“Put a sprig of spaghetti in a can of tomato sauce and wait for the best“. This is the answer the BBC gave to viewers who called asking how they could grow spaghetti at home. We are not crazy. This is a funny episode that happened in the United Kingdom in 1957, after the famous network broadcast on its television channel a report about a Swiss family that harvested this kind of pasta . It was a joke but, just like what happened with Orson Welles’ famous radio show nineteen years earlier, many people were stung. It was called Spaghetti-tree hoax.
In 1938, Welles had made a broadcast of the novel The War of the Worlds as if it were an event that was really happening and told by journalists live. He had the advantage of not needing images, since it was on the radio, but he managed to frighten many people even though several times, when he received warnings that a certain collective hysteria had been unleashed, he warned that it was nothing more than a dramatization. The BBC gave the idea a twist because it used television, which is always more explicit.
Only, in his case, it was not a literary adaptation but a joke of the April Fool’s Day on April 1st. In other countries they call it Erster April (Germany), Poisson d’Avril (France), Pesce d’Aprile (Italy), Dia da Mentira (Portugal), etc. and it is related to the agricultural cycle of the change of season.
Well, on April 1, 1957, many people were fascinated by the small screen when they saw a documentary that was being broadcast by the BBC. It was on the Panorama program, a successful format that had been on air for four years and is considered the oldest in the world in that medium. In fact, it still exists, although almost in a testimonial way, on BBC One. It might sound familiar to someone because in 1995 it made the famous interview to Diana of Wales just after their marriage separation, in which the princess told the details of her personal life. Between 1955 and 1985, Panorama was hosted by Richard Dimbleby, who had been the network’s first war correspondent, and he was responsible for announcing to the public the documentary that was to become what CNN described decades later as the greatest hoax any reputable news network had ever achieved.
This documentary was not a documentary but an ad hoc production prepared precisely to broadcast on April Fool’s Day. A hoax or type of joke deliberately exaggerated, like the ones made -and still made- by newspapers and radio on such a day. They are a tradition that, no matter how much time passes and how much they are exaggerated, precisely to make it easier to realize, continue to make the unwary and the gullible fall for it. Of course, the well-earned reputation of the BBC for seriousness and the fact that Dimbleby himself contributed the voice-over were key to making the matter more plausible. If nowadays fake news are constantly circulating and people believe them without blinking an eye, even more so in those days when the media were free from the paper corset to fly through the airwaves.
In that second half of the 1950s there were already quite a few television sets in the United Kingdom. There were some seven million devices (equivalent to 44% of homes) and the BBC had been on screen for several years, with Panorama being one of its emblems and having a significant audience.
On the other hand, besides the continent there is the content. Globalization has made it possible for us to know more and better the culture and customs that other people have in faraway lands, thousands of kilometers away, and that we can even taste examples of exotic gastronomies on a regular basis. However, in the middle of the 20th century this was not the case and although there were spaghetti in British stores, they were only sold canned with tomato sauce, which meant that consumers were not very clear about the nature of the pasta.
Consequently, when Panorama aired that fake three-minute documentary that showed the harvesting of spaghetti from the trees to dry in the sun, many people believed it. Specifically, a family from the canton of Ticino, in the southern part of Switzerland, was interviewed and celebrated how good the last harvest had been after a mild winter and managed to make the spaghetti beetle disappear. Moreover, they celebrated a Harvest Festival and explained how to get the strains to give spaghetti of the right length.
Obviously, neither pasta grows on trees (it is made with flour and water) nor did such a family exist. Part of the documentary was filmed in Switzerland, in a hotel in Castagnola, by Lake Lugano, but everything related to spaghetti was made in a pasta factory in St. Albans (in Hertfordshire, about twenty kilometers from London). It was made by Charles Theophile de Jaeger, a BBC cameraman, who had the idea, remembering when, in his school days, a teacher had said in class something like “You guys are so stupid that you would believe me if I told you that spaghetti grows on trees“. Jaeger suggested the joke to the program’s editor, Michael Peacock, who, along with the network’s documentary producer, Richard Cawston, assigned the project a budget of 100 pounds.
The rest is history. The audience was estimated at eight million people, and hundreds of them ran to phone the program asking for advice on how to grow their own spaghetti, receiving the response noted at the beginning. Sir Ian Jacob himself, the general director of the BBC, who had not been warned previously, was made to hesitate and admitted that he had to consult some books. Two things became clear: one, the gullible credulity of many people, no matter how crazy the news they heard; the other, that Jeager was a dedicated and attentive student back in school.