Monday, March 31, 2014

The Great BBC Spaghetti Harvest Hoax ~

The Year That Spaghetti Grew On Trees

BBC Televised April Fool's Day Hoax 57 Years Ago

Nearly a decade before Monty Python first appeared on the British Broadcasting Corporation, the normally staid BBC aired an April Fool's Day hoax that is widely held to be one of the greatest hoaxes in the broadcast industry; arguably greater even than the 2012 Republican National Convention.

The flagship news program for BBC at the time, Panorama, was widely respected as was its anchor, Richard Dimbleby, Britain's version of Walter Cronkite. In the 1950s Panorama estimated a viewership of around ten million. 

The Panorama audience was presented with a short, apparently serious documentary film at the close of their regularly scheduled one hour broadcast on April 1, 1950. The original 2-1/2 minute clip can be viewed on the BBC website, here. There are also several YouTube copies of the original that can be seen here.

The piece begins innocently as a paean to the early arrival of Spring after an unusually mild Winter across Europe. It then segues, equally innocently, to "reporting" that this abundance of sunshine and milder temperature has resulted in, wait for it, ". . . an exceptionally heavy spaghetti crop."

Without missing a beat the film goes on to show rural youngsters happily "harvesting" spaghetti from the trees on their family "spaghetti plantation in the Po Valley." The narrator blithely informs the viewer that unforeseen cold snaps often affect the flavor and the texture of the crop. The abundance this year is further assured due to the unexplained, but "virtual disappearance", of the "spaghetti weevil," the tiny creature whose, "depredations have caused such concern in the past."

The prank continues to include scenes of the happy crew spreading the newly "picked" noodles in the sun for "drying". It helpfully answers the question that "many people have asked" about how spaghetti grows in such uniform lengths: naturally, it is the result of
"many years of patient endeavor by spaghetti plant breeders." The ending is, of course, the traditional celebratory harvest feast that features steaming platters of "freshly picked spaghetti."

The idea for this April Fool's Day prank reportedly came from the Austrian-born 15 year veteran Panorama cameraman Charles deJaeger who had been with the BBC since 1943. He is quoted as having come up with the idea because a schoolteacher had once chided a classmate as being, "so stupid, you probably think spaghetti grows on trees."

Although it was increasing in popularity, spaghetti was not widely consumed in Postwar Britain. It was looked upon as a 'foreign delicacy" and so its makeup was not universally known. As a result of this, and the high regard for integrity that both Richard Dimbleby and Panorama enjoyed, the parody was accepted as fact by a great number of viewers.

Apparently the BBC viewers' reaction was mixed. Leonard Miall, a BBC Administrator, visited the network's telephone exchange and later wrote that, "the calls were incessant. Some were from viewers who had enjoyed the joke, notably including a caller from Bristol who complained that, as everyone knows, 'spaghetti doesn't grow vertically, it grows horizontally.' But mainly the calls were requests for the BBC to settle family arguments: the husband knew it must be true that spaghetti grew on a bush because Richard Dimbleby had said so and the wife knew it was made with flour and water, but neither could convince the other."

The hoax was sufficiently realistic that it even temporarily fooled BBC's Cambridge-educated Director General, Sir Ian Jacob, who cornered Miall the next day and told him, "When I saw that item, I said to my wife, 'I don't think spaghetti grows on trees,' so we looked it up in Encyclopedia Britannica. Do you know, Miall, Encyclopedia Britannica doesn't even mention spaghetti?"

The American viewing public was treated to the "Harvest Hoax" as it was later shown on The Tonight Show, in the 1960s; first by host Jack Parr, and later by Johnny Carson. Apparently Carson received so many angry letters from viewers complaining that he had been making fun of poor farmers that, a week later, he felt the need to hold up a box of spaghetti, on the air, and read out the ingredients.

The 1950s and 60s were certainly no age of innocence. The era saw rampant racial and sexist bigotry, social and political student unrest, and Cold War nuclear paranoia. The ensuing advent of the internet seems to have altered the tone and tenor of hoaxes such as this. 

A recent article in listed the online magazine's choices of "The Top 10 Biggest Internet Hoaxes of 2013". While they may have been seen by many more people, most all of these web hoaxes pale in comparison to The Great Spaghetti Harvest. Salon's Top 10 ranges from the ego-driven producer of a reality show pretending to harass an emotionally upset woman on a plane, Diane in7Athrough totally inane doggerel, Pronunciation Bookdown to what ought to be seen as a criminal call for preteen fans of a rock idol to actually injure themselves, or post naked pictures of themselves to online social media sites, #cutforbieber and #boobs4bieber.

The case could be made that, if forced to choose between mean-spirited pranks such as these and a whimsical documentary about harvesting spaghetti from trees, the choice would be clear for most people. In setting up the filming for The Spaghetti Harvest the BBC film crew hung actual pieces of real spaghetti from the branches. Considering the technology available today with which to manipulate still images, and to creatively edit video, it should not be too difficult to create a documentary examining the intense Guacamole drilling that is underway across the vast Argentine Pampas.

Surely there is also a need for an investigative piece exposing the widespread safety violations encountered by the Velcro miners of Michigan's Upper Peninsula.




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