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ASSAP History: 'Equipment'
by Val Hope

History Index

Media attention comes and goes. Our members have spoken to all sorts of groups, meetings and conferences, appeared on the radio and television, and been featured in newspapers and magazines. Many more requests for our help are received than we can possibly deal with. Back in 1981, just after ASSAP was launched, we got 120 responses from the public when Hilary Evans appeared on Radio Two’s John Dunn Show - they wanted either to join, to request information, to tell us about their experiences or to ask for an investigation. Jenny Randles made frequent radio appearances, including plugging ASSAP on BBC Radio Four’s Woman’s Hour on Christmas Eve one year. In 1983 Jenny began a series of shows covering a different aspect of the paranormal each week on Radio City, a commercial station reaching Merseyside, north-west England and north Wales. She split her hour between a chat to listeners and a phone-in. One week she got a phone call from pop singer Gerry Marsden, telling her about a UFO encounter while he was in his car in September 1980. You’ll never drive alone, Gerry!

In 1983 a daily tabloid newspaper published an article on ASSAP with contact details, and one weekend saw a crowd of about twenty volunteers at Hugh Pincott's Blackheath flat, working their way through a huge pile of correspondence from the newspaper's readers. Some of the cases were anecdotal, some so long ago that an investigation was out of the question, and just a small number seemed worth investigating.

Potential hazards

Jenny Randles recognized the danger of putting inexperienced people in stressful media situations. While we wanted to get ourselves known, she reminded us in ASSAP News that we did not want publicity at any cost. Even someone as experienced as author and investigator Peter Hough can have media trouble. He told ASSAP News in 1995 how a newspaper interview had taken an unexpected tack when his reference to alien big cats or ABCs was misinterpreted as extraterrestrial felines! The theme was also taken up by Channel 4's ‘Big Breakfast’ programme. Cherill Penton's recent ASSAP News article shows that misunderstandings and misrepresentation by the media are still rife. In 2005 Dorothy Hope was interviewed by BBC Radio Lancashire as part of an event in the Blackburn studio focussing on anomalies in Lancashire. In spite of the interviewer’s obstinate insistence that the paranormal was ‘big business’, she held her own and talked about ASSAP and her own experiences, which was what she had agreed to talk about. The moral of this story is that media people are likely to have their own agenda.

ASSAP on the telly

Not all involvement with the media leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Back in 1990 Clive Seymour wrote in ASSAP News about the Thames Television series ‘Stories in the Night’. ASSAP acted as consultant, and the fifteen programmes were largely balanced. However, Clive noted that we would have had a more prominent role in the production if we hadn’t insisted on our objective approach. Most of the names we put forward as ‘experts’ declined to take part because of the ‘for and against’ format of the shows. This passes for balance in the eyes of the media and, sixteen years on, it is still this confrontational approach that TV programmes prefer to take.

Phil and Chris Walton appeared on ‘Blue Peter’ and got their Blue Peter badges. Members from the local group that met in Hugh Pincott’s Blackheath flat were filmed by a Japanese film crew as they ran across the heath encumbered by equipment. The ASSAP panel at the first Fortean Times UnConvention in 1994 was filmed by Canadian TV. Mel Warren famously appeared on the BBC’s ‘Good Morning’ breakfast TV show in 1994 and was not intimidated by the jokey presentation into giving the silly answers that the interviewer wanted. With that experience under her belt she went on to appear on a number of chat shows on Talk Radio UK in 1995. ASSAP and BUFORA members were invited to form part of the studio audience during the BBC’s coverage of the Mars landings in 1997. We sat there while Clive Anderson chatted to Patrick Moore and we clapped in all the right places, but we played no part in the show.

Most approaches are made by cable TV channels or by independent writers and production companies trying to come up with an idea for a TV programme. There are so many TV hours to fill and so few good ideas to fill them with. Media Officer Dave Thomas used to say that the media had a particular telephone technique - you would answer the phone, and the person on the other end would announce that it was the BBC (or similar venerable body) and then leave a gap for you to swoon from the honour of being called by them. Maybe those were the golden days - nowadays we get emailed by companies we've never heard of with demands for access to active cases that can only be filmed right away.

As with the Canadian film, not all the programmes we are involved in get screened widely in the UK. In 1996 Phil Walton, Paul Rogers and Clive Seymour travelled down to Avebury to film footage for ‘Sightings’, a series produced by an American company that was due to be screened by Sky. This was followed directly by a photo shoot for The Times to illustrate ASSAP’s use of equipment. This is what led to Moonlight Night-Vision Equipment’s donation of equipment to ASSAP, as the front cover of the newspaper’s Science supplement featured their gear.

Dave Thomas got involved in the telly in 1997. Live TV series ‘The Y Files’ filmed Maidstone-based member Dennis Chambers in Pluckley, a village in Kent often boasting to be the most haunted in the UK. Dave went along to watch and reported that the assistant producer came away impressed with the advice available from ASSAP. In 1998 an ASSAP team was filmed at Coombe Abbey Hotel near Coventry for a Discovery Channel programme in which the presenter went around attending courses to learn about different activities. The site was suggested by local member Terry Hewitt.

International Affairs

Media Officer Dave Thomas got involved in international affairs in 1994-95. Dr Leo Sprinkle of the University of Wyoming, USA, led a UFO delegation to the UK. This formed part of the ‘People to People’ programme founded by US President Dwight D Eisenhower in 1956 to promote goodwill and understanding between citizens of the world community. Dave put his head together with Chris Walton and the programme’s London offices to come up with a tour based on Kent. The UFO enthusiasts were given a welcome pack with a prospectus, contact list and description of all the sites. The tour took them to Blue Bell Hill, Leeds Castle, Canterbury Cathedral, then up to London for an informal UFO debate with ASSAP and BUFORA members. Next evening saw them in Charlton House for an overnight vigil, and then they set off for Manchester for a tour of places of UFO interest guided by Jenny Randles and Peter Hough.

Fortean links

Our association with the world of Forteana goes way back, as Fortean Times’ Bob Rickard was an early member of ASSAP’s Executive. It has been a mutually beneficial connection, with the monthly magazine featuring ASSAP’s contributions to the UnConvention and Bob writing the entry for ASSAP to appear in a forthcoming Chambers dictionary of the unexplained.

ASSAP has regularly provided talks, experiments and entertainment to amuse attendees at the UnConvention, and the organizers have twice provided prizes for the winners of our psychic tests. Our involvement in the UnConvention regularly attracts media interest, not just from the TV and newspapers. In 2004 Val Hope was dragged off to a kitchen for an interview with BBC Radio Seven - that was the only quiet place in a very busy conference centre. However, no one has yet beaten Media Officer Catherine Crayford’s ASSAP record of three radio interviews in one day at the 1998 event. One of these was for the BBC World Service, with the journalist translating Catherine’s responses into Spanish for broadcast in Latin America.

When Croydon Council housed the FT’s ‘Of Monsters and Miracles’ exhibition in its Clocktower arts complex in 1995, ASSAP went along to the private viewing that launched the show. One display cabinet contained apports on loan from Alan Cleaver, produced during séances with Leicester medium Rita Gould in the 1980s. Uri Geller entertained the audience at the opening ceremony attended by members of the ASSAP Executive.
© Valerie Hope 2007