Saturday 1 April 2017

Britain is still a country for its greatest TV April fooler, Michael Peacock, creator of the Swiss spaghetti harvest

This morning, the 1st April 2017, to mark the occasion of the 60th anniversary of BBC TV's 'Spaghetti Harvest' broadcast, which has entered the record books as the greatest broadcasting April fool of all time, the 73 year old John Humphreys interviewed 87 year old Michael Peacock.  At the time of the broadcast Michael was the 28 year old producer of the fledgling 'Panorama' programme, the Corporation's first weekly TV current affairs series. He had joined the BBC as a trainee producer in 1952, after graduating from the London School of Economics with a sociology degree. By the age of 26 he had become the producer of Panorama and under his editorship, with Richard Dimbleby as anchorman, the programme developed a high reputation and during the Suez crisis in 1956 audiences had reached 12 million viewers.

Michael told the story of the genesis of the 1957 April Fool : "We had a freelance camera man called Charles de Jaeger and he convinced David Wheeler, who was my number 2, that his idea for an April Fool's film concerned with 'the spaghetti harvest' would be a great thing to do for April's Fools of that year, He explained how he was on very good terms with a village in Switzerland where he came from and where they would be ready to put spaghetti on trees to demonstrate that it grows, not comes out of boxes. Eventually I thought : 'Well why not ? Why not ?' So I said : "I'll give you a hundred pounds. Off you go, Make the film and bring it back. There were two of things that became clear when we thought about it all. It would need the imprimatur of Richard Dimbleby's voice as an item."

David's script began with Richard's : "Spaghetti cultivation here in Switzerland is not carried out on anything like the tremendous scale of the Italian industry. Many of you. I'm sure, would have seen pictures of the spaghetti plantations in the Po Valley. It tends to be more of a family affair."

Michael continued : "We had to keep absolutely schtum about it. It must be kept away from the Press Office, the chain of command. We didn't tell the bosses because if we had it would've been out. That's the way we saw it."

In answer John Humphrey's : "You were taking a heck of a gamble there." Michael replied : "Yes and No. There was less at stake in those days and we were competing with ITV and commercial radio, which had just come on stream and it seemed the right way to approach it. David Wheeler wrote a brilliant script which carried exactly the right flavour."

He continued : "We put it out at the end of the item. Richard looked at the camera in the eye, put his finger to his nose a couple of times. "That's Panorama for the the first of April 1957."

John remained incredulous : "Even so, Even though he gave it away, in one sense, an amazingly large number of people fell for it including, is it true, the Director General of the BBC ?" (Sir Ian Jacob)

To which Michael replied : "I certainly was told that that was the case. He is said to have spoken to his wife on the other side of the television set : "My Darling. I didn't know that spaghetti grew on trees" and she said : "Of course you didn't know, because it doesn't." So that was a wonderful catch, as it were, and all over the country that sort of uncertainty : what was true and not true ?"

Dimbleby : "Another reason why this may be a bumper year lies in the virtual disappearance of the spaghetti weevil, the tiny creature whose depredations have caused much concern in the past.

After picking, the spaghetti is laid out to dry in the warm Alpine sun. Many people are often puzzled by the fact that spaghetti is produced at such uniform length, but this is the result of many years of patient endeavour by plant breeders who've succeeded in producing the perfect spaghetti 

And now the harvest is marked by a traditional meal. Toasts to the new crop are drunk in these boccalinos and then the waiters enter bearing the ceremonial dish and it is, of course, spaghetti. Picked earlier 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's nothing like real home-grown spaghetti."

John : "Well, because it was done so persuasively. There was no hint of it being a joke and it was done in the way BBC programmes were made in those days." 

Michael : "It was done in the way the old newsreels were made really. It was one of these nice ideas that worked." 

Three years after the programme went out, Michael was promoted to Editor of Television News and then in 1963, was placed in charge of the launch of the BBC 2 the following year. He served as its Controller for a year before becoming Controller of BBC 1 at the age of 36 in 1965.

In 1967 he parted company with the BBC and became the first Managing Director of London Weekend Television, which began transmissions in 1968 and then in 1971, joined Warner Bros TV Ltd as its Managing Director in London. After a couple of years in the USA he returned to Britain and developed the TV side of 'Video Arts' and also helped to found Manchester's 'Piccadilly Radio' in 1974 and was a Director until 1987. From 1989, to his retirement in 1995, he worked a Chairman of Unique Broadcasting Co.

In answer to John's question : "You don't mind, with your distinguished radio and television career behind you, you don't mind being remembered as the man who created the best April Fool's broadcasting joke of all time ?" 

Michael replied :
"I don't mind at all. Better to be remembered than forgotten."

Friday, 5 August 2016

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