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UK Mike (miner2049er)

The Bi-Weekly British Backtrack – April Fools Day

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Is there such a thing as Happy April Fool’s Day? If not, then Happy April 1st, and Happy April 2nd for tomorrow while we’re at it.

What makes today so special? Well apart from the release of this awesome addition to my literary catalogue, it is a day traditionally associated with tomfoolery, but nobody seems to know why. Lots of people claim to know why but even the font of all knowledge, Wikipedia, is non committal. Surprising for a site that contains nothing but verified facts.............

Anyway, it might originate from 1509 when a French poet referred to a poisson d’avril (April Fish), which may or not be a reference to April 1st. In 1539 the Flemish poet Eduard de Dene wrote about a nobleman who sent his servants on foolish errands on April 1st, but seeing as this is a British Backtrack, the first British reference to the day is from 1686 when John Aubrey referred to it as "Fooles holy day" and just a dozen years later there are reports of people being tricked into going to the Tower Of London to “see the Lions washed".

As usual there is a biblical option as well, and it is possible that it dates back to the time of Noah, and the day that he released his dove before the waters had receded, which was the first day of the Hebrew month that corresponds with April.

Whatever the origin, it seems that we have picked it up and run with it, and there have been numerous, in fact annual (d’uh) attempts to dupe the public by the press and the television news media. The most popular ones stem from an era when television was in its infancy, and I think that people were of the mindset to believe everything they saw on their television set, especially if it was done in the name of news or in the style of a documentary. So let’s have a look at some of the more famous and sometimes successful ones.

A 1962 Swedish prank fooled viewers into thinking that they could transform their black and white television set into a colour set simply by stretching a pair of nylon tights over the screen. At the time, STV (Sveriges Television) was Sweden’s only television channel and they only broadcast in black and white. During the item they had a so called expert, Kjell Stensson, sitting in front of a television set in the studio. Stensson baffled the masses with a bit of blind science about light and prisms before getting to the crux of the matter. All you would need was an old stocking that you should stretch and tape over your screen and the image would be bent through the fine mesh of the material and would magically appear in colour.

Adding insult to injury, Stensson explained that the effect may not work unless you are sitting at the correct distance from the screen, so you may be required to move your furniture a little, and then sit in your chair and rock your head back and forth until the effect became apparent, something that thousands of viewers later admitted to doing.

In 1985, Sports Illustrated got in on the act with their own prank on its readers. They claimed to have found a new pitcher that would join the New York Mets, and this pitcher was able to pitch with pinpoint accuracy at a speed of 165mph, over 60mph faster than the record at the time.

Finch had not then decided whether to pursue a career in Baseball or to be a French Horn Player, and he would give his answer on April 1st. The magazine received almost 2,000 letters about Finch and the article making it one of their most successful articles ever, and as with all the best hoaxes the clue that it was a hoax was in the story, and not just in the date of Finch’s decision. The article had a sub heading that read:

“He’s a pitcher, part yogi and part recluse. Impressively liberated from our opulent lifestyle, Sidd’s deciding about yoga —and his future in baseball.” The first letter of each of these words spells “H-a-p-p-y A-p-r-i-l F-o-o-l-s D-a-y-Ah-Fib.”

Technology has helped in more recent hoaxes like the 2008 BBC report that claimed to have found a type of penguin that could fly, and rather than huddling together to maintain body heat, these particular penguins would fly to the South American rain forests where they would "spend the winter basking in the tropical sun." The BBC even had a faked video of the penguins in flight which became one of their most viewed videos.

Not all good hoaxes come from official sources though, in 2000, Police on the UK M3 Motorway discovered a Zebra crossing painted across the carriageway, and quickly called for maintenance workers to come and remove it. To this day the perpetrator remains unknown, and the Police reported that they had received no calls from the public about the newly painted crossing.

Another transport related one came in 1990 when the British newspaper (news used in the loosest definition of the word) reported that the Channel Tunnel project, to connect England and France via a tunnel beneath the English Channel, which was running way over budget had hit a setback. The tunnel was started from each end and was to meet in the middle, but the story went that the two tunnels would miss each other by 14 feet because the French engineers had insisted on using metric specifications in their blueprints.

I could actually believe that one. In fact I’m going to check it didn’t actually happen....

Like the first example, those that baffle people with science are often the ones that succeed and fool people. For example, in 1998 the New Mexicans for Science and Reason newsletter ran an article claiming that the Alabama state legislature had voted to change the value of the mathematical constant pi from 3.14159 to its 'Biblical value' of 3.0. Before long the story hit the Internet and spread around the world by email.

Another scientific prank came from BBC Radio 2 in 1976 when the British astronomer Patrick Moore announced that at 9:47am there would be a once-in-a-lifetime event caused by the planet Pluto passing behind Jupiter. This alignment would cause a temporary interruption in the Earth’s gravitational field, and listeners could easily experience the blip in their own homes if they jumped in the air at exactly the right time and they would briefly experience a strange floating sensation.

At the stroke of 9:47am the BBC began to receive hundreds of phone calls from listeners who claimed to have felt the sensation. One woman caller even reported that she and 11 of her friends levitated out of their chairs and floated around the room.

Perhaps the most famous example though, and probably the first one that any British person would think of would be the great Spaghetti Tree story, again run by the BBC.

The person who came up with the hoax was the Panorama cameraman Charles de Jaeger who was an Austrian born freelance photographer with a reputation for being a practical joker. A humorous story about him was an expense claim he submitted to the BBC for some dungarees that he had had to buy to protect his clothes during an assignment. His claim was denied and he was told that he should have just worn some old clothes instead. The next month he submitted a claim for expenses related to “entertaining the press officer, Mr Dungarees" which was paid without question.

In 1957 the UK had only 2 television channels, BBC1 and ITV, and Panorama was the BBC's flagship news program with 10 million viewers, airing every Monday at 8pm. The reputation that it had helped to fool its audience as its host Richard Dimbleby was widely respected.

De Jaeger suggested his hoax idea to a colleague, and as he would be working on location in Switzerland anyway it could be done quite cheaply. The gist of the hoax was that Swiss farmers had experienced a small victory against the fictitious spaghetti weevil and a mild winter had brought about a bumper spaghetti harvest.

De Jaeger hung strands of spaghetti from the trees and filmed a piece featuring women in national costume pretending to pick the spaghetti from the trees and lie it out in the sun to dry, before filming a scene of the crew eating the freshly harvested spaghetti.

The film was rushed back to London and narrated by Dimbleby in an apparently serious piece. When the 3 minute piece was over, the camera returned to Dimbleby in the studio who said, "Now we say goodnight, on this first day of April." emphasising the last part.

Not everybody fell for it, but many millions did. The BBC received calls from families hoping to settle marital disputes where the husband believed Dimbleby’s report but the wife knew that spaghetti was made from flour and water.

One caller even reported that his homegrown spaghetti didn't grow vertically, only horizontally. Later that evening the BBC made an announcement that its earlier report had been a hoax, and some viewers reacted angrily because they had been duped by such a reputable organisation as the BBC.

Part of the reason for the success of the hoax was that spaghetti was not very widely used in Britain at the time and was considered an exotic and foreign dish, and even Director General of the BBC, Sir Ian Jacob, had been fooled. He had not read a memo he had been sent, and along with his wife he had looked in the Encyclopedia Britannica which did not even have an entry for spaghetti."

He later sent De Jaeger a note congratulating him on his hoax, saying; "The spaghetti harvest was a splendid idea, beautifully shot and organised. This item has caused a great deal of delight one way and another. Thank you very much indeed."

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