On April 1, 1957 the British news show Panorama broadcast a three-minute segment about a bumper spaghetti harvest in southern Switzerland. The success of the crop was attributed both to an unusually mild winter and to the "virtual disappearance of the spaghetti weevil." The audience heard Richard Dimbleby, the show's highly respected anchor, discussing the details of the spaghetti crop as they watched video footage of a Swiss family pulling pasta off spaghetti trees and placing it into baskets. The segment concluded with the assurance that, "For those who love this dish, there's nothing like real, home-grown spaghetti."
The Swiss Spaghetti Harvest hoax generated an enormous response. Hundreds of people phoned the BBC wanting to know how they could grow their own spaghetti tree. To this query the BBC diplomatically replied, "Place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best."
To this day the Panorama broadcast remains one of the most famous and popular April Fool's Day hoaxes of all time. It is also believed to be the first time the medium of television was used to stage an April Fool's Day hoax.
Charles de Jaeger
Harvesting the spaghetti
A Panorama cameraman, Charles de Jaeger, came up with the idea for the spaghetti harvest hoax. De Jaeger was born in Vienna in 1911. He worked in Austria as a freelance photographer before moving to Britain during the 1930s where he worked for the film unit of General Charles de Gaulle's Free French Forces. He joined the BBC in 1943.
De Jaeger had a reputation for being a practical joker. Early in his career at the BBC he was sent to the Vatican to interview the Pope. However, scheduling the interview proved difficult. Finally, he was told by a priest that "His Holiness will see you on Tuesday afternoon." De Jaeger replied, "Yes, but is he a man of his word?"
Another time de Jaeger had to buy some dungarees to protect his clothes during an assignment. He requested compensation from the BBC but was denied. The administration told him that he should have worn old clothes. A month later de Jaeger submitted an expense report in which he included £6, spent on "entertaining press officer, Mr Dungarees." De Jaeger noted, "They paid without a murmur."
The idea for the spaghetti harvest hoax grew out of a remark one of his Viennese school teachers often teasingly said to his class: "Boys, you're so stupid, you'd believe me if I told you that spaghetti grows on trees." As an adult, it occurred to de Jaeger that it would be funny to turn this remark into a visual joke for April Fool's Day. He became quite obsessed with the idea, trying a number of times to sell the idea to different bosses. But it was only in 1957 while he was working for Panorama that he found some willing accomplices.
During the 1950s, only two channels were available to British viewers -- the BBC and ITV. Panorama was the BBC's flagship news program, boasting a viewership of ten million. It aired every Monday night at 8 pm, easily beating out Wagon Train, the show ITV ran against it.
Since 1955 Panorama had been anchored by Richard Dimbleby, whose authoritative, commanding presence had made him one of the most revered public figures in Britain. If Dimbleby said it, people trusted that it was true. As one of his colleagues at Panorama put it, "He had enough gravitas to float an aircraft carrier." Which is one of the reasons why the spaghetti harvest hoax fooled so many viewers. His participation lent the hoax an air of unimpeachable authority.
In 1957 April 1st fell on a Monday. De Jaeger realized this presented Panorama with a rare opportunity to include an April Fool's Day segment in its broadcast. He shared his idea with one of his colleagues, the writer David Wheeler. Wheeler loved it. So the two of them pitched the concept to Michael Peacock, Panorama's editor.
One of the selling points de Jaeger stressed was that it would be relatively cheap to produce the segment. De Jaeger was going to be on assignment in Switzerland anyway, so could combine the costs with the other project. (De Jaeger was often sent on foreign assignments because he was fluent in English, Italian, French, and German.)
Peacock was intrigued, and he decided to okay the plan. He granted them a budget of £100.
De Jaeger headed to Switzerland in March and, accompanied by a representative from the Swiss Tourist Office, scouted out a location. The weather proved problematic. It was misty and cold, and most of the trees were not in blossom. But eventually they found the perfect setting -- a hotel in Castiglione on the shore of Lake Lugano surrounded by evergreen Laurel trees.
De Jaeger obtained twenty pounds of uncooked homemade spaghetti, and began hanging it from branches to create spaghetti trees. But soon he encountered a problem. The spaghetti quickly dried out and wouldn't hang from the branches.
He tried to solve the problem by cooking the spaghetti and then hanging it, but once cooked the spaghetti became slippery and slid off the branches onto the ground. The tourist rep hit on the solution -- placing the uncooked spaghetti between damp cloths to keep it moist until it was ready to use.
With this problem solved, de Jaeger hired some local girls to hang the spaghetti in the trees. He had them wear their national costume, and then he filmed them as they climbed ladders carrying wicker baskets which they filled full of spaghetti, and then laid it out to dry in the sun.
After he had all the shots he needed of the spaghetti harvest, he prepared a spaghetti feast for his actors, which he filmed also.
The footage was rushed back to London where it was edited into a three-minute segment. Music was added to the background to provide the appropriate atmosphere. The selections chosen were "A Neapolitan Love Song" by Walter Stott and "Spring in Ravenna" by Hans May. Wheeler wrote the text that was read by Dimbleby.
Michael Peacock had kept his decision to include an April Fool's Day joke in the Panorama broadcast a closely guarded secret, fearing his superiors would veto the decision. He only told his boss, Leonard Miall, at the last minute. Almost no one else at the BBC knew about it. The segment was not mentioned at all in the pre-transmission publicity handouts.
The line-up for that day's show included a long segment about Archbishop Makarios, leader of the Greek Cypriots, and a clip of the Duke of Edinburgh attending the premiere of the war film The Yangtse Incident.
The second-to-last segment was about a wine-tasting contest, and then it came time for the spaghetti harvest.
Dimbleby, sitting on the set of Panorama, looked into the camera and without a trace of a smile said: "And now from wine to food. We end Panorama tonight with a special report from the Swiss Alps."
The screen cut away to the prepared footage. When it was all over, Dimbleby reappeared and said, "Now we say goodnight, on this first day of April." He emphasized the final phrase.
Text of the spaghetti harvest hoax
What follows is the complete text, written by David Wheeler and narrated by Richard Dimbleby, that Panorama viewers heard.
It is not only in Britain that spring, this year, has taken everyone by surprise. Here in the Ticino, on the borders of Switzerland and Italy, the slopes overlooking Lake Lugano have already burst into flower at least a fortnight earlier than usual.
But what, you may ask, has the early and welcome arrival of bees and blossom to do with food? Well, it is simply that the past winter, one of the mildest in living memory, has had its effect in other ways as well. Most important of all, it's resulted in an exceptionally heavy spaghetti crop.
The last two weeks of March are an anxious time for the spaghetti farmer. There is always the chance of a late frost which, while not entirely ruining the crop, generally impairs the flavour and makes it difficult for him to obtain top prices in world markets. But now these dangers are over and the spaghetti harvest goes forward.
Spaghetti cultivation here in Switzerland is not, of course, carried out on anything like the tremendous scale of the Italian industry. Many of you, I am sure, will have seen pictures of the vast spaghetti plantations in the Po valley. For the Swiss, however, it tends to be more of a family affair.
Another reason why this may be a bumper year lies in the virtual disappearance of the spaghetti weevil, the tiny creature whose depradations have caused much concern in the past.
After picking, the spaghetti is laid out to dry in the warm Alpine air. Many people are very puzzled by the fact that spaghetti is produced in such uniform lengths. This is the result of many years of patient endeavour by plant breeders who suceeded in producing the perfect spaghetti.
Now the harvest is marked by a traditional meal. Toasts to the new crop are drunk in these boccalinos, then the waiters enter bearing the ceremonial dish. This is, of course, spaghetti -- picked early in the day, dried in the sun, and so brought fresh from garden to table at the very peak of condition. For those who love this dish, there is nothing like real home-grown spaghetti.
Soon after the broadcast ended, the BBC began to receive hundreds of calls from viewers. Leonard Miall walked over to the BBC's telephone exchange to witness what was going on. He later wrote:
the calls came in incessantly. Some were from viewers who had enjoyed the joke - including one from Bristol who complained that spaghetti didn't grow vertically, it grew horizontally. But mainly the calls were requests for the BBC to settle family arguments: the husband knew it must be true that spaghetti grew on a bush because Richard Dimbleby had said so and the wife knew it was made with flour and water, but neither could convince the other.
Before transmissions ceased that evening, the BBC broadcast a statement in which it informed viewers of the hoax:
The BBC has received a mixed reaction to a spoof documentary broadcast this evening about spaghetti crops in Switzerland. The hoax Panorama programme, narrated by distinguished broadcaster Richard Dimbleby, featured a family from Ticino in Switzerland carrying out their annual spaghetti harvest. It showed women carefully plucking strands of spaghetti from a tree and laying them in the sun to dry. But some viewers failed to see the funny side of the broadcast and criticised the BBC for airing the item on what is supposed to be a serious factual programme. Others, however, were so intrigued they wanted to find out where they could purchase their very own spaghetti bush.
Spaghetti is not a widely-eaten food in the UK and is considered by many as an exotic delicacy. Mr Dimbleby explained how each year the end of March is a very anxious time for Spaghetti harvesters all over Europe as severe frost can impair the flavour of the spaghetti. He also explained how each strand of spaghetti always grows to the same length thanks to years of hard work by generations of growers. This is believed to be one of the first times the medium of television has been used to stage an April Fools Day hoax.
Despite this confession, calls continued to come in. The BBC operators eventually came up with a standard reply to those seeking information on how to grow their own spaghetti tree: "Place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best."
Part of the reason for the puzzlement was that spaghetti was not a widely eaten food in Britain during the 1950s. Although its popularity had been increasing since World War II, many still considered it to be an exotic, foreign dish. Its origin was evidently a real mystery to some.
Among those fooled were Sir Ian Jacob, the director-general of the BBC. A note had been sent to him, informing him in advance about the broadcast, but he had not received it. Therefore, when he saw the broadcast, he did not know what to expect.
The next day Jacob cornered Miall in the hallway of the BBC and said, "When I saw that item, I said to my wife, 'I don't think spaghetti grows on trees,' so we looked it up in Encyclopedia Britannica. Do you know, Miall, Encyclopedia Britannica doesn't even mention spaghetti."
In the days that followed, there was a scattering of criticism. A few complained that the BBC had taken liberties with the trust of their audience. The headline of the Daily Telegraph the next day read, "BBC fools about with spaghetti." Others noted that the BBC had violated one of the rules of April Fool's Day -- that no jokes are supposed to be carried out later than noon. But overall, the response was very favorable.
Jacob himself, despite having been taken in by the hoax, became a big fan of it. He sent de Jaeger a congratulatory note: "The spaghetti harvest was a splendid idea, beautifully shot and organised. This item has caused a great deal of delight one way and another. Thank you very much indeed."
The Swiss Spaghetti Harvest hoax found a large appreciative audience in America when it was aired by Jack Paar during the 1960s. Later Johnny Carson also aired it. Reportedly, "A week or so later, he had to respond to irate letters of people who took it seriously and thought he was making fun of the simple farmers. I remember him holding up a box of spaghetti and reading off the list of ingredients to prove that spaghetti is made, not born."
Panorama never attempted another April Fool's Day spoof, despite numerous calls for a sequel. However, the hoax did inspire a number of similar stunts in its honor. For instance:
The Australian Spaghetti Crop
In 1967, Melbourne station HSV-7 ran a segment, with reporting by Dan Webb, claiming that Australia had its own spaghetti-growing heartland in the Grampians region of Victoria. However, the spaghetti farmers were facing financial ruin on account of the spaghetti worm, or "spag-worm" (Troglodyte pasta), a creature that ate unripe spaghetti from the inside.
Dimbleby Pickle Farm
On 1 April 1970, NBC Evening News paid tribute to the Swiss Spaghetti Harvest by broadcasting a segment, with John Chancellor reporting, about the "Dimbleby Pickle Farm" in Maryland where pickles grew on trees.
Nobody Grows Spaghetti Like...
In 1978, San Giorgio ran an ad campaign that featured the spaghetti farm where their spaghetti grew on trees. The tag line was, "Nobody grows spaghetti like San Giorgio!"
Pickle Ranch Harvest
In May 1978, National Public Radio ran a segment about a pickle ranch in Michigan. It later reworked this story and aired it as an April Fool's Day story in 1981. On the audio CD set NPR: The First Forty Years, the broadcast is identified as a tribute to the Swiss Spaghetti Harvest.
De Jaeger later wrote a book about Hitler's plan for an art gallery in Linz. He died on May 19, 2000. Leonard Miall wrote an obituary for him that was published in the Independent.
Michael Peacock later became controller of BBC2, which was created in 1964.
In 1999 the Birmingham Post listed the Swiss Spaghetti Harvest hoax as one of television's 100 greatest moments. It came in at #82.
Spaghetti Harvest Haiku (Submitted by Hoax Museum visitors)
There's nothing like the
taste of home-grown spaghetti
picked fresh from the tree! (by AB)
Three words in the news
Hint at untold suffering:
Spaghetti crop fails (by Paul)
Mild winter and no
dreaded spaghetti weevil
make dinner yummy. (by Krista)
Spaghetti on trees!
Discover the truth and watch
BBC channel! (by J)
Spaghetti on trees,
indeed a bumper crop year.
Alas, no ragu. (by Susan)
Might you someday stroke my hair
With the same stern love. (by Iliana)