The spaghetti tree hoax of 1957
In some ways life was a lot simpler in 1957. There were just two television channels and Britons, freed from the restrictions of rationing which ended when the restrictions on the sale of meat and bacon were lifted on July 1, 1954, still eschewed what were seen as foreign foods.
Take spaghetti, now a staple fare in our diet. Only the adventurous were eating it and precious few knew where it came from and how it was produced. Panorama was one of the most prestigious programmes in the BBC’s stable, featuring documentaries on newsworthy stories and current affairs, hosted by one of the most revered public figures of the time, Richard Dimbleby. It went out on Monday evenings. April Fool’s Day in 1957 fell on a Monday and one of the show’s cameramen, Charles de Jaeger, a notorious practical joker, came up with a wheeze to hoax the great British public.
Taking as his theme the English saying, “x doesn’t grow on trees” he came up with a plan to do a short piece for the programme showing spaghetti being harvested – from trees, naturally. Granted a budget of £100 from the show’s producer, Michael Peacock, de Jaeger was allowed to extend his trip to Switzerland to film the piece.
Finding his perfect location, a hotel in Castiglione by Lake Lugano, surrounded by laurel trees, de Jaeger bought twenty pounds of uncooked, homemade spaghetti to hang from the branches of some of the trees. But he immediately encountered a major problem – the strips of spaghetti quickly dried out and would not hang up. His solution was to cook the pasta but this had the effect of making the pasta slippery and the strips rather ungracefully slid off the branches on to the ground.
Eventually, the problem was solved; uncooked spaghetti was wrapped up in damp cloth to keep it sufficiently moist for when it was to be hung on the trees. De Jaeger hired some local girls, dressed in national costume and carrying wicker baskets, to climb ladders and harvest the pasta, which was then laid out in the sun. The spaghetti was then cooked and de Jaeger shot some footage of the locals enjoying the product of their agricultural endeavours.
The piece was the last item on the show, following an item on wine production, and Dimbleby introduced it by saying, “And now from wine to food. We end Panorama tonight with a special report from the Swiss Alps”. When the report was over, Dimbleby signed off by noting with particular emphasis on the final phrase, “Now we say goodnight, on this first day of April”. If you want to see it, follow the link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tVo_wkxH9dU
As we would say these days, the report went viral. The Beeb was inundated with telephone calls from viewers, either congratulating the broadcasters for a delicious joke or asking for assistance in settling arguments between those who thought that spaghetti grew on trees and those who considered it to be the product of flour and water. That Dimbleby had done the voiceover encouraged many to take the hoax as gospel. Even the Director-General of the Beeb, Sir Ian Jacob, was taken in and sought the answer from the internet of the time, the Encyclopedia Britannica, only to be thwarted because spaghetti didn’t even merit an entry.
Such was the furore that the BBC issued an explanation before the close of that night’s transmission but the outcry was meat and drink to the broadcaster’s army of critics. Some cried foul over the timing, by tradition April Fool’s jokes should be made before noon.
Panorama never broadcast another hoax story but the spaghetti tree story lived long in the memory and spawned a number of imitators. In 1978 San Giorgio ran an advert featuring a spaghetti farm where the pasta grew with the strap line “nobody grows spaghetti like San Giorgio”,
If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone