With the publication of “Encounter in Rendlesham Forest”, the book that John Burroughs, Jim Penniston and I co-wrote about the Rendlesham Forest incident, Britain’s most famous and compelling UFO encounter is once again receiving major mainstream media coverage. “Encounter in Rendlesham Forest” is being put out by Thomas Dunne Books, part of the giant Macmillan publishing house – one of the so-called “Big Six” in the literary world. But in this article, I’m not going to talk about the UFO event that has been dubbed “Britain’s Roswell”, or about the book. To give people an entirely new perspective, I want to come at the subject from an entirely different angle, and detail what happened on some of the various occasions that I’ve filmed TV interviews in Rendlesham Forest. This will be a comparatively lighthearted, anecdote-based article, but relating these stories will hopefully illustrate a few more serious points about the incident, about ufology, and about media coverage of the UFO phenomenon more generally.
I’m not going to attempt to give a definitive, chronological list of shows. Nor am I going to list times when I’ve discussed the Rendlesham Forest incident on news bulletins (e.g. in relation to my involvement with the declassification and release of the MoD’s UFO files), chat shows or documentaries where I’m in a TV studio. Frankly, there are far too many (well over a hundred, I suspect) to list, and many of the interviews cover broadly similar ground. So I’m going to focus on the occasions where I’ve actually filmed on location in Rendlesham Forest. Even here, it won’t be a definitive list. Again, I’ve probably filmed in the forest well over a dozen times, and inevitably, there’s been some overlap. Rather, I want to pick out a few anecdotes, so as to give people a flavour of the sort of things that go on in the media world, which won’t necessarily be readily apparent from watching the finished TV shows. Hopefully, readers will appreciate this behind-the-scenes look at how the media works, even if it comes across as a somewhat disjointed series of stories.
For outside broadcasts, I’ve been used in a number of different roles. Given that I now work as a journalist and broadcaster myself, I’ve sometimes acted as the presenter, sometimes as the presenter’s friend (a role where you facilitate the discussion by talking with the main host in a particularly chatty way, as if you’re old friends), sometimes as the lead contributor, other times as a standard contributor, and sometimes as the reporter, doing the straight-to-camera live broadcast:
“This is Nick Pope, live from Rendlesham Forest, where back in December 1980 …”
Bear in mind that if you’ve seen me do that sort of thing on a breakfast TV show, at 7am, the chances are that I was up at 3am or 4am (even if I was staying in a local hotel), rehearsing the piece with the film crew, with all of us being pretty tired, cold and miserable. The TV industry isn’t always quite as glamourous as some people may think!
On the theme of TV not being the glamorous industry it’s sometimes portrayed as, I should probably start off by mentioning three factors that have a bearing on just about all outside broadcasts: the weather, noise, and passers by.
Few places in the UK are colder than the East coast of England in the wintertime, and if you look at some videos of me at Bentwaters, e.g. the episode of “UFO Hunters” that was devoted to the case, you’ll see that warm weather clothing is essential. One seldom films in the rain at all, as the lens gets wet and the light tends to vary too much if there are showers, but if the only issue is the cold, you just have to get on with it. The secret is to find a really stylish but warm coat – you don’t want to wear too many layers, as you end up looking overly bulky (accepted wisdom is that people already look a little chunkier on TV than in real life, so you don’t want to compound the effect). It sometimes helps to wear a hat, gloves and scarf in between takes, and then remove items such as the scarf just before the cameras roll – though you have to keep an eye on continuity and ensure, for example, that you don’t end up wearing an item of clothing in one shot, but not in the next. Incidentally, on the subject of clothing, there are often strict rules about what you can and can’t wear on TV, e.g. no branded clothes and no ‘busy’ patterns such as stripes that are too close together. I always check with the researcher/production assistant well beforehand, but there have been some surreal moments, e.g. the time when a production company decided they wanted me to go with my ‘Man from the Ministry’ image and wear a suit. That sort of thing is fine if I’m on Newsnight, but it looked decidedly odd walking around a forest dressed for the office!
Noise is a problem for most outdoor shoots (and some indoor ones too!) and while people might think a rural area like Rendlesham Forest is better than a city, background noise in the country (e.g. from a passing aircraft) actually stands out far more than background noise in the city, and can often lead to halts in filming.
The same is true with passers by walking into the shot. On several occasions I’ve had to walk slowly and purposefully away from the East Gate of RAF Woodbridge, towards the camera (a dramatic shot that directors love), only to hear “cut”, look behind me, and find that a dog-walker has wandered into the shot at the last moment. Getting a simple piece of B-roll footage (supplementary shots filmed to establish a character and/or location, and slotted between material shot in the main interview) can often take a long time to film. Children can present particular challenges, and the fact that there’s a children’s area by the car park/camp site at the beginning of the “UFO Trail” in Rendlesham Forest leads to the inevitable “Hey mister, are you making a film?”, or other such questions. I always respond in a polite and friendly way, of course, and unlike some TV folk I could mention, I never refuse an autograph request.
I mentioned dog walkers, but Rendlesham Forest has another wildlife challenge that one doesn’t often encounter on a shoot. I was doing a “walk and talk” along one of the main forest tracks with a film crew one summer’s day, when suddenly there was a loud yell. I looked around and saw one of the crew frozen on the spot, looking fearfully ahead. He’d nearly trodden on a snake that had been basking in the summer sunshine. It was an adder, and could have given him a nasty bite. This is a good example of why TV companies must apply to the Forestry Commission for permission to film, as they’ll need a licence, and issue of the licence is dependent upon the company having adequate insurance in place.
Occasionally, there can be some funny moments on a shoot. On one occasion, I went out to shoot a small item and there was only one other person present, so he was director, camera operator, lighting engineer and sound engineer, all in one. He then got a call from the studio, asking us to film a recreation of the UFO sighting, to accompany my interview. We looked at each other in amazement, wondering how we were going to accomplish this. In the end, as the light was fading, we found a small bush, and the inventive TV company man detached the light and fixed it onto the end of a rod. We both then got down on our knees, one of us on each side of the bush. I moved the light slowly from side to side, while he operated the camera and filmed it. I never saw the finished piece (I’m not one of those people who watches my own TV shows!) but I hope it didn’t look too amateurish!
On another occasion, I was with a larger crew and time margins were running out on us, despite our still being some distance from the site where the UFO was seen to land, on the first night. The director turned to me:
“Is it much further?”
“A fair way, yes”, I replied.
A crafty look appeared on the director’s face.
“One bit of forest looks pretty much the same as another, doesn’t it?”
I caught his drift.
“Absolutely”, I replied, nodding enthusiastically. “It’s all very similar”.
A few moments later we’d set up and I was speaking to camera:
“Here, somewhere very close to this spot – we can’t be certain of the exact location after all these years …”
Joking aside, there are strict broadcasting rules about faking things, so we had to be very careful we weren’t falsely implying that we were at the exact spot. Plus, as people who know the case well are aware, large parts of the forest were felled in the Great Storm of 1987, and the replanting changed the layout of the forest to such an extent that it’s not really possible, nowadays, to be sure where John Burroughs and Jim Penniston encountered the landed UFO.
While I’ve done hundreds of TV interviews over the years, it’s still easy to occasionally get things wrong. One time I was asked to walk into a clearing and tell the story of what happened to John Burroughs and Jim Penniston when they first saw the landed UFO. I was asked to put myself in their shoes and tell the story in real-time. They wanted a standard commentator interview, but I inadvertently slipped into presenter mode, which is louder and more extrovert. I walked into the clearing, turned around with a shocked expression on my face and launched into a gravel-voiced and dramatic retelling of the story, along the lines of the cliché about the voiceover specialists who begin movie trailers with the phrase “In a world ….” – anyway, that’s when I heard the director’s voice, loud and clear:
“Cut. Lose the theatrics!”
One amusing incident happened near the forest, not in it. The director concerned wasn’t really sure what to make of the lighthouse theory and thought it was a bit weak. But it’s been featured in one or two previous documentaries, so he thought he’d better get some footage of it. So we drove, and drove, and drove, until finally we arrived at the coast, a few miles away, at Orford. And there was the lighthouse – still looking tiny in the distance.
“Oh for **** sake”, the director muttered, under his breath, realising instantly what any ufologists who have actually been to the area have long-since figured out, i.e. that the chances of numerous USAF witnesses mistaking a distant lighthouse for a landed, metallic UFO are about zero. He decided it would be intellectually dishonest to even imply that the lighthouse could have been involved, so we broke for lunch and discussed some of the stronger skeptical theories that we might feature instead. Even on occasions where I’ve filmed with crews at night, when we’ve found one of the few areas of the forest from which the lighthouse is even visible, it appears as a tiny pinprick of light on the distant horizon. Confusion over the lighthouse badly caught out one ufologist (another amateur astronomer trying to position himself as an expert on UFOs) in a recent UFO series that included coverage of the Rendlesham Forest incident. He launched into a monologue about how the blinking of the lighthouse might coincide with points on Colonel Halt’s tape when the UFO came into view. But it was clear that the ufologist concerned had never actually been to the forest himself. As the TV show wrapped up the story it was revealed that the lighthouse wasn’t even visible from most of the locations from which the UFO was seen, resulting in a situation where the skeptical ufologist probably came across to viewers as being either naïve or dishonest – or both. This is one of the big lessons of TV. You might want to be on television, but if you try to bluff it and talk about something you don’t really know about, you will be found out!
One of the most memorable shoots I’ve done was associated with an event put on to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Rendlesham Forest incident. In parallel with the event, at which I was one of the speakers, I’d been commissioned by The Sun to write a feature article on the case and the fact that 30 years had elapsed. It was a complicated dynamic, not least because I had to ask John Burroughs and Jim Penniston to break away from what they were doing, so they could meet the photographer from The Sun, and pose for photos in the forest. But all the time, John and Jim – who were still tired and jetlagged after their flight over from America – were preparing for the talk, as well as filming with Prometheus Pictures, the production company that makes “Ancient Aliens”. That was before John, Jim and I decided to collaborate on a book, so it was slightly more tricky to get them away from the film crew than it might otherwise have been. The Sun’s photographer got his photos in the end, and my feature article ran a day or two later, but the expression on John and Jim’s faces in the photos makes it pretty clear that they wanted to be somewhere else – preferably somewhere warm. On more than one occasion I’ve joked with film crews where the running gag has been how we wish this famous UFO encounter had taken place somewhere warmer!
I hope this article has given readers an interesting and slightly different perspective on not just the Rendlesham Forest incident, but the media as whole. As someone who now works in the film and TV industry, I find there’s a lot of misunderstanding on the part of the UFO community when it comes to the media, and I’m aware that some ufologists believe the media is part of a cover-up, or at least complicit with one, through a policy of ridicule. That’s not the case, but that’s a whole new topic, which I’ll save for a future article. So for now, I’ll sign off with the three words that everyone being filmed wants to hear the director say:
“That’s a wrap!”