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Tuesday 10 April 2012

The First Radio Hoax?

To most people, the phrase “radio hoax” conjures up the notorious Orson Welles Martian invasion broadcast of 1938. But it’s sometimes alleged that a similar hoax was perpetrated a dozen years earlier, in January 1926. At that time the BBC, which was little more than three years old, had a state monopoly on radio broadcasting in the UK. British listeners had just one channel to choose from, so a Saturday evening prime-time broadcast had a captive audience of perhaps ten million people. And so it happened—according to the story—that on Saturday 16 January 1926 ten million people were taken in by the world’s very first radio hoax.

The usual account is something like the following. Switching on their crystal sets to listen to an uplifting moral lecture by a distinguished academic, the audience instead hears breaking news of an unruly demonstration in Trafalgar Square. They listen in alarm as the protesters break into the National Gallery and vandalize it, swarm into St James’s Park and throw broken bottles at the ducks, and then advance towards Parliament Square in a threatening manner. A government minister is spotted trying to flee the scene, and summarily hanged from a lamppost. An academic who is on his way to the BBC to deliver a lecture is roasted alive. The Houses of Parliament are attacked with trench mortars and the ‘Big Ben’ clock tower crashes to the ground. At this point, in an attempt to calm the audience, the programme switches to a live relay of band music from the ballroom of the Savoy Hotel... but this is interrupted by a loud crash, which listeners are informed was the sound of the Savoy being blown up by the rioters.

Actually, of course, nothing untoward happened in London that day. The broadcast was the work of just one man: Father Ronald A. Knox, a rather unorthodox Catholic priest who was probably most famous as a writer of mystery novels. He did all the voices and sound effects himself — for example the noise of the Savoy being destroyed was actually made by Knox demolishing a wooden greengrocer’s crate. So the broadcast was a work of fiction... but was it really a hoax? Well no, it wasn’t -- it was a satirical comedy sketch. It may not have been a precocious forerunner of Orson Welles, but it was certainly a precocious forerunner of classic BBC radio comedy of the kind normally associated with The Goon Show of the 1950s. All this becomes obvious when you look more closely at the details of the programme.

For a start, the show lasted a mere twelve minutes, which is far too short a time for the events that were supposedly unfolding. It’s true that people often choose Trafalgar Square as a venue for protests, but not at 7.40 on a January evening. The day’s radio schedule listed the show as ‘Broadcasting the Barricades’ -- so, far from being spontaneous ‘breaking news’, it was obviously programmed in advance! To make this absolutely clear, the show was announced on air as ‘a work of humour and imagination, enlivened by realistic sound effects’. This is a fact the hoax proponents tend to gloss over, together with the absurdist humour that permeates the script.

The leader of the protest is a Mr Popplebury, described as ‘Secretary of the National Movement for the Abolition of Theatre Queues’. The academic who is attacked on his way to the BBC has the equally ludicrous name of Sir Theophilus Gooch... and after informing his listeners that Gooch is being roasted alive, Knox adds that ‘he will therefore be unable to deliver his lecture to you’.

When the Palace of Westminster is attacked, Knox informs his listeners that ‘The building is made of magnesian limestone from Yorkshire, a material which is unfortunately liable to rapid decay. At present, in any case, it is being demolished with trench mortars.’ After Big Ben is destroyed, he points out that it can no longer be used for the BBC time signal, which in future will come from ‘uncle Leslie’s repeating watch’.

Perhaps the most absurd thing of all is the programme’s ending. After destroying the Houses of Parliament and the Savoy Hotel, the rioters set their sights on the BBC studio itself. They head there ‘with a threatening demeanour’, but as soon as they arrive they sit down quietly in the waiting room and start to read The Radio Times!


Kandinsky said...

What a cracking story and one I'd never heard about before. It's a shame the broadcast isn't available to listen to.

After a (very) quick look for the audio failed, I found a broadcast by Knox at the following link >

Unfortunately I don't have Real Player to listen to the .ram file.

Andrew May said...

Thanks for the comment. That was one of the pages I looked at too. I get the feeling it used to have a full audio clip of the 2005 reconstruction (not the original show, which is lost) but they took it down and replaced it with the clip that is there now (which is Knox talking about a different subject altogether).

ol smokey said...

I think it's a bit much to refer to Orson Welle's broadcast as a hoax. It was a radio play, and was announced as a play "by the Mercury Theatre" a number of times before, during, and after the broadcast.
I've heard this broadcast many times and there is no suggestion by Welles or any other voice that it was anything BUT a radio play.
Be that as it may, I've never heard of this BBC broadcast above but then again there's loads of other stuff I've never heard either. I'd love to hear the original.

Andrew May said...

Yes, sorry, you are quite right about Orson Welles of course. What I was getting at is that a lot of people will automatically think of it when they hear the phrase "first radio hoax", whether or not it was actually intended as such. Like the Knox broadcast, it was a work of fiction that the media of the day portrayed as a hoax that fooled thousands of people because it made a better story for their front pages. The biggest difference is that Welles didn't play it for laughs, as Knox did.

I believe the original recording of Knox's piece is lost, although the script still exists, and was reconstructed on radio by the BBC a few years ago.