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First great radio hoax: continued

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Secret London
Murder Ballads

* Knox also gives his characters ludicrous jobs. The rioters' ringleader Mr Popplebury, for example, gets nine mentions in the report, and is described every time as “Secretary of the National Movement for Abolishing Theatre Queues”. Why would such a trivial figure be leading this serious unrest? The unfortunate Mr Wotherspoon is described as “Minister of Traffic”, a post which - as Knox later pointed out to his critics - did not exist.

* In parodying the BBC's news style of the day, Knox often gives the same piece of information twice, first in the active voice and then the passive. For example: “The crowd in Trafalgar Square is now assuming threatening dimensions. Threatening dimensions are now being assumed by the crowd which has gathered in Trafalgar Square”. He pushes this to the point of absurdity by using it six times in a very short piece.

* In copying the BBC's determination to educate its listeners, Knox often slips in a passage of unwanted historical detail before returning abruptly to the subject at hand. On the Houses of Parliament, for example, he says: “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.”

* Knox breaks up reports of the riot with parodies of other BBC news content, including the arrival of a spectacularly vacuous American film star at Southampton. He also includes a weather forecast which announces the weather will be “fine generally, with occasional showers in the South and a continuous downpour in the North”. Winds, he adds, will be “violent” in England and “assume the dimensions of a hurricane” in Scotland. But otherwise fine.

* Sir Theophilus Gooch's death in Trafalgar Square - and the far more serious news that his BBC talk will now have to be cancelled - is followed by a short biographical sketch. “He very soon attracted the notice of his employers,” Knox says. “However, nothing was proved, and Sir Theophilus retired with a considerable fortune.”

* Following the collapse of Big Ben, Knox explains twice that Greenwich Time will instead be given from Edinburgh on “Uncle Leslie's repeating watch”.

* After the sensational news that Mr Wotherspoon has been hanged from a lamp-post in the Vauxhall Bridge Road, Knox sets listeners up to expect a vital correction. Dragging their expectation out as far as he dares, and with fulsome apologies on behalf of the BBC, he finally admits that it was actually a tramway post.

* When Popplebury's mob reach the BBC, Knox announces breathlessly that they have entered the waiting room, where calm is instantly restored. “They are reading copies of the Radio Times,” he explains. “Goodnight, everybody. Goodnight.”

'Being a very clever, witty man himself, he didn't estimate how stupid other people can be'

With all those clues packed into a 17-minute broadcast, it's hard to see how anyone managed to mistake Knox's spoof for the real thing. Radio historian Paddy Scannell puts their credulity partly down to the fact that the wireless was so new, and partly to the fact that many probably didn't hear the full programme.
“At that time, radio was only about four years old,” he told Snoddy for Radio 4's The Riot That Never Was. “There'd be about a million radio sets in the country, and people weren't really familiar with listening to the radio in the way that we all are today. [...] I imagine if they had listened all the way through, it would become progressively clearer that it was a joke. But if you just came in, as people often did, in the middle of a programme and you only heard a little bit of it, you might think it was real.” (7)
Snoddy put the same question to the University of Kent's Alan Beck, who offered a slightly different explanation. “People who perhaps couldn't even afford gramophones, in all reaches of the country, were for the first time listening in,” he explained. “People in country regions, not urban regions, were for the first time being reached. This was a much more popular audience - an audience that was not involved in reading high-class journalism such as Punch and the quality papers.” (7)
People like this would have encountered nothing remotely like Knox's sophisticated satire anywhere else in their lives, and their limited experience of radio so far had done nothing to prepare them for a prank like this. “The idea of parodying a news broadcast!” Scannell exclaimed to Snoddy. “Nobody had done it before. It was very mischievous, I'd say. It's absolutely unsurprising that people were fooled by it. Why should they not believe this? It was the BBC after all!”
Father Ian Ker's grandfather was Ronald Knox's first cousin, and Ker has followed in the great man's footsteps by becoming a Catholic Chaplain at Oxford himself. When we questioned him about his relative's motives, he admitted Knox might have been a little na´ve in imaging how the broadcast would be received.
“I think Knox was genuinely surprised by the reaction,” Ker said. “Because it had been made so clear at the beginning of the broadcast that this was a practical joke. Being a very clever and witty man himself, I suppose he didn't estimate how stupid other people can be. He was used to growing up with clever and witty people, and I suppose he just didn't estimate the kind of audience who were likely to listen to this.” (7)
Whatever the reasons, there's no doubt that a lot of people were fooled. Just 20 minutes after finishing the broadcast, Knox was sitting down to supper at Edinburgh's Caledonian Hotel when the waiter announced that a Mr Reith was on the phone. Reith passed on the news that staff at the BBC's Savoy Hill headquarters were already getting anxious enquiries about what was happening in London. By 9:00pm, the BBC was broadcasting this reassurance:

“Some listeners, who apparently only heard part of Father Knox's talk at 7:40 this evening did not realise the humorous innuendoes underlying the imaginary news items and have felt uneasy as to the fate of London, Big Ben and other places mentioned in the talk. The preliminary announcement stated that the talk was a skit on broadcasting and the whole talk was, of course, a burlesque. We hope that any listeners who did not realise it will accept our sincere apologies for any uneasiness caused. London is safe. Big Ben is still chiming, and all is well.”

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