The original and best news hoax

"…the biggest hoax that any reputable news establishment ever pulled"

So hark back to 1957. The BBC has long had a well-deserved reputation of being a reliable news operation, as well as a well-deserved name for stuffiness. People trusted everything "Auntie Beeb" reported on implicitly. But on the first of April, they dropped that reputation as they stunned the whole world with a farming news report that was simply beautiful. And a whole pack of lies.

The BBC's flagship TV news programme Panorama generally focuses on investigative journalism, covering both domestic and international current affairs, economics, politcs and health. It's serious stuff, and the audience has high confidence in anything the team broadcasts. But in this year, cameraman Charles de Jaeger approached the programme's editor with his wild prankster idea to report on an exceptional pasta harvest. He'd carried the idea around since his schooldays, had thought a great deal about it and gave a convincing pitch; the team agreed with his idea and agreed to broadcast it on the normal Monday slot on the first of April. He was already set to report from Switzerland on another project, so he was given a tiny budget of £100 to produce a short film.

Having got his permission, when he arrived in Switzerland he simply hired some locals, set up his equipment and filmed the footage of a family spaghetti harvest in the grounds of a hotel near Lake Lugano. He'd strung some fresh homemade spaghetti in the trees for the family to "harvest" and prepare for market and finally he filmed the "time-honoured" thanksgiving feast, with the actors in traditional Swiss costume.

The prank was made even more convincing because veteran broadcaster Richard Dimbleby enthusiastically did the voiceover. Dimbleby had "enough gravitas to float an aircraft carrier" and did a superb job of narrating how the bumper crop was such a success due to a combination of both unusually warm weather and the almost total disappearance of the spaghetti weevil.

People fell for it completely, in large part because pasta was not terribly well known in the UK at the time. Most people knew only of canned spaghetti; the country was still emerging from austerity, and was also a culinary backwater sufficiently insular about food that "owt furrin" was a decadent, possibly even a monstrously evil thing. (I could write a bloody book about that!)

Even within the BBC it was believed; the prank was a closely guarded secret right up to the broadcast time, and of course the public went wild. The BBC's switchboard was jammed with people asking how they could grow spaghetti at home. The Director-General of the BBC was briefly taken in by it until his wife set him straight. After the jape was revealed, many people were sore vexed and criticised the Beeb for wasting money (afer all, the BBC was wholly funded by the public through the Television Licence). Incensed viewers doubtless wrote many strongly-worded letters to any who would read them. My father told me he'd read such letters in the Daily Telegraph, and it was certainly a topic of much discussion, even years afterward.

I was born the year before this happened, but my father told me the tale even as he cooked Spag Bol for us all. Not for us the fear of dreadful "furrin food", we ate our spaghetti with relish and joy. And laughed at my Dad's story.

Written for LieQuest 2022

The film, on YouTube
Must-see interview with the editor Michael Peacock
BBC report on the hoax

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