’s failings? And if they’d come this far, why didn’t they bring a camera to increase the impact of their mighty message?
The reason why those three counties were targeted reveals a great deal about how this hoax was achieved. This part of southern England is served by the powerful TV transmitter at Hannington, on the North Hampshire Downs between Newbury and Basingstoke. At the time there were three smaller TV relay transmitters picking up Hannington’s signal and rebroadcasting it to fill in a few gaps in coverage. However, Hannington was unique in that it was the only large transmitter to get its signal feed off-air from another TV transmitter. Usually all main transmitters get their signal either from underground cable feeds or secure microwave links from the studios, but Hannington received its BBC1, BBC2 and ITV signals from the powerful transmitter at Rowridge on the Isle of Wight to rebroadcast across much of southern England.
In the analogue days of TV, the vision and sound were transmitted separately. A quirk of the sound signal (known as the FM capture effect) means that it was relatively easy to drive up and park near Hannington and “swamp” the ITV/Southern TV sound signal from Rowridge with a small, battery-operated transmitter fed with a pre-recorded message from an audio cassette player. Doing the same with the vision signal would have been much more challenging.
I suspect any mischievous radio hobbyists would know this and find it all a bit of a lark. It’s not surprising no one has come forward as the purveyors of this jolly jape would have committed a number of serious offences.
It appears that the BBC equipment at the Hannington transmitter had some technical properties preventing this sort of hijacking.
All the features of this story are scattered around the internet, books and magazines (notably the winter 1977 Fortean Times, issue 24) and I think I have pulled most of the elements together here, while straightening out some of the inaccuracies. However, there are still a number of loose ends.
For example, I was unable to find the source of the recreated video recording. It clearly isn’t a home recording of the actual event because of the inconsistencies I’ve already described. (Although domestic video recorders were just becoming available by 1977.) Various reports link the recreation to a children’s TV programme called “It’s a Mystery” aired on 11 January 1999, and although this event is covered in that episode, the video in question isn’t used.
During an interview on LBC in December 1977, the late Sir John Whitmore (famous racing driver and life coach with an interest in psychic phenomena), claimed to have viewed a recording of the complete hijacking. However, he didn’t explain where or how he acquired it. If the recording still exists it has never been accessible for public viewing.
Then there’s the sound track. Where did that come from? Southern Television would keep sound and vision recordings of programmes that left the studios, but of course they wouldn’t include anything inserted into the transmission chain after that. Although possible, it seems pretty unlikely that anyone would make an audio recording from their TV - especially a recording that started at the beginning capturing the whole thing. Unless of course they were expecting it…
And there’s the mystery of the transcript. Who created that? Who would have had the presence of mind to write it down as it was broadcast? In fact it seems that the transcript used in the video came to light some years later - at last three years later when it was included in the video showing Cliff Mitchelmore, who it’s been established didn’t even present "Day By Day" at the time of the hoax. There is also a shorter, different, much earlier version of Vrillon’s speech. It remains a remains a mystery who released either of these texts.
The whole story is a classic example of a real incident being exaggerated, spun and misreported, the misreports being repeated without checking and with the predictable feature of extra elements emerging years later when the original story starts to run out of steam. Then there are the diehard alien believers who choose aliens over the technical details they don’t understand.
This is the only major intrusion into a British TV broadcast. But in the US Max Headroom has made a couple of unscheduled appearances on TV stations. The first one during the WGN sports news on 22 November 1987, and the second on the same day a couple of hours later on WWTW during a “Dr Who” episode.
Not long after the Hannington prank, steps were taken to prevent it from happening again. But with analogue TV now having been replaced with digital transmissions, such escapades are now virtually impossible. Unless that is, you have at your disposal the technology of Vrillon and the Ashatar Galactic Command…