World in Action theme by Shawn Weaver and Mick Phillips

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I’ve recently been watching some editions of World in Action on YouTube (because that’s the way I like to roll) and the haunting theme music quickly captured my attention, just as it did all those years ago.

Composed by Shawn Weaver and Mick Phillips on the spot as an improvised jam, rather shockingly it appears that Weaver was diddled out of his royalties, as mentioned here.  That, alas, was one injustice which World in Action never investigated …..

Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World – Clarke’s Cabinet of Curiosities

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“Why do stones move all by themselves in California’s Death Valley? Can frogs and toads really live for centuries entombed in solid rock? Do the mountains of Mongolia still harbour neanderthal man?”

The last episode of Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious WorldClarke’s Cabinet of Curiosities, is a handy way to include some strange mysteries that might not fit in with the themes of the earlier editions.

It begins in Death Valley, California where tracks in the ground indicate that rocks seem to have dragged themselves across the arid desert surface.  What adds to the mystery is that in the hundred years or so since the phenomenon was first noted nobody has actually seen them move.  Dr Dwight Carey’s theory involved abnormal weather conditions – which was certainly on the right track – although it wasn’t until recently that the mystery was finally laid to rest.  The solution can be found here.

Crail in Fife is our next destination, where the topic of ball lightning is examined.  This had already been discussed briefly in the first edition (we again see the footage of the plucky cafe owners and hear the tale of the speedy exit of the man with the wooden leg!) but here there are also theories proposed as to what it might be.  Professor James Tuck, who helped to create the atomic bomb, had been working on experiments in America to artificially create ball lightning.  He certainly generated something – which he admits may or may not have been ball lightning – but the debate about what ball lightning actually is rages on.  Even today there’s no common consensus, but this webpage has some of the more recent theories.

The Minnesota Iceman is a strange story.  It surfaced in the late 1960’s and was purported to be a neathandal man encased in ice.  He became something of a minor celebrity, appearing at numerous fairs and sideshows, before mysteriously vanishing again – although he returned to the limelight fairly recently.  The fact that he’s never been made available for rigorous scientific research would tend to indicate that he’s a fake, but reports of neathandal men spotted in Mongolia suggest that maybe, just maybe, the Minnesota Iceman was real.

Frogs encased in solid rock is another odd mystery for which there’s no answer.  In his closing piece to camera, Arthur says that “even if we solved all the mysteries in this series there’s plenty more where they came from. For our universe is not only more mysterious than we imagine, it is more mysterious than we can imagine.”

Even after thirty five years, Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World still stands up.  If some of the mysteries now have solutions, there are still plenty that don’t and, as previously touched upon, whilst the twenty five minute running time of each edition means that many topics could only be touched upon briefly, the series still managed to cover a considerable amount of ground.

Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World – Strange Skies

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Strange Skies opens in Flagstaff, Arizona where Dr Peter Boyce discusses the canals of Mars. This was the place where, back in 1894, the Lowell Observatory was established to examine whether the astonishing claim made a few years earlier by Giovanni Schiaparelli (that the surface of Mars was rife with canals) could be true.    Percival Lowell was convinced not only that canals existed, but they were made by the Martians in order to channel water from their ice caps.  His theories sparked a wave of Martian frenzy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which the programme compactly summarises.

Although Strange Skies gives Dr Boyce time to expound his theory that Lowell did observe something on the surface of Mars, even if it wasn’t exactly canals, Arthur’s on hand to pour cold water over these claims a few minutes later.  Given that the canal theory was dismissed some considerable time ago (indeed, long before this programme was made) it’s slightly surprising that this edition opened with a straight-faced statement that there might still be something in it.  But although it’s long been disproved it’s still an interesting story – further reading can be found here.

The apparent disappearance of the planet Vulcan (said to have existed between Mercury and the Sun) doesn’t seem to be very well known today.  This is probably because no such planet ever existed, but it’s another fascinating tale.  Urbain Le Verrier was a French mathematician who had discovered Neptune, so when he believed that he’d discovered another planet – Vulcan – it was no surprise he was taken seriously.  Others had also observed it, but then to seemed to disappear.  Most doubt it was ever there in the first place, but there’s still a few scientists who do believe in it.  This webpage has plenty of information on the subject.

Later, Strange Skies tackles a weighty topic – what was the Star of Bethlehem?  Was it a comet, or possibly a nova?  Another theory is that it was a conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn.  Dr David Hughes is seen working on a computer program which mapped the constellation at the time the Star was observed.  No doubt the computer was cutting edge at the time, although it looks rather primitive now (its total processing power could probably fit comfortably in the most basic mobile phone).  For those who believe the Star was a natural phenomenon this programme lays out some possible theories and this lengthy article is worth reading if you want to investigate further.

Although nothing is discussed in too much detail, Strange Skies still manages to provide some decent food for thought and is an entertaining twenty five minutes.

Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World – Dragons, Dinosaurs and Giant Snakes

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I wonder if Roy Mackal, Chicago University’s Professor of Biology, was an inspiration for Indiana Jones?  He certainly looks the part, as he comes complete with a rakish hat.  After his introduction, he has a chat with a Chicago cab driver.  It’s an amusingly stilted exchange, as the cab driver asks him what he’s carrying.  “Well a jungle machete, some medical supplies for the tropics and a back-pack.”  The wooden cab driver then asks where he’s heading. “Well you may not believe this, we’re off to Africa to look for dinosaurs.”  Okay, sounds reasonable to me!  If he’s not Indiana Jones, then maybe he modelled himself on Conan-Doyle’s Professor Challenger?   But does he succeed in his quest?  We’re teased that later in the programme we’ll find out.  This article has some decent background on him.

Whilst Arthur’s amused expression tells its own story, he does concede that many species of animal have only recently been discovered, so it’s possible that some strange-sounding animals may exist in remote locations.  One such example is the giant snake which menaced Belgian helicopter pilot Colonel Remy van Lierde in the Congo.  There’s a picture of the snake (said to be fifty feet) although it’s hard to get an impression of its size as there’s no landmarks around it.  Arthur seems convinced though, and he reveals that analysis of the photograph proved that the snake was over forty feet long.  Further reading can be found here.

De Loy’s Ape (the picture at the top of this post) is certainly a striking image.  Is it a previously undiscovered species of ape or simply an elaborate hoax?  The programme is non-committal, but there’s plenty of opinions to be found on the internet, most of which say it’s a fake.

Some of the other animals discussed are less interesting, although things pick up a little when the topic of Mammoths is discussed.  It’s mentioned that Russian scientists planned to clone a new Mammoth the next time they found a preserved one in the ice.  It’s not been done yet, although it’s still being discussed.

As for Professor Mackal, it’s obvious that the programme’s budget didn’t stretch to following his team up the Congo.  So we have to make do with hearing him talk about what he did (or didn’t find) when he returns.  He’s non-committal, but leaves us with the hope that next time something concrete will turn up.

With a lack of definite finds or compelling evidence of strange beasts, I think it’s fair to say that Dragons, Dinosaurs and Giant Snakes is one of the less compelling editions of Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World.

Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World – UFOs

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Arthur opens this edition with a forthright statement.  “I think I can claim to be a reluctant expert on UFOs. I’ve been interested in them for almost fifty years, long before the phrase ‘flying saucers’ was invented. UFOs are very common. If you’ve never seen one you’re either unobservant or you live in a cloudy area. I’ve seen half a dozen good ones. And now I have some very definite opinions on the subject.”

The first mystery discussed on UFOs occurred in Wellington, New Zealand 1978.  A plane, with a television crew aboard, had taken the same route as a previous plane which had reported multiple UFO sightings.  The television camera captured some very bright, odd shapes which couldn’t be identified.  “I really don’t know what’s going on” admitted the reporter.  This is a classic UFO sighting – there’s no doubt something was in the air which can be classed as an Unidentified Flying Object, but does that mean it was extraterrestrial in origin?  This brief report, from 2008, mentions that they remained a mystery decades later – as they do to this day.

It was a man called Kenneth Arnold who, on the 24th of June 1947, created the modern flying saucer craze.  His observation of a group of UFOs, which he likened to flying saucers, caused a sensation and from then on the most commonly reported design of UFOs were saucer shaped.  Arnold makes an appearance in this edition to tell his story (as no doubt he did thousands of times during the decades since his reported sighting) and UFOs benefits from his direct testimony.  Whether he was telling the truth is another matter of course ….  There’s a wealth of information about Arnold’s flying saucers out there for the curious to read about.  This is a good place to start.

It’s interesting to ponder whether the publicity surrounding Arnold’s encounter directly affected future sightings of UFOs.  Since so many sightings post-Arnold were also saucer shaped, it’s possible to wonder where were all the flying saucers before he spotted the first one?  Some of the more famous flying saucer pictures are briefly discussed, including the iconic shot by Stephen Pratt of Yorkshire (used as the image on this post).

Arthur then discusses some of his UFO sightings – one of which turned out to be a weather balloon.  It shouldn’t come as any surprise that he leans towards finding a rational explanation for UFOs if he can.  To illustrate this, the UFO film shot by Lee Hansen in Catalina back in 1966 is investigated and is declared to be an aircraft.  Arthur agrees with this, although there will be many who still believe that it was an alien craft.  As he says, with long-range sightings there’s always room for doubt and that’s why he’s no longer interested in such reports.  But what does interest him are close encounters.

And it’s to Ranton in Stafford that we go, to speak to Mrs Jessie Roestenberg.  “To my amazement there, suspended on the top of the roof of this old farm, was this object that I can only describe as a huge mexican hat. It was that shape, without the bobbles. It must have been fifteen to twenty yards from where I stood. It covered the roof, so in circumference it must have been about sixty feet, it was enormous.  The people in the space-craft were just looking out, I could see them from the waist to the top of their heads. They were very beautiful people. They had long golden hair.”

With no evidence, it’s easy to dismiss stories like Mrs Roestenberg’s, although the programme then teases us that sometimes clues are left behind.  Forestry worker Bob Taylor tells of his strange encounter with an unearthly object just outside Edinburgh.  Even more entertaining than his tangle with this mysterious alien artifact is the reaction of his wife.  “He looked terrible when he came in the door. And he just stood at the door and I said ‘have you had an accident with your lorry?’ and he said no, I’ve been attacked. And I said ‘what with?’ and he said a spaceship. And I said ‘oh goodness me, there’s no such a thing as a spaceship, I’m going to phone the doctor'”.  Wonderful stuff!  Disappointedly he wasn’t able to take a piece of the ship as evidence, but strange track marks did pique the interest of the police.

With a running-time of just twenty five minutes, UFOs can only scratch the surface of this phenomenon.  But it does work as a useful introduction to some of the more famous cases which continue to generate debate today.

Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World – Out of the Blue

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Out of the Blue opens with Arthur playing table tennis.  This seems slightly odd, but all becomes clear when he explains that his daily table-tennis partner – at the Otter’s Club, Colombo – saw fish falling from the sky.

There’s some classic eye-witness interviews in this one.  Joe Alpin recalls a strange event during WW2.  “The sky suddenly darkened. And then the frogs came. Millions of them. Raining out of the sky.”  Possibly Joe overestimated the number a little, as millions seem a little excessive – although he did claim it rained frogs for well over an hour, so there must have been quite a few.

Mrs Sylvia Mowday looks just the sort of sensible, late middle-aged woman that you wouldn’t think would make up a strange story simply for a bit of publicity, so maybe her froggy tale was true.  “We heard something thudding against the umbrella.  When we looked, to our amazement it was a shower of frogs. There were hundreds of them.”  This happened in the 1950’s – a few years after Joe’s sighting – and it’s interesting that Mrs Mowday only mentions hundreds.  Had raining frogs been curtailed since the war, or was she simply better at counting than Joe?!

Although reports of frogs falling from the sky are quite common, so are tales of fish descending from the heavens.  A series of interviews in Marksville, Louisiana illustrate how a number of residents all witnessed a deluge of flying fish.  From the testimony of the wonderfully named Sheriff Potch Didier to the accounts of several older woman (who all seem to have had maids at the time – clearly this was an affluent neighbourhood) it all sounds most odd.

Although Arthur considers that the whirlwind theory – freak atmospheric conditions which cause the likes of fish or frogs to be scooped up – might explain some of these events, he concedes that it doesn’t answer all of them.  And why are there never any reports of fish, frogs or other items getting sucked up into the sky?

Gordon Honeycombe’s incredibly detailed narration sets the scene for the next strange event.  “On Sunday March the 13th 1977, Mr Alfred Wilson-Osbourne, chess correspondent for the Bristol Evening Post, left the Westbury Park Methodist Church to walk home with his wife. Their journey took them past a car showroom.”

And what did they see? A shower of hazelnuts.  Mr Wilson-Osbourne wins the prize for the most accurate estimation of the number of objects he saw.  Joe Alpin reckoned he saw millions of frogs, Sylvia Mowday estimated that she observed hundreds of frogs, whilst Mr Wilson-Osbourne gives us a more precise figure – three hundred and fifty.

These aren’t the most staggering of mysteries, but they’ve quite fun nonetheless and some of the interviewees are highly entertaining.

Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World – The Riddle of the Stones

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“Why did the people of prehistoric Britain set up the great stone circle on Salisbury Plain? What is the meaning of Stonehenge? Were Britain’s other rings of stone centres of an unknown Pagan cult? Were they places of sacrifices and death? Were they observatories where, four thousand years ago, astronomers plotted the courses of the sun, moon and stars?”

This edition of Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World sets up a great many questions, so it’ll be interesting to see if it can come up with any answers.  But what’s clear from the start is that Arthur has little sympathy with “latter-day druids” who have claimed the likes of Stonehenge for themselves.  “Their association with stone circles is the invention of eighteenth century romantic writers.  The druids flourished a thousand years after the completion of Stonehenge, so to confuse them with stone circles is like mixing up the Battle of Britain and the Battle of Hastings.”

The megalithic tomb at Newgrange in Ireland is described as an almost unknown wonder.  Built over five thousand years ago it’s certainly an impressive sight.  Professor Michael O’Kelly, who was responsible for restoring it to its former glory, describes how he began to believe that the ancient builders of Newgrange had designed it in such a way as to allow the rays of the sun to illuminate the tomb on certain days – most especially the 21st of December (the Winter Solstice).  He describes how, on the 21st of December 1967, he stepped into the tomb to prove his theory.  This turned out to be correct, as he witnessed the chamber being illuminated with the bright winter sunshine.  This webpage has more detail on both Newgrange and Professor Kelly.

That Newgrange was designed to take account of the movement of the heavens seems clear and it’s also been supposed that some stone circles were created to serve as observatories – allowing ancient astronomers to use them as gigantic calendars (back then, knowing what time of the year it was would have important in many ways).

It’s a little odd to watch somebody clambering over the top of Stonehenge – it’s hard to imagine that happening today.  Richard Brickerhoff did so to test a theory that the strange bumps in some of the stones were evidence of a particular type of astronomical practice that had been carried out thousands of years ago.  It’s a nice enough theory, but doesn’t really convince.  Although Arthur admits that some stone circles do show evidence of astronomical alignments, he suggests that most could be nothing more than meeting places.

Some places continue to baffle though, such as Avebury in Wiltshire.  Containing multiple stone circles, it’s a particularly impressive construction feat – especially when you consider how difficult it would have been to move stones that weighed sixty tons (hundreds of people would have been required to move just a single stone).

The mystery of the stone circles is nicely summed up by Dr Aubrey Burl.  “It’s like reaching out into the darkness, you can go so far but in the end you can never touch them. You’re always reaching for a shadow.”  When so many experts are only too happy to spin extravagant theories, it’s refreshing to hear from someone who doesn’t claim to have all the answers.

Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World – The Great Siberian Explosion

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“On the morning of June the 30th 1908 something came hurtling out of the sky. An enormous ball of fire which exploded above the Siberian forest with a sound that was heard a thousand miles away and a blast that laid waste the trees over an area the size of London and New York put together.”

This edition opens by giving us numerous suggestions about what this strange object could have been – a meteorite, a piece of antimatter, a small black hole, an atomic bomb (decades before the first recorded one was created) or even an exploding flying saucer.  But more noteworthy than this is that the pre-credits section features a different piece of introductory footage of Arthur C. Clarke.  For the previous six editions, Gordon Honeycombe’s narration about Clarke (author of 2001, inventor of the communications satellite, etc) has been combined with shots of him strolling down a Sri-Lankan beach, umbrella in hand.  But here we see him walking through the streets instead.  It’s a small point, but after watching the episodes in quick succession it does stand out – possibly the programme makers decided it was time for a change, a wise move if so.

The effects of the explosion seemed to be far reaching.  In southern England the evening was unusually light – well past midnight it was still bright enough to play golf, for example.  Whether this was connected at the time to the Siberian explosion isn’t clear, but it is interesting that the investigation into the explosion only began in 1927, nearly twenty years after the event.

One of the things that impresses about Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World is how often the programme-makers were able to talk to individuals who had direct experience of the strange events featured across the series.  The Great Siberian Explosion is no exception as Dr Leonid Krinov, who investigated the explosion back in the 1920’s, gives an account of what he learnt from the eye-witnesses he interviewed.  Even though he was asking them to remember back some twenty years it seems they had no difficulty – but then such an event would be something that would no doubt stick in the memory.

Usually the series would feature several different mysteries across a single edition, but here they concentrate on just one.  The Siberian explosion is strong enough to fill the twenty five minute running time, although the widely held belief that it was a meteor or comet that exploded in the atmosphere – which explains why no crater was discovered – might disappoint those who favour a more outlandish answer.  This webpage neatly sums up the main facts, whilst the comments underneath offers some wackier explanations.  Arthur sums up all the possibilities, although he finds it difficult to keep a straight face when describing some of them (an exploding nuclear engine from a flying saucer, for example) .

Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World – The Monsters of the Lakes

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Although Nessie is the most famous lake-based monster, there are plenty of others – as this edition of Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World demonstrates.  The delightfully named Ogopogo is one such creature, although his fame hasn’t really spread outside of Canada.

He, and presumably his ancestors, have been swimming around Okanagan Lake in British Columbia since at least the middle of the 19th century.  We open by observing a call-in show at the local radio station, where anyone who’s spotted the Ogopogo is invited to ring in.  I have to confess to being somewhat amused by the second caller – she declined to give her name on air (for fear of being ridiculed) but it does seem that she then appears on camera to explain her story in a little more depth.  If you wish to retain your anonymity then appearing on television probably isn’t the wisest move!  According to this article, Ogopogo is the world’s most documented lake monster.

Whilst many of those who claim to have seen a monster rising from a lake are credible witnesses, it does remain easy to dismiss their sightings as either hoaxes or cases of mistaken identity.  But when three men of the cloth claim to have seen a monster, it’s harder to accept that they’re lying.  Lough Ree in Ireland, back in 1960, was the place where Father Burke, Father Murray and Monseigneur Quigly had their strange encounter.  Wonderfully, the program puts them back in their boat in the middle of the lake to tell their tale.  It’s a tad disappointing the beast of Lough Ree didn’t make another appearance when the cameras were rolling though.

The Loch Ness Monster remains far and away the best known of all the lake monsters.  We hear a little more from Alex Campbell (briefly featured in the first programme) who claims to have seen the monster eighteen times.  Next up is Peter McNabb, who back in 1951 took a famous picture of what he believes to be Nessie.  This pro-Nessie blog is certainly convinced.  It’s no surprise that Arthur remains much more skeptical though.

One of the most famous Nessie hunters, Tim Dinsdale, is interviewed.  In 1960 he caught what he considered to be monster on film.  As he returned countless times to Loch Ness over the decades it’s hard to imagine that he was involved in a deliberate fraud – if he was, then surely one visit would have been enough?  More recent research indicates that his film may have captured something as prosaic as a boat.  See here for further information.

Arthur gives the notion of lake monsters a big thumbs down, but as with all these mysteries there’s still plenty of people about who wish to believe, so the legends will continue.

Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World – Giants for the Gods

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“What strange compulsion made men etch vast designs on the side of the Earth?  On downlands and desert, on the slopes of solitary mountains. Why can so many only be seen from the air? What is their message from the distant past?”

It seems such an obvious point, but I’d never really stopped to wonder why ancient man created some of these images when they couldn’t see them from the ground, although Giants for the Gods does open with the possibility that some two thousand years ago the Nazca Indians might have had the power of flight (via some kind of hot-air balloon).  The Nazca Lines – created in Peru – are discussed in some detail.  With lines running for thirty miles it’s an astonishing achievement, but what purpose did they serve?  Various explanations have been postulated over the years – a giant map for space travellers was popular during the 1960’s and 1970’s when interest in Erich von Däniken’s theories were at their height, whilst others are convinced that they served an astronomical/calendar purpose.  More recently there’s been other suggestions (a little more detail can be found here).

We then travel to England to meet the rude man of Cerne.  He’s a very well-endowed giant chalk figure carved on a Dorset hillside.  Why or when he was carved is a mystery, but luckily there’s some colourful local characters on hand to give us their theories.  The first is a man with an incredibly impressive beard and whilst the next man’s beard is less impressive he does have an interesting story to tell.  “We did have one girl who had been married for about seven years and hadn’t managed to have a child. So we told her to go and sit on the giant – apparently you’re supposed to sit up there with your knickers off, I don’t know whether she did that or not – but the next spring she was pregnant.”   It’s probably not as old as the carvings of the Nasca Indians though.  The earliest record of the figure dates to the middle of the eighteenth century, although some remain convinced that he’d been there since Roman times.  Further information can be found here.

Chile is our next destination, and the Chilean Geoglyphs have some similarities to the Nazca Lines, although the images here are more varied.  The massive image of a man takes us back to the suggestion at the beginning that maybe the ancients had the power of flight (otherwise they’d have no way of viewing these carvings).  If that wasn’t the case then possibly they were produced for their gods who would be looking down at them.

Arthur’s honest enough to say that he can’t begin to answer why they were created, although he does suggest they might have been inspired in part by man’s desire to leave a mark on the face of his planet.  So there’s no definite answers, but although Giants for the Gods isn’t the flashiest edition of Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World, it is one of the most thought-provoking.

Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World – The Missing Apeman

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Our search for the mysterious apeman begins in the foothills of the Himalayas, close to Mount Everest, with the most famous apeman of all – the Yeti, otherwise known as the Abominable Snowman.  That the Yeti exists is a widely held view amongst the local sherpas, and one of them – Khunjo Chumbi – shows us his prized possession (what seems to be a Yeti scalp).  He also imitates the Yeti cry – which seems to be “cry, cry, cry, cry, cry, cry”.  It’s not the most terrifying sound, but then Khunjo is only a small chap and you’d expect the real Yeti to be somewhat more formidable.

Desmond Doig, who led an expedition with Sir Edmund Hilary to try and establish whether the Yeti was real or just a myth is also interviewed.  With typical British understatement he says that the Yeti is very nasty tempered.  “And has been known to rip people apart if he gets a chance.”  Yes, that does sound quite nasty.  Rather wonderfully, Khunjo and his Yeti scalp had been in the news before, as this Guardian interview from 1960 featured Sir Edmund Hilary, Desmond Doig and Khunjo Chumbi.  So by the time of Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World, Khunjo was an old hand at giving interviews.

The photographs taken by Michael Ward and Eric Shipton in 1951, which purport to show footprints of the Abominable Snowman, are iconic images.  Ward was also interviewed for the programme and maintained that they were real, although the internet tends to disagree (they’re also dubious about the Yeti scalp).  It’s interesting that all the interviewees are convinced of the existence of the Yeti (slightly odd they didn’t include someone who was more sceptical).  But that role is taken by Clarke, who although he’s far too polite to call anybody a liar, points out that melting snow can make footprints appear larger than they are and that the Sherpa/Yeti connection is so bound up with their religion it’s sometimes impossible to tell myth from reality.

We then head off to America to look for Bigfoot!  Dr Grover Krantz is convinced that Bigfoot exists and he goes out regularly to try and kill one.  This is a bit off-putting – casting Krantz in the mould of a big-game hunter, but there you go.  Various eye-witness reports, including several police officers, attest that they’ve seen Bigfoot in person and an excerpt from a local news report states the Bigfoot may be interested in menstruating women (as one sighting saw him rummaging through rubbish which contained discarded women’s feminine hygiene products).  An unexpected titbit of information.

In 1967, Roger Patterson and Robert Gimlin made a brief film recording of what they claimed was Bigfoot.  For anyone with even a passing interest in the subject it’ll be a very familiar piece of film.  Although on the one hand it looks patentally fake – he looks far too much like a man in an ape suit – various experts have testified that the motion is ape-like (and a human wouldn’t be able to replicate the movements).  He’s a very jaunty Bigfoot it must be said – and he also obligingly stops and stares at the camera which was nice of him.  Even as a child I didn’t believe this film, and there are plenty that agree with this view,  although as I’ve said, others are more convinced.

As for Arthur, I get the sense that none of the tales have won him round.  He said that if he had a hundred dollars to bet on it, he’d put forty on the Yeti, ten on Bigfoot and keep the rest from himself!  On reflection, that’s probably about right.

Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World – Ancient Wisdom

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Arthur’s in a fighting mood at the start of Ancient Wisdom.  “A lot of rubbish has been written about mysterious knowledge possessed by the ancients. They didn’t need any help from visitors from outer space. On the other hand, there are some relics from the past which are truly mysterious because they challenge our ideas about the level of technology that existed at the time.”

Probably the most famous image from Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World was the crystal skull which featured prominently in the opening titles each week.  We’re told that Anna Mitchell-Hedges found the skull in a lost city when she was a girl.  Her arrival in the UK from Canada is notable – with security guards on hand to guard the skull – and her story is certainly intriguing.  As ever, Gordon Honeycombe’s narration sets the mood perfectly.  “This is the weirdest gem in the world. The skull of doom. The circumstances of its discovery were bizarre. Its origin is unknown. And its powers, some say, are fatal.”

That Mitchell-Hedges claimed to have discovered the skull, perfectly preserved, in an ancient temple seems more than a little unlikely, whilst an expert who examined the skull considered it to be no more than a couple of hundred years old.  Mitchell-Hedges remained adamant that it dated back at least 3,600 years and didn’t waver until she died.  Few others tended to agree with her though, and the overwhelming evidence points to the fact that it was a relatively modern creation.  See here, for example.

The other eyebrow-raising claim in Ancient Wisdom comes from Dr Arne Eggebrecht.  “He found it in an exhibition of treasures from Ancient Iran. A pottery jar, a copper cylinder and an iron rod discovered in Baghdad. He believes they are components of an electric battery made two thousand years before batteries were invented in the West.”  Arthur’s not convinced and there’s no common modern consensus, so this remains a mystery.  As ever, there’s plenty of information out there, such as here, for example.

Whilst the Crystal Skull was almost certainly a modern construction and the uses of the Baghdad Battery remain open to interpretation, the Antikythera Mechanism does seem to be the genuine article.  It was discovered by divers in 1900, who found it on a wreck off the coast of Greece, but it wasn’t until  Professor Derek de Solla Price started to examine it in earnest during the 1970’s that it began to yield its secrets.  Using x-ray and gamma photography he was able to deduce that what appeared to be nothing more than a lump of rock actually contained an intricate mechanism.  Believed to have been constructed around the second century BC, it’s regarded as the world’s first analogue computer – a device used to calculate astrological positions.  Further information can be found here.

There’s a lack of loopy eye-witnesses (who make Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World so enjoyable) in this edition, but there’s still several fascinating scientific mysteries to chew over.

Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World – Monsters of the Deep

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Monsters of the Deep opens with the tale of Lieutenant Cox whose leg was mauled by a giant squid following the sinking of his troopship by the Germans during WW2.  With Cox no longer being alive it’s impossible to question him first hand, but testimony from a serving sailor – Petty Officer Ira Carpenter – who recently witnessed damage to his ship is harder to dismiss.  Was this caused by a giant squid?  Maybe, and it’s notable that Clarke doesn’t dismiss the possibility out of hand.

The story of a giant octopus which washed up on a Florida beach in the late nineteenth century is mildly interesting, but rather like the giant squid tales it doesn’t quite fire the imagination.  The accounts of mysterious sea serpents is rather more like it though, especially when they’re illustrated with vintage artists impressions of the leering monsters.  Although sea serpents might appear to be a problem of the past, it appears not – as two beardy Canadian scientists are seen conducting research in the waters of Vancouver.  Although they’ve done plenty of research they have no definite evidence, which is a bit of a shame.

So far there’s been a lack of colourful interviewees in this edition, so I’m thankful for the arrival of George Vinnicombe and John Cox, two Cornish fishermen.  Naturally they have to be interviewed on their boat, although the constant bobbing motion did make me feel a tad seasick.  Still it’s worth it for their tale of a strange monster who popped its head up out of the water to take a look at them.

There’s another classic bit of Honeycombe narration as he tells us about “the beast with great teeth which came ashore in Scotland at Gourock, on the River Clyde, in 1942. Being wartime, the Royal Navy wouldn’t permit photographs and finally the beast was taken to the grounds of the municipal incinerator. On the orders of the borough surveyor, Charles Rankin, it was chopped up and buried under what is now the football pitch of St Ninian’s Roman Catholic primary school, Gourock.”  Mr Rankin was interviewed for the programme and the most intriguing part of his tale is when he mentions that in the belly of the beast was something which appeared to be a seaman’s jersey.  So clearly the beast had gobbled up at least one unfortunate sailor before washing up at Gourock.

Whilst it’s a little hard to take the story of the beast of Gourock seriously, Clarke does come down on the side of generally believing that giant sea creatures are real.

Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World – The Journey Begins

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Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World starts with a bit of a whimper, as he observes a total eclipse of the sun.  C’mon Arthur, that’s not a mystery!  He later tells us that he classes this a mystery of the first kind – something that was a mystery to our ancestors but not to us.

But there’s plenty of mysteries of the second kind (those which have no definite explanation) to come over the course of this thirteen part series, even if it’s not surprising that the rational Clarke can often come up with a logical solution.

Our first proper mystery takes us to Fife in Scotland where, according to the sombre narration of Gordon Honeycombe, “it was in 1966 that a terrifying visitation came to the beach cafe where Mrs Jean Meldrum and her mother Mrs Evelyn Murdoch were working.”  This sounds much more promising.

These reports often have more than a touch of humour about them, although I’m not sure whether this was intentional or simply the result of rewatching the episodes in these more cynical times.  But the report of an orange ball of fire that bashes Mrs Meldrum’s chest and then vanishes, is an unusual tale to say the least.  Possibly the best part of the story is when Mrs Murdoch mentions that the beach attendant, who had a wooden leg, nevertheless showed a nifty turn of speed as he beat a hasty retreat from the oncoming fireball!

Honeycombe then teases us with some of the big-hitters of the mysterious world – the Loch Ness Monster, the Abominable Snowman, UFOs, Monsters of the Deep, etc.  In all of these cases there is photographic and/or film evidence (which we don’t have in the case of the Fife Fireball) but how much veracity can we place in this material?  And does the evidence of eye-witnesses strengthen or detract from the overall mystery?

Alex Campbell, a water bailiff in Loch Ness, claims to have seen the monster eighteen times.  He’s an entertaining interviewee, especially when he gives an impression of Nessie’s breathing.  Those who choose to disbelieve people like Campbell would no doubt simply claim he was lying (which is quite possible) but when you have a whole family – like the Holmes’ from Falmouth – who also claim to have seen a sea monster, it’s harder to understand why they would all agree to such a deception.  And they do seem quite believable, as they bob up and down in their small boat, kitted out in identical bright yellow macs.

The giant stone balls of Costa Rica are apparently one of the world’s most intractable mysteries, although I have to confess they’ve never really registered with me.   One of the joys of the internet age is that you’re only a click away from finding out whether the mystery has now been solved, but it appears not.  So I guess we’ll have to wait a little longer to find the answer (if any).

The Journey Begins ends with tales of mysterious objects falling from the skies – fish, frogs, hazelnuts, broad-bean seeds.  The latter annoyed the eye-witness from Southampton, who turned to his wife and said “this is bloody silly.”

Interestingly, Clarke suggests these might be mysteries of third kind (those for which there are no logical answers at all) but then hints there might be clues to a rational solution.  After these strange tales, I have to confess that I was expecting some sort of answer from Clarke, but he just strolled down the beach at Sri Lanka as the credits rolled.  So the great man seemed stumped on this one.

Public Information Films

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Network’s Charley Says is a DVD that I find myself returning to on a regular basis. Partly because it’s television nostalgia in bite-sized pieces, but there’s also a fascinating wealth of British cultural history contained within these short films.

The Central Office of Information (COI) was founded in 1946 as the peace-time successor to the Ministry of Information (MOI). Post war, the battered and weary nation was drip fed the encouraging message that Britain would rebuild and restore itself to her former glory. Yes, all good propaganda – but skilfully presented.

By the 1960’s, the COI found itself creating shorter films for television. These covered a wide range of subjects, some were animated and others live-action. Ans since many of them were repeated for several decades, they became firmly lodged in the public consciousness.

For those who want to watch online, the National Archive has many of the public information films produced between 1945 and 2006 available on their website.

But for any newcomers to the wide world of PIFs, here is my own personal top five –

Number Five – When in the Country (1963)

This is longer than the normal television PIF and that fact it was made in colour suggests it was intended for cinema release.  It’s nicely animated and whilst, like many PIFs, it does tend to state the blindingly obvious, it’s rather charming nonetheless.

Number Four – Splink (1976)

The Splink campaign was never as popular as the long-running series with Dave Prowse as the Green Cross Man, for the simple reason that the Splink drill was so incredibly difficult to remember!  Still, the appearance of Jon Pertwee is something of a consolation.

Number Three – Dad’s Army – Pelican Signals (1974)

Familiar faces were very often used in PIFs in order to sell the message to the viewers and this one is no different.  The incongruous sight of  the Dad’s Army cast on a 1970’s street is strange, but since they didn’t have Pelican Crossings during the war it’s fair enough.

Number Two – Protect and Survive – Action after Warnings (1975)

This is frankly terrifying,whilst the suggestion that you can survive a nuclear attack by jumping into a ditch is a bit difficult to swallow as well! The Protect and Survive films, in addition to a handy booklet, were designed only to be used when the government decided that an attack was imminent.  Thankfully this never came to pass, so the films were never broadcast – but several, like this one, later surfaced and they’re all fascinating viewing.

Of course, if there was a nuclear attack then the only thing left to do would be to die – but whilst the tone of the PIF is bleak, there’s still a sliver of hope offered to the survivors.

For further reading, in 2007 BBC published a transcript of a radio message that had been drafted for broadcast in the event of a nuclear attack.  It can be read here.

Once the Protect and Survive booklet became public knowledge, the government were pressured into releasing it – so it was eventually published in May 1980.  It can be read here.

Number One – Cycle Safety Song – Get Yourself Seen (1978)

And after thoughts of death and destruction, let’s end on a lighter note with a PIF that has a song so catchy I still find myself humming it to this very day!