Need cheering up? Great April Fools' hoaxes of all time

April Fools' Day will probably seem a little subdued this year. With the country in virtual lockdown, and people told to keep their distance from each other, the opportunity to play pranks on one another will be limited.

The infamous Panorama spaghetti trees, broadcast in 1957
The infamous Panorama spaghetti trees, broadcast in 1957

It is the time of year that the media likes to spring hoaxes on unsuspecting members of the public, perhaps most memorably the spoof Panorama programme of 1957 about the supposed record harvest of spaghetti trees in Switzerland.

However, with the country in such a state of high alert, there will probably be an extra degree of caution about any such stunts this year.

The precise origins of April Fools' Day, or All Fools' Day, is uncertain. But it seems to be a largely European tradition which became popular during the 16th century.

Some believe the day may have its origins in the Roman festival of Hilaria, which was usually held around the time of the spring equinox, and traditionally included games processions and masquerades, which gave the hoi-polloi the opportunity to impersonate the nobility, sometimes with amusing consequences. Some also see Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, which refers to a fox tricking the vain cock '32 days after the start of March', as being an early reference to the tradition.

Phony errands

However, probably the most commonly accepted explanation for the tradition relates to when France made the switch from the Julian to Gregorian calendar in 1582. People who were slow to get the news or failed to recognise that the start of the new year had moved to January 1 continued to celebrate New Year's festivities during the last week of March through April 1. They became the butt of jokes and hoaxes, which included having paper fish placed on their backs and being referred to as “poisson d’avril” (April fish), which was said to symbolize a young, easily caught fish that was in plentiful supply during April.

April Fools’ Day spread throughout Britain during the 18th century. In Scotland, the tradition became a two-day event, starting with “hunting the gowk,” in which people were sent on phony errands (gowk is an old Scottish word for a cuckoo, which is a symbol for a fool), and followed by Tailie Day, which involved pranks such as pinning fake tails or “kick me” signs on people's backsides.

Over the past couple of centuries there have been scores of epic pranks which have reeled thousands of people in.

One of the most famous was the BBC's 1957 Panorama report on the record spaghetti crop in Switzerland featuring footage of people pulling noodles from trees. The film was actually made in a vineyard, and the pranksters had actually draped the vines with spaghetti, but at a time when Italian food was still something of a novelty in the UK, thousands of people were taken in.

On March 31, 1989, hundreds of motorists driving just outside London became alarmed to see a glowing red flying saucer descending on the city. As it finally prepared to land in a field in Surrey, the police and army were mobilised. Word has it that a single policeman was sent to meet the craft's crew, but that he ran off when a silver-suited man emerged from the door of the craft.

Not amused

The flying saucer turned out to be a hot-air balloon manned by businessman Richard Branson, and it is fair to say the authorities were not amused. The joke could also have been said to have been on Branson, given that the intention had been to land in Hyde Park on April 1, but his balloon was blown off course.

In 1996, the fast-food restaurant chain Taco Bell announced it had agreed to purchase the world-famous Liberty Bell in Philadelphia with the intention of renaming it the Taco Liberty Bell. In 1998, after Burger King advertised a “Left-Handed Whopper,” scores of clueless customers requested the fake burger.

In the days leading up to April 1, 1856, London residents received an official-looking invitation printed on Tower of London stationery and bearing a crimson wax seal. Signed Herbert de Grassen, supposedly a senior warden at the tower, it invited recipients to watch the annual tradition of the 'washing of the lions'. Despite there not having been any lions in the tower for several hundreds of years, plenty of people were taken in and turned up expecting to see the lions being given a good shampooing.

On April 1, 1962, Swedish broadcaster SVT brought its technical expert, Kjell Stensson, onto the news to inform the public that, thanks to a new technology, viewers could convert their existing sets to display colour reception. At the time, there was only the one TV channel in Sweden, and it broadcast in black and white, so this was big news.

Stensson explained that all viewers had to do was pull a nylon stocking over their TV screen, and the mesh would cause the light to bend in such a way that it would appear as if the image was in colour. Many Swedes today still report remembering their fathers rushing through the house trying to find stockings to place over the television. Regular colour broadcasts only commenced in Sweden on April 1, 1970.

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