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Flying saucers over East Acton

Eyes to the skies, dear listener! (Or would it be 'ears'?)

On 30 October 1938, the Columbia Broadcasting Network in the US aired Orson Welles’ production of The War of the Worlds, a radio adaption of HG Wells’ famous novel.

The adaptation – which is available on YouTube, and is well worth a listen – began as newsflash-style interruptions to a dance music programme, before Orson Welles took over the narrative as an on-the-scene reporter.

The broadcast caused panic among some listeners. NPR’s Radiolab ran a feature in 2013 describing how there were 12 million listeners to the programme, with 1 in 12 thinking the broadcast was true and fleeing their homes. This story has often been repeated by many sources, but it’s unlikely that the panic was quite so widespread – according to official figures, the programme received far fewer listeners than this.

Fast-forward to 4 December 1953, and the Goons managed to cause a very similar mini-panic among some BBC listeners. Larry Stephens’ script for episode 10 of the fourth series included a storyline involving a flying saucer, and while no recordings exist of this show, contemporary newspaper reports detail how some listeners were somewhat alarmed when Wallace Greenslade apparently interrupted the show:

“We must apologise for interrupting the programme, but a mysterious light has been seen over East Acton. If anyone can identify the object, will they please phone the Defence Board – Milthorpe 0203.”

(quoted from Daily Mirror article, ‘Goon Show’s Flying Saucer Shook The Listeners’, from 5 December 1953)

Later in the show, Greenslade returned to say:

“The mysterious light in the sky is now believed to be a flying saucer… Will listeners seeing any strange light please phone the Defence Board at Milthorpe 0203.”

(quoted from Daily Mirror article, ‘Goon Show’s Flying Saucer Shook The Listeners’, from 5 December 1953)

According to Clifford Davis, writing in the Daily Mirror the day after the broadcast, further announcements tracked the flying saucer heading towards the North Pole, while other articles cited fictional place names such as Spadger’s End, Dredgham/Dredgon, and Flubely Wick.

There was no such thing as the Defence Board, nor was there a telephone exchange at Milthorpe – obviously. But that didn’t stop people phoning the BBC in confusion.

Julie Warren, author of the Larry Stephens biography It's All In The Mind, cites this line, presumably uttered by Greenslade: “We must apologise for interrupting the programme but a mysterious light – alleged to be a flying saucer – has been reported in the sky over East Acton. Will any listener able to confirm this report please telephone the defence board immediately at Fitzroy 1136.”

Whatever the exact phrasing, it caused a bit of a kerfuffle. Davis quoted a BBC spokesperson as saying: “Unfortunately a number of people took the interruptions seriously. We apologised to them when they phoned and pointed out that it was announced in the Radio Times that the programme was a recording.”

As Greenslade himself once said, the Radio Times never lies.

One listener was not in the least bit amused, however. A letter from an R T Welsh of Sowerby Bridge, published in the Yorkshire Evening Post on 11 December 1953, reads:

I like a good joke, at the right place and time, but I do not think it funny when the BBC butt into a programme to say a flying saucer is heading north, and asking people to report it. This happened in last week’s Goon Show. On duty till midnight at a radio relay station, I was checking programmes when I suddenly heard this announcement. I ran outside with all kinds of ideas in my head to help the BBC and report anything I saw. I practically broke my neck as I missed my footing on the step, but continued watching the sky, with my nerves shaking. If the BBC want to play a practical joke, they should think first about how people will react.

Whether Larry Stephens actually intended to play such a prank on listeners is unknown. What is known, however, is that senior bods at the Beeb were unamused. Some were “apoplectic”, according to Warren, and responded with - brace yourself, dear reader - memos.

The BBC had apparently changed its policy after the War Of The Worlds incident to stop anyone broadcasting SOS messages or warnings that could be mistaken for official communications. In the wake of this Goon Show episode, a new directive was issued reminding everyone of this policy. The majority of Greenslade's interruptions were cut from the repeat, Warren writes.

As far as ‘The Flying Saucer Mystery’ is concerned, the strange lights in the sky ended up above the North Pole, where presumably they discovered Eccles filling in for Santa Claus.


Title: The Flying Saucer Mystery

Series 4, Episode 10

Written by: Larry Stephens

Producer: Peter Eton

Note: ‘The Flying Saucer Mystery’ isn’t actually the ‘official’ title of this episode. In Roger Wilmut’s exhaustive Goonography, he explains that the title given on the BBC Script Library copy is ‘The Adventures of Fearless Harry Secombe’, a title it shares with episode eight of the same series. So this title is, in fact, invented by Wilmut. He put in so much work I believe he’s entitled to name a few episodes himself.

(Photo by Lucas Pezeta from Pexels)

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