Criticism. Essay. Fiction. Science. Weather.
Trafalgar Square, protesting the social condition of England's poor. The report continued: what started out as a mere angry demonstration soon grew into an enraged, uncontrollable mob; Mr. Poppleberry incited the mob to storm the national gallery; it was stormed, smashed, and much of the artwork was destroyed; a traffic minister named Mr. Waltherspoon, in an unprovoked frenzy of violence, was hanged by the crowd; a minister for housing, Theopholus Gooch, on his way to the local BBC radio station to address the issue of the poor, was intercepted and burned to death, "roasted alive" the reporters said. The crowd eventually got their hands on trench mortars and began firing them at the Parliament building from Whitehall. Three towers fell, including the famous Big Ben clock tower. Mr. Poppleberry then incited the crowd to blow up the Savoy Hotel. It was reduced to rubble. The entire riot ran a mere 14 minutes, the most concentrated amount of destruction in British history.
That was what the BBC broadcast that evening, at any rate. None of those things actually happened. Big Ben was not knocked down, and the Savoy Hotel remains standing to this day. The entire "riot" was, in actuality, a clever satirical drama concocted as an elaborate radio joke by a famous essayist, satirist, crime writer
, and Roman Catholic priest, Fr. Ronald Arbuthnott Knox
(1888-1957). This was not a full-blown hoax, mind you; Knox had no intention, malicious or otherwise, of causing the panic he did. He merely intended to give the listeners of his program a little mental goose that snowy Saturday evening.
About 20 minutes after Knox had gone home, he started receiving calls from J.C.S. MacGregor, the BBC soundman. MacGregor was fielding a huge amount of telephone calls asking more about the riots, and if it was safe to take to the streets. Concerned people asking if the government had been overthrown by angry Communists. People actually started taking to the streets, fearing the labor uprising and a violent coup d'etat.
Fr. Knox (later Msgr. Knox) was an author and a theologian, but first and foremost, he was a comedian, and a kind of goofy one at that. He may have been a Catholic priest, but Knox is probably the best example of a clergyman having a good sense of humor. No stuffy sophist, or jingoistic pedant, Knox was a fan of populist crime novels, comic writings, and droll sayings. He was widely popular throughout the '20s for his witty lectures and satirical essays (he famously wrote an essay, criticizing Sherlock Holmes
for his unusual police work, never once acknowledging that Holmes might possibly be fictional). He wrote a good number of humorous apologias about Roman Catholic dogma, and even wrote a few crime novels himself.
In the mid 1920s the BBC gave Knox his own lecture-based radio program. Being an avid radio listener, he had memorized much of the style of the BBC news broadcasts, and struck upon the idea to make up a funny drama based on said broadcasts. A labor riot seemed possible, although some of the details were so ridiculous, surely people would know that it was a joke. Mr. Poppleberry, for instance, was often cited as The Secretary for the National Movement to Abolish Theatre Queues
. Every time something of significance was destroyed, Knox would give a brief and cheerful history of the thing. When Big Ben was reportedly toppled, Knox announced that Manchester time would be given from "uncle Leslie's repeating watch." And when the crowd had finally stormed the Savoy, and made their way to the BBC booth from where he was broadcasting, they calmly took their seats to read the Radio Times.
These jokes were lost on most listeners. Radio, it must be remembered, was still a novelty at the time. The early radio technology forced most people to listen through headphones, so it was an intense personal experience. Plus a number of listeners were not cosmopolitan city-dwellers (who might be savvy to a joke), but solitary laborers and farmers on the outskirts of London. England had just elected their first Labor Party; the country had opened up trade with the Soviet Union
; Red Scare was spreading throughout the world; no one was in the mood to joke. So people believed the report and almost started a real riot in response to the fake one. To make matters worse, newspapers couldn't report is as a hoax until the following Monday, as it was a particularly snowy weekend.
When papers finally printed the story, and word got out that it was all a hoax, Knox had the good sense to address it on the radio again. He didn't quite apologize, but he addressed it. The people who were suckered did not react with bitterness or hostility, but with a certain brand of British good humor and appreciation of the brilliance of such an original prank. In 2005, BBC4 even had the good humor to recreate the infamous Knox broadcast
based on the original transcripts.
International papers, though, had a field day with the story. One reporter for the New York Times
outwardly lambasted the Brits for falling for so transparent a ploy, and claimed that Americans would never be so gullible. Of course, 12 years later, Americans would be hiding in their basements, stockpiling ammunition and canned foods in anticipation of the coming alien invasion, thanks to Orson Welles' famous "War of the Worlds
So the hoax itself was a success, and, in addition, helped to propel the career and reputation of Ronald Knox. It also taught an important lesson: don't trust everything you hear over the radio. I admire Knox for doing it, and patiently await the next young satire-loving upstart to make another hoax of this magnitude. Sadly, I don't think it will happen in America. In a fearful country that is closing down streets and announcing bomb threats because of some oddly-yet-creatively-placed cartoon advertisements
, I don't think people would take the joke so well as the Brits did in 1926.