Case Histories : Photo Hoaxes> [prev ¦ 1 ¦ 2 ¦ 3 ¦ 4 ¦ 5 ¦ 6 ¦ 7 ¦ 8 ¦ 9 ¦ next]


Mr Birch senior seemingly had another agenda. In Flying Saucer Review he claimed his son was “sick with fear” when the interview began and said the officials “started what I will call a brainwash...asking him wasn’t it any reflection that he saw and what was the weather like, what were the formations of cloud...the questions they must have repeated at least thirty times...” (36)

In the re-telling the length of the interview at Whitehall increased from two hours to three (in FSR) and then to seven hours when recalled by Alex in 1998. He remembered walking up the steps of Whitehall with his father where the pair “met a man in a tweed jacket, flannels and a Dickie bow. We went down long corridors into a room where there were some men and a doctor. They took the negative and the camera and kept them overnight, taking the camera apart. They asked me all these questions for so long I got muddled, telling me they were not flying saucers but Russians.” (37)

Reading the Air Ministry file on the Birch case, preserved at the Public Record Office, it becomes clear that White and Bardsley did not believe the boy’s story but could not say so publically. In an internal memo dated September 24, 1962, released in 1993 under the “30 year rule,” Bardsley writes to a colleague in S6: “ is a relatively simple task to reproduce an identical photograph to the one we were shown...the sequence of exposures on the two strips of negatives we saw do not exactly fit the boy’s story. [my emphasis]” Bardsley summed up his exasperation: “...perhaps this brief outline of these doubts will assist you in deciding what on earth you can write to Mr Birch.” (38)

After much deliberation, S6 decided on a classic fudge. In a letter sent to Mr Birch senior, and subsequently released by the family to the Press, the Ministry suggested the objects shown in the photograph were “ice particles in the atmosphere” an explanation that was rejected by just about everyone including the editor of Flying Saucer Review, Charles Bowen, who questioned whether the Air Ministry really believed their own explanation, which of course they didn’t! To many observers, including Alex Birch senior, the Air Ministry statement simply confirmed their belief in an official cover-up. Birch claimed it was this statement that actually led him to believe flying saucers were extaterrestrial “and what is more, the Air Ministry knows also but won’t admit it.” (39)

Alex Birch had his brief moment of fame, and by 1972 the bubble had burst. By that time he had moved home several times but was still pursued by people he describes as “nutcases” and their endless questions about the saucers. Newly married with his first child on the way, continual ridicule led him to phone the Daily Express and admit the ‘flying saucers’ were simply cut out shapes pasted on a sheet of glass and re-photographed. According to his story, his father only learned the truth the day before the newspapers carried the story and begged him not to go ahead with the plan. The Sheffield Telegraph quickly tracked down another of the trio, David Brownlow, who confirmed the whole thing was a joke which snowballed.(40)

And there it stood until 1998 when, in the midst of short-lived UFO revival that accompanied the popular TV series The X-Files, Alex - now in his mid-50s and a successful antiques dealer - courted publicity once again. This time his story followed a familiar route taken by Stephen Darbishire as a result of his 1959 ‘confession’; it was the hoax that was in itself a hoax - the photograph was genuine after all!
“ I did become internationally famous but I also faced a lot of ridicule and pressure,” Birch told Pete Moxon of Sheffield-based White’s Newsagency. “I decided to claim that it was a fake in hope that it would all go away and the pressure would be taken off me. But it didn’t work out like that...the UFO fraternity didn't believe me, and they even called a conference in London and came to the conclusion that my change of story was due to pressure [from the Government].” (41)

Why had Alex waited until 1998 to tell the whole truth? “The reason I’ve decided to let the real story be known now is because I think it is important that the public should know.” Unfortunately, Alex’s two former schoolpals didn't see it that way. David Brownlow and Stuart Dixon were still resident in Mosborough and both were contacted by the Sheffield Star before Alex was able to speak directly to them. Both men independently dismissed Alex’s new claim, although Stuart Dixon was later to retract his original statement but only after meeting his old friend for the first time since 1962.

Brownlow, however, was having none of it. “It was a hoax,” he told us. “Alex has always run with it more than we have. It was painted on glass. We were just messing around in Alex’s dad's greenhouse when we had the idea to do it. We were all into Quatermass and War of the Worlds at the time. It was Alex’s idea to take the photo but then his dad and a teacher at the school got hold of it and we all got swept along with the hoax which just snowballed. It was an incredible experience and we had our ten minutes of fame, but I just want to forget about it now.” (42)

The most recent, and amusing, revival of the Alex Birch saga came via the pages of Flying Saucer Review. When, in the closing year of the 20th century, Birch’s latest claims reached the grand old man of British UFOlogy, Gordon Creighton could not conceal his delight. The Birch photograph, Creighton assured the dwindling band of FSR subscribers, long dismissed as a schoolboy prank was genuine after all. It had been examined by none other than Kodak, who had pronounced it genuine and it was known also that the British Air Ministry and the Pentagon had received copies of the print “and conducted their own enquiries.” (43)

Not only that, when Birch and his father visited the Air Ministry “the main preoccupation of the officials was to get both of them bundled rapidly out of London and back to Yorkshire before the journalists could discover their presence in the city.” In making this statement, he overlooked the fact that Alex’s visit to London had been made possible by the Birch’s own newspaper, the Yorkshire Post, a fact reported in FSR at that time! »

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