BBC hoax it is a good reminder of how bad some of the things that pass as April Fools’ “jokes” are these days
The spaghetti-tree hoax was a three-minute hoax report broadcast on April Fools’ Day 1957 by the BBC current-affairs programme Panorama, purportedly showing a family in southern Switzerland harvesting spaghetti from the family “spaghetti tree”.
At the time spaghetti was relatively little known in the UK, so that many Britons were unaware that it is made from wheat flour and water; a number of viewers afterwards contacted the BBC for advice on growing their own spaghetti trees. Decades later CNN called this broadcast “the biggest hoax that any reputable news establishment ever pulled”
The report was produced as an April Fools’ Day joke in 1957, showing a family in the canton of Ticino in southern Switzerland as they gathered a bumper spaghetti harvest after a mild winter and “virtual disappearance of the spaghetti weevil”.
Footage of a traditional “Harvest Festival” was aired along with a discussion of the breeding necessary to develop a strain to produce the perfect length. Some scenes were filmed at the (now closed) Pasta Foods factory on London Road, St Albans, in Hertfordshire, and at a hotel in Castagnola, Switzerland.
Panorama cameraman Charles de Jaeger dreamed up the story after remembering how teachers at his school in Austria teased his classmates for being so stupid that if they were told that spaghetti grew on trees, they would believe it.
The editor of Panorama Michael Peacock told the BBC in 2014 how he gave de Jaeger a budget of £100 and sent him off. The report was made more believable through its voice-over by respected broadcaster Richard Dimbleby. Peacock said Dimbleby knew they were using his authority to make the joke work, and that Dimbleby loved the idea and went at it with relish.
At the time, seven million of the 15.8 million homes (about 44%) in Britain had television receivers. Pasta was not an everyday food in 1950s Britain, and it was known mainly from tinned spaghetti in tomato sauce and considered by many to be an exotic delicacy.
An estimated eight million people watched the programme on 1 April, and hundreds phoned in the following day to question the authenticity of the story or ask for more information about spaghetti cultivation and how they could grow their own spaghetti trees. The BBC reportedly told them to “place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best”.