[This was submitted by Silverback Steve (Underwater SBs), but I couldn’t possibly hold it until next April. It is published today to hopefully bring a smile to SB Peter (SoCal SBs) who goes into the hospital today to get a new hip. Here’s wishing you the best of luck and the quickest possible recovery. You’ll be back swinging from the branches in no time. As we say in The Jungle … Oo-oo! SB SM]
On April 1, 1957 the British news show Panorama broadcast a three-minute segment about a bumper spaghetti harvest in southern Switzerland. The success of the crop was attributed both to an unusually mild winter and to the “virtual disappearance of the spaghetti weevil.” The audience heard Richard Dimbleby, the show’s highly respected anchor, discussing the details of the spaghetti crop as they watched video footage of a Swiss family pulling pasta off spaghetti trees and placing it into baskets. The segment concluded with the assurance that, “For those who love this dish, there’s nothing like real, home-grown spaghetti.”
The Swiss Spaghetti Harvest hoax generated an enormous response. Hundreds of people phoned the BBC wanting to know how they could grow their own spaghetti tree. To this query the BBC diplomatically replied, “Place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best.”
To this day the Panorama broadcast remains one of the most famous and popular April Fool’s Day hoaxes of all time. It is ranked #1 in this site’s list of the Top 100 April Fool Hoaxes of all time. It is also believed to be the first time the medium of television was used to stage an April Fool’s Day hoax.
Panorama cameraman, Charles de Jaeger, came up with the idea for the spaghetti harvest hoax. De Jaeger was born in Vienna in 1911. He worked in Austria as a freelance photographer before moving to Britain during the 1930s where he worked for the film unit of General Charles de Gaulle’s Free French Forces. He joined the BBC in 1943.
De Jaeger had a reputation for being a practical joker. Early in his career at the BBC he was sent to the Vatican to interview the Pope. However, scheduling the interview proved difficult. Finally, he was told by a priest that “His Holiness will see you on Tuesday afternoon.” De Jaeger replied, “Yes, but is he a man of his word?”
Another time de Jaeger had to buy some dungarees to protect his clothes during an assignment. He requested compensation from the BBC but was denied. The administration told him that he should have worn old clothes. A month later de Jaeger submitted an expense report in which he included £6, spent on “entertaining press officer, Mr Dungarees.” De Jaeger noted, “They paid without a murmur.”
The idea for the spaghetti harvest hoax grew out of a remark one of his Viennese school teachers often teasingly said to his class: “Boys, you’re so stupid, you’d believe me if I told you that spaghetti grows on trees.” As an adult, it occurred to de Jaeger that it would be funny to turn this remark into a visual joke for April Fool’s Day. He became quite obsessed with the idea, trying a number of times to sell the idea to different bosses. But it was only in 1957 while he was working for Panorama that he found some willing accomplices.
During the 1950s, only two channels were available to British viewers — the BBC and ITV. Panorama was the BBC’s flagship news program, boasting a viewership of ten million. It aired every Monday night at 8 pm, easily beating out Wagon Train, the show ITV ran against it.
Since 1955 Panorama had been anchored by Richard Dimbleby [editor’s note: his real name, not a Monty Python creation], whose authoritative, commanding presence had made him one of the most revered public figures in Britain. If Dimbleby said it, people trusted that it was true. As one of his colleagues at Panorama put it, “He had enough gravitas to float an aircraft carrier.” Which is one of the reasons why the spaghetti harvest hoax fooled so many viewers. His participation lent the hoax an air of unimpeachable authority.
In 1957 April 1st fell on a Monday. De Jaeger realized this presented Panorama with a rare opportunity to include an April Fool’s Day segment in its broadcast. He shared his idea with one of his colleagues, the writer David Wheeler. Wheeler loved it. So the two of them pitched the concept to Michael Peacock, Panorama‘s editor.
One of the selling points de Jaeger stressed was that it would be relatively cheap to produce the segment. De Jaeger was going to be on assignment in Switzerland anyway, so could combine the costs with the other project. (De Jaeger was often sent on foreign assignments because he was fluent in English, Italian, French, and German.)
Peacock was intrigued, and he decided to okay the plan. He granted them a budget of £100.
De Jaeger headed to Switzerland in March and, accompanied by a representative from the Swiss Tourist Office, scouted out a location. The weather proved problematic. It was misty and cold, and most of the trees were not in blossom. But eventually they found the perfect setting — a hotel in Castiglione on the shore of Lake Lugano surrounded by evergreen Laurel trees.
De Jaeger obtained twenty pounds of uncooked homemade spaghetti, and began hanging it from branches to create spaghetti trees. But soon he encountered a problem. The spaghetti quickly dried out and wouldn’t hang from the branches.
He tried to solve the problem by cooking the spaghetti and then hanging it, but once cooked the spaghetti became slippery and slid off the branches onto the ground. The tourist rep hit on the solution — placing the uncooked spaghetti between damp cloths to keep it moist until it was ready to use.
With this problem solved, de Jaeger hired some local girls to hang the spaghetti in the trees. He had them wear their national costume, and then he filmed them as they climbed ladders carrying wicker baskets which they filled full of spaghetti, and then laid it out to dry in the sun.
After he had all the shots he needed of the spaghetti harvest, he prepared a spaghetti feast for his actors, which he filmed also.
The footage was rushed back to London where it was edited into a three-minute segment. Music was added to the background to provide the appropriate atmosphere. The selections chosen were “A Neapolitan Love Song” by Walter Stott and “Spring in Ravenna” by Hans May. Wheeler wrote the text that was read by Dimbleby.
Michael Peacock had kept his decision to include an April Fool’s Day joke in the Panorama broadcast a closely guarded secret, fearing his superiors would veto the decision. He only told his boss, Leonard Miall, at the last minute. Almost no one else at the BBC knew about it. The segment was not mentioned at all in the pre-transmission publicity handouts.
The line-up for that day’s show included a long segment about Archbishop Makarios, leader of the Greek Cypriots, and a clip of the Duke of Edinburgh attending the premiere of the war film The Yangtse Incident.
The second-to-last segment was about a wine-tasting contest, and then it came time for the spaghetti harvest.
Dimbleby, sitting on the set of Panorama, looked into the camera and without a trace of a smile said: “And now from wine to food. We end Panorama tonight with a special report from the Swiss Alps.”
The screen cut away to the prepared footage. When it was all over, Dimbleby reappeared and said, “Now we say goodnight, on this first day of April.” He emphasized the final phrase.
Soon after the broadcast ended, the BBC began to receive hundreds of calls from viewers. Leonard Miall walked over to the BBC’s telephone exchange to witness what was going on. He later wrote:
the calls came in incessantly. Some were from viewers who had enjoyed the joke – including one from Bristol who complained that spaghetti didn’t grow vertically, it grew 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.
Before transmissions ceased that evening, the BBC broadcast a statement in which it informed viewers of the hoax:
The BBC has received a mixed reaction to a spoof documentary broadcast this evening about spaghetti crops in Switzerland. The hoax Panorama programme, narrated by distinguished broadcaster Richard Dimbleby, featured a family from Ticino in Switzerland carrying out their annual spaghetti harvest. It showed women carefully plucking strands of spaghetti from a tree and laying them in the sun to dry. But some viewers failed to see the funny side of the broadcast and criticised the BBC for airing the item on what is supposed to be a serious factual programme. Others, however, were so intrigued they wanted to find out where they could purchase their very own spaghetti bush.
Spaghetti is not a widely-eaten food in the UK and is considered by many as an exotic delicacy. Mr Dimbleby explained how each year the end of March is a very anxious time for Spaghetti harvesters all over Europe as severe frost can impair the flavour of the spaghetti. He also explained how each strand of spaghetti always grows to the same length thanks to years of hard work by generations of growers. This is believed to be one of the first times the medium of television has been used to stage an April Fools Day hoax.
Despite this confession, calls continued to come in. The BBC operators eventually came up with a standard reply to those seeking information on how to grow their own spaghetti tree: “Place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best.”
Part of the reason for the puzzlement was that spaghetti was not a widely eaten food in Britain during the 1950s. Although its popularity had been increasing since World War II, many still considered it to be an exotic, foreign dish. Its origin was evidently a real mystery to some.
The Swiss Spaghetti Harvest hoax found a large appreciative audience in America when it was aired by Jack Paar during the 1960s. Later Johnny Carson also aired it. Reportedly, “A week or so later, he had to respond to irate letters of people who took it seriously and thought he was making fun of the simple farmers. I remember him holding up a box of spaghetti and reading off the list of ingredients to prove that spaghetti is made, not born.”
Panorama never attempted another April Fool’s Day spoof, despite numerous calls for a sequel.
In 1999 the Birmingham Post listed the Swiss Spaghetti Harvest hoax as one of television’s 100 greatest moments. It came in at #82.
Spaghetti Harvest Haiku (Submitted by Hoax Museum visitors)
|There’s nothing like the|
taste of home-grown spaghetti
picked fresh from the tree!
|Three words in the news|
Hint at untold suffering:
Spaghetti crop fails
|Mild winter and no|
dreaded spaghetti weevil
make dinner yummy.
|Spaghetti on trees!|
Discover the truth and watch
|Spaghetti on trees,|
indeed a bumper crop year.
Alas, no ragu.
Might you someday stroke my hair
With the same stern love.
Thank you SB Steve. Good luck SB Peter!