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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Spaghetti Hoax, April 1, 1957

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In our age of instant worldwide communications, most hoaxes don’t get very far. Even the most popular e-mail hoaxes, forwarded to millions of people, have very short effective life spans. But those of us over 35 remember a time when a well-orchestrated hoax could fool millions of people at once for as long as the perpetrators wished to carry on the charade. Tonight, we will chronicle one such event from 1957.

In this case, the creators of the hoax worked for the British Broadcasting Company’s current affairs show ‘Panorama’. For those who live in the United States, think of ‘Panorama’ as the UK’s ’60 Minutes’. The show is still on the air and is the worlds oldest televised current affairs news program, having begun in 1953.

To fully appreciate the impact of the hoax we are about to discuss, it’s important to understand television during its first decade as a widespread means of communication. In the UK, as with most Western nations at the time, television during the 1950’s was a limited affair. The BBC has been broadcasting regular television transmissions since 1936, but the beginning of the Second World War in 1939 halted television service in the UK until 1946. At the time of the hoax, in 1957, there were only two television channels covering all of England, Scotland and Wales.

Today, we are used to dozens of television channels ranging from the deadly boring to the outrageously offensive. Viewers today would have found the BBC shows of 1957 a bit stodgy by comparison, but the news presented there was treated as practically gospel by viewers. So when the April 1st edition of ‘Panorama’ came on the screen, the audience expected a serious presentation of news and events.

The last report on the show that evening discussed the spaghetti harvest in the southern Swiss canton of Ticino. The past winter had been a mild one, so the harvest was bountiful and viewers saw young women picking strands of spaghetti from local spaghetti trees and placing them in the sun to dry. The spaghetti weevil had been all but eradicated from the area, a fact that also contributed to the bumper crop of 1957. Also shown was a local harvest festival and farmers discussing the difficulties in obtaining a strain of spaghetti that would grow to just the right length.

Half the homes in Great Britain had television sets at the end of the 1950’s. It is estimated that eight million people watched ‘Panorama’ on the evening of April 1st, 1957. For the vast majority, spaghetti was something with which they were either completely unfamiliar or knew only as something that came in a can with meat sauce. The fact that almost all spaghetti is made from wheat flour and water was simply overlooked by many viewers.

The phones at the BBC television offices began to ring immediately. The calls fell into three categories. First were those who appreciated the joke. Second were those who knew the story was a hoax and were outraged that such foolishness was aired. Then there were those who were so interested in the spaghetti trees of southern Switzerland and Italy that they wanted to try their hand at growing one at home. Some enterprising staffers told callers to fill up a tin can with water, insert an uncooked strand of spaghetti and “hope for the best.”

What made the hoax that much more believable or funny, depending on your perspective, was the fact that Richard Dimbleby, the host of ‘Panorama’, delivered the story in perfect form without the slightest hint of humor. Dimbleby was well-known in the UK, having been BBC radio’s first wartime correspondent during the Second World War. The only thing he added to the script was one line at the end, a hint to those who were wondering about the story’s veracity: “Now we say goodnight, on this first day of April.”

Before the station went off the air for the night, a statement was issued acknowledging the final segment of ‘Panorama’ as a hoax. Despite this, the BBC continued to receive calls for several days.

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