I’ve found two hoaxes that happened on this day and, as I can’t choose between them, I’m going to have to tell you about both. You may have heard of Orson Welles’s famous broadcast of a play based on HG Wells’s ‘War of the Worlds’ and about the widespread panic it supposedly caused. I wrote about it back in October. Well, the BBC have a prior claim. It happened back in 1926, only four years after the BBC had begun to broadcast. The programme was listed in the Radio Times as “7;40: – The Rev. Father Ronald Knox – ‘Broadcasting the Barricades’, SB from Edinburgh.” What the Reverend Knox had written and broadcast was what he called ‘a burlesque’, by which he meant a parody, of a BBC broadcast. It was about a massive riot in London. He thought it was all far too over the top and silly for anyone to believe. But he was wrong.
Listeners from all over the country would have been tuning in on a crystal set, like the one pictured above. They were tricky things to use and it would have been easy to miss the beginning of the programme, where it was clearly announced that it was “a work of humour and imagination, enlivened by realistic sound effects.” It began with what seemed like the end of the previous programme, an improving talk on Gray’s Elegy that everyone was probably hoping to have missed. Then there was a bit of static followed by what sounded like a live news report from Trafalgar Square. A demonstration by the unemployed had turned violent. People were sacking the National Gallery. This was not really so very long after the Russian Revolution in 1917, so it sounded like just the sort of thing people were afraid might happen here.
There was an interlude featuring live music from the Savoy Hotel’s house band which was followed by a report that people were throwing bottles at the ducks in St James’s Park. Then, there was a rustling of papers as though more news was coming in and the announcer said: “One minute, please. From reports which have just come to hand, it appears that Sir Theophilus Gooch, who was on his way to this station, has been intercepted by the remnants of the crowd still collected in Trafalgar Square, and is being roasted alive… He is now being roasted alive by a crowd in Trafalgar Square.” This way of announcing the same thing twice was, at the time, characteristic of the BBC.
Next came the news that the Minister for Transport, Mr Wotherspoon, had been captured and was being hanged from a lamp post on the Vauxhall Bridge Road. The announcer later apologised and corrected this statement; it had, in fact, been a tramway post. A bit more music was interrupted by the report that the demonstrators were advancing on Whitehall with trench mortars. After that, the listeners were told that the Houses of Parliament had been blown up and Big Ben destroyed. The announcer further explained that the building was built from magnesian limestone from Yorkshire, a material which is unfortunately liable to rapid decay. An unnecessary piece of information which was, again, typical BBC. Then, the music from the Savoy Hotel returned, but was interrupted by the sound of a large explosion. The announcer cut back in to say that the Savoy Hotel had also been blown up. Finally, He announces that the mob are advancing on the BBC. But luckily order was restored when everyone just sat down in the waiting room and started reading the Radio Times.
People didn’t really know what had just happened. Knox thought he had put enough clues in the script to make people realize it was all a joke. The leader of his gang of rioters, Mr Popplebury, was constantly referred to as: “Secretary of the National Movement for Abolishing Theatre Queues”. An organisation which, if it existed at all, was unlikely to spearhead a revolution. But many people had just never come across satire, they didn’t understand it. A further problem was that they had no way of getting any sort of news until the papers arrived the following morning. This would be further exacerbated by a heavy snowfall the following day. It meant lots of people were unable to get their usual Sunday newspaper and that increased the worry that something might really be wrong. Many reached for they telephones. They called the BBC, they called newspaper offices, some even called the Admiralty and demanded that they send a battleship up the Thames to sort it all out. The Savoy Hotel had hundreds of calls. Some were worried about friends who were staying there, but others just wanted to know if they should cancel their reservations. At 9.00 pm the BBC had to broadcast an apology to the listeners who hadn’t realised it was all just a bit of silliness, and assure everyone that London was safe.
By Monday, the newspapers were full of the story. They saw the BBC as a threat to their monopoly on the news and were delighted by the opportunity to show them as a dangerous and irresponsible organisation. John Reith, who was director of the BBC, was not annoyed at all. He was interested in raising the profile of the company and Knox’s broadcast had certainly done that. In fact, it wasn’t long before they were planning to make a similar programme for April Fool’s Day.
My second hoax took place exactly 180 years earlier. Person or persons unknown advertised, in several newspapers, an event which was to take place at the Haymarket Theatre on January 16th 1746. There would be, on stage, a person who would do several unusual things. If any member of the audience were to come on stage, wearing a ‘masked habit’ he would be able to tell them who they were. Also, he would take a walking cane, that any of the spectators could provide, and play on it, the sound of any musical instrument. Most surprisingly of all, he would climb into a quart bottle (that’s two pints) and when he was inside he would sing a song. Whilst he was inside the bottle, anybody would be able to come and pick it up and look at it. They would see that it was just an ordinary bottle.
The theatre was packed. Among the audience was the Duke of Cumberland, the brother of the king. It’s hard to know what people really expected to see, but at 7.00 pm, the lights went up and nothing happened. There was no music to entertain the crowd and they began to get restless. Eventually a hapless theatre employee had to go on stage and tell everyone that if the performer didn’t turn up soon, everyone would get their money back. One audience member shouted out that they would pay double if he would crawl into a pint bottle. Then things turned a bit nasty. A lighted candle was thrown on stage. The Duke left hurriedly. Those who remained behind gutted the theatre. Benches were ripped out, the scenery smashed and the boxes destroyed. They dragged all the debris out into the street and made a huge bonfire.
At first, the theatre staff were under suspicion, but they claimed it had all been organised by ‘a stranger’ and it’s hard to imagine what they could possibly have gained from it. The likely explanation is that somebody did it for a bet. The Duke of Portland, the Earl of Chesterfield and the Duke of Montagu (who’s house I mentioned yesterday) were possible candidates. It was later claimed that the performer in question had been unable to attend because he had agreed beforehand to perform the trick privately to a gentleman for the sum of £5. When he was inside, the gentleman had corked up the bottle and taken him away. There was even an advertisement stating that people should go to the Haymarket Theatre on January 30th, where they would be able to see him climb out of the bottle.