Fooled by the Media

By Humphrys, Geoffrey | Contemporary Review, April 1999 | Go to article overview

Fooled by the Media


Humphrys, Geoffrey, Contemporary Review


Geoffrey Humphrys

We should rub the sleep from our eyes quickly on Thursday, April 1, if there are schoolchildren in the home. They mainly keep the April fool customs alive today, but some adults never grow too old for practical jokes. So much so that with the media entering into the spirit of the day, British newspaper, radio and television pranks have produced April fools by the million.

The classic form of April fool hoax is to present some improbable situation in such a convincing manner that people fall for it on the spur of the moment, then later cannot understand why they did so.

April fooling was launched into the mass media age in 1957 by the BBC's normally reliable TV current affairs programme Panorama. On April 1, viewers watched Richard Dimbleby walk between trees festooned with spaghetti which workers were gathering into baskets. (Pasta was a rather exotic food in the fifties.) This resulted from cameramen on location hanging pounds of spaghetti over trees in a little Swiss village.

To obtain a sequence for April the First viewing, the camera crews persuaded puzzled villagers to climb ladders and gather in the 'harvest'. Within minutes of the showing, the BBC's switchboard was inundated with calls. Some people had seen through the hoax, but the majority either wanted to know where they could see a spaghetti harvest, or obtain information to start a spaghetti farm.

Radio and newspaper stunts highlighted April 1, 1972, in Europe as well as Britain. A Dutch radio programme referred to a newspaper report that a budget surplus was to be shared out among tax-payers. A French radio announcer requested motorists to start driving on the left side of the road to help British drivers when they joined the Common Market.

On the same day, The Times published a headline of 'Around the World for 210 guineas' ([pounds]220.5) above an article detailing a world trip by Thomas Cook at 1872 prices, to mark the centenary of the firm's first world tour. The concession was restricted to 1000 tourists. Applications had to be addressed to 'Miss Avril Foley', but even this did not arouse suspicion. Thomas Cook's received so many applications and telephone inquiries that an answerphone had to be used to explain the hoax. The following day The Times published an apology. Travel editor John Carter wrote the article as an office joke before going abroad, never dreaming it would be published.

On April 1, 1973, Westward Television produced an item featuring the village of Spiggot, which had refused to adopt the new decimal currency. Local officials were interviewed, and much support received from the public. When announced that Spiggot did not exist, many were disappointed that the resistance was only a hoax.

The BBC kept up its April fool pranks when a doctor, barely recognisable as Spike Milligan, explained how people with red hair were particularly prone to Dutch elm disease. On April 1, 1975, David Attenborough gave a report on the musendrophilus - a singing mouse. Another prank of recent years was calling eminent historians to Banbury, Oxfordshire, on April 1, to examine an inscription thought to be a clue to a past civilisation. …

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