When a BBC documentary made millions of viewers believe they could grow spaghetti at home

“Put a sprig of spaghetti in a can of tomato sauce and hope for the best”. This is the response 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 occurred in the United Kingdom in 1957, after the famous network broadcast a report on its television channel about a Swiss family that harvested that kind of pasta. It was a joke, but just like Orson Welles’ famous radio show nineteen years earlier, many took a swipe. was the call spaghetti-tree hoax.

In 1938, Welles had made a broadcast of the novel War of the Worlds as if it were a fact that was really happening and told by journalists live. It had the advantage of not needing images, since it was through the radio, but it managed to frighten many people even when several times, when receiving notices that a certain mass hysteria had broken out, 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.

Except that, in his case, it was not a literary adaptation but a joke of April Fool’s Day, the equivalent of April Fool’s Day for the Anglo-Saxons, which falls on April 1. Well, from the Anglo-Saxons and the rest of the countries, since Spain is the only one that does not celebrate it on that date but on December 28, and the others call it Erster April (Germany), Poisson d’Avril (France), Pesce d’Aprile (Italy), Día da Lie (Portugal), etc. The difference in dates is explained because Hispanics apply a religious origin to it (related to the innocent children and Herod the big one) while the others adjust to the agricultural cycle of seasonal change.

A moment from the broadcast of Orson Welles/Image: public domain in Wikimedia Commons

Well, on April 1, 1957, many people were fascinated by the small screen when they saw a documentary broadcast by the BBC. I did it on the show Panorama, a successful format that had been on the 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 may sound familiar to someone because in 1995 he did the famous interview with Diana of Wales just after their marital separation, in which the princess told the details of his personal life. Between 1955 and 1985 Panorama was anchored by Richard Dimbleby, who had been the network’s first war correspondent, and he was in charge of announcing to the public the documentary that was to become what CNN described decades later as the biggest hoax any reputable news network has ever pulled off.

That documentary was not such but a montage prepared ad hoc precisely to broadcast April Fool’s Day. A hoax or type of deliberately exaggerated joke, like the ones that the newspapers and the radio did -and continue to do- on such a day, constituting a tradition that, no matter how much time passes and how exaggerated they may be, precisely to make it easier to figure it out, they continue stinging the unwary and gullible. Of course, the BBC’s well-earned reputation for seriousness and the fact that Dimbleby himself provided the voice in off were keys to give greater credibility to the matter. If today they circulate fake news continuously that people swallow without batting an eyelid however dubious they may be, with more reason it was going to happen at that time when the media were freed from the corset of paper to fly through waves.

Still from the BBC documentary

And it is that in that second half of the fifties there were already enough televisions in the United Kingdom. In Spain, TVE did not start broadcasting until the end of 1956 and with a reception field that was reduced to Madrid, not to mention that the number of television sets sold barely amounted to six hundred due to their prohibitive price. But in Great Britain there were about seven million sets (equivalent to 44% of households) and the BBC had been on screen for several years, being Panorama one of its emblems and with an important audience.

On the other hand, in addition to the container there is the content. Globalization has made it possible for us to know more and better the culture and customs that they have in very distant lands, thousands of kilometers away, and that we can even taste examples of foreign and even exotic cuisines on a regular basis. However, in the middle of the 20th century this was not the case and although there was spaghetti in British stores, it was only sold canned with tomato sauce, which meant that its consumers were not very clear about the nature of the pasta.

Consequently, when Panorama aired that three-minute mockumentary that showed spaghetti being harvested from trees to dry in the sun, many believed it at face value. Specifically, a family from the canton of Ticino, in the southern part of Switzerland, was interviewed, celebrating how good the last harvest had been after having spent a mild winter and managed to make the spaghetti weevil disappear. Furthermore, they held a Harvest Festival imitating the grape harvest and explained how to get the vines to produce spaghetti of the proper length.

Obviously, neither pasta grows on trees (it is made with flour and water) nor did such a family exist. Yes, part of the documentary was recorded in Switzerland, in a hotel in Castagnola, next to Lake Lugano, but everything related to spaghetti was made in a pasta factory in St. Albans (in Hertfordshire, about twenty kilometers from London) .

The realization was carried out by Charles Theophile de Jaeger, BBC cameraman, who had had the idea remembering when, in his school days, a teacher had said in class something like You guys are so stupid you’d believe me if I told you that spaghetti grows on trees.. Jaeger suggested the prank to the show’s editor, Michael Peacock, who, along with the network’s documentary producer, Richard Cawston, gave the project a £100 budget.

The rest is history. It is estimated that the audience was eight million people and hundreds of them ran to call the program asking for advice to grow their own spaghetti, receiving the response noted at the beginning. Sir Ian Jacob himself, director general of the BBC, who had not been previously warned, was made to hesitate and admitted that he had to consult some books. Two things became clear: one, the naive credulity of many people, no matter how crazy the news they hear is; the other, that Jeager was a diligent and attentive student in class.


Spaghetti Fool (Richard G. Elen)/BBC News/Wikipedia

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