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First great radio hoax: continued

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Secret London
Murder Ballads

“Uneasiness” is a splendidly gentle word for an announcement like that, suggesting as it does that listeners were never more than mildly concerned. But it doesn't quite fit the experience of a BBC sound effects man called JCS MacGregor, who found himself fielding many of the calls that had made the announcement necessary. MacGregor was one of the technical team assisting with Knox's broadcast, and the switchboard evidently decided that was good enough reason to lumber him with the resulting complaints.
“I was one of those who worked the simple sound effects,” he later recalled in an article for the BBC's house magazine. “An orange box to be hacked, torn and stamped to pieces, and a sack of broken glass to be dumped on the studio floor convinced listeners from Land's End to Berwick-on-Tweed that the Savoy Hotel was indeed falling in ruins: and it was on my devoted head that the storm broke.” (4)

'Thousands of people were thrown into a panic, fearing that revolution had broken out'

The first caller of the night was convivial enough, but the second proved a far more awkward customer. “His wife had a weak heart and had fainted at the news,” MacGregor recalled. “When he gathered from me that the whole thing was fictitious, he exploded. What, he asked with some vigour, did the BBC mean by it? Did we realise we had grossly misled the country and were playing into the hands of the Bolshevists?”
There followed a batch of other calls in much the same vein, and then one from a reporter at the Daily Mail. “My interrogator seemed to have a certain lack of sympathy with the BBC and a natural desire to make the most of a good story,” MacGregor writes. “It was a trying experience.”

MacGregor must have been relieved to see that Monday's Mail did not mention him by name, but quoted instead the official BBC statement regretting any confusion caused. “As there are so many 'talks' in the broadcast programmes, thousands of listeners did not switch on until they hoped the talk was over,” the Mail helpfully explained. “As a result, they heard fragmentary statements, delivered in the manner of BBC announcers.” (13)
After a quick summary of BTB's content, the paper describes the flood of calls its own office had received. “The callers were in a state of excitement and demanded to know what was happening in London,” it says. “Was it true that Big Ben had been blown up? Had the National Gallery been sacked? Were the Government calling on loyal citizens? Many refused to be reassured. 'We have heard it on the wireless,' they declared. 'Why, we have even heard the explosions!'”
All that day's newspapers went to town on the story, not only because it made such a rattling good yarn, but also because it offered the chance to portray the BBC as a dangerously irresponsible organisation. Despite the press barons' financial stranglehold on the Post Office, Reith was gradually winning more and more concessions over what the BBC was allowed to do. A full-blooded broadcast news service - if that ever came - was sure to eat into newspaper readership, and so cut the advertising profits that readership generated.
The more pressure the papers could put on Government to hobble the BBC with heavy regulation, the less of a threat this huge new competitor was likely to be. No wonder they were so delighted to report a BBC broadcast which had panicked many innocent listeners.
“The BBC has unintentionally been responsible for the biggest scare known in Britain since the advent of broadcasting,” trumpeted the Evening Standard. “Half the country over the weekend has been flooded with rumours of a great upheaval in London.” The Times added that “many timid folk were genuinely startled by the news”. (14, 15)
The Daily Express joined in too. “The British Broadcasting Company has leant itself to a practical joke of a particularly foolish character,” it said. “Why it should seem funny to a priest to insult the working people of England by representing them in the act of dynamite outrages is one of those problems we do not pretend the ability to solve.” The Express then quotes the former Liberal MP Leo Chiozza Money, who declares: “The item was utterly humourless. The BBC should be ashamed of having included it in their programme.” (16)
“Much is permitted to the humorist,” the Daily Graphic announced. “That the BBC should allow him to address his fooling to a nationwide audience is another matter.” The Daily Sketch added: “Thousands of people who missed the introduction were thrown into a state of panic by the thought that a revolution had broken out in the metropolis.” (3, 17)
Even the Catholic magazine The Tablet felt it must have its say - albeit with some rather bizarre logic. “There are in England groups of hireling Communists who must have been enormously encouraged by the fact that many Britons were badly scared last Saturday,” it warned. “These Reds can now truthfully report to their employers that a red Revolution is not unthinkable in England, seeing that even a burlesque account of it caused widespread alarm.” (18)
The papers in Scotland took a slightly different line, often using the story to tease their English neighbours a little. “Scottish people apparently saw the joke without need of surgical operation,” the Weekly Scotsman announced. “It was English listeners who were mostly alarmed, and many enquiries from Ireland perhaps betrayed more interest than concern.” (19)
Tempting as it was to simply blame the BBC for all this, a couple of papers did wonder about listeners' gullibility too. “A joke is never so dangerous as when it is a good joke,” mused the Daily News. “In every population, even in Scotland, there is a large percentage of respectable, hard-working and a kind-hearted citizens to whom a funny story, especially if it is ironically funny, unless carefully annotated by a Government official, makes the single, direct appeal in evidential values of a police court narrative.” (20)

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Killer clergyman: Ronald Knox the detective writer

For all his frustration at people missing the satirical point of his Sherlock Holmes lecture, Knox evidently had a lot of affection for the classic English detective story.
      He wrote six such stories of his own between 1926 and 1937, eking out his modest stipend as an Oxford chaplain with titles like The Viaduct Murder, The Footsteps at the Lock and The Body in the Silo. These feature a private detective called Miles Bredon, whose work investigating suspicious claims for an insurance company drives the plots along. Often, Bredon's wife Angela is involved too, allowing Knox to demonstrate his wit as the couple affectionately banter with one another.
      Breton's adventures fit the era's prevailing fashion for detective tales which set out a logical puzzle for the reader to solve, dribbling out clues as the genteel story proceeds through idyllic English countryside.
      Agatha Christie remains the most famous writer in this style, which follows a set of conventions as strict and formal as any Japanese haiku. Knox's tales were no exception.
      “Characteristically, his plots are mathematical, rather like Times crossword puzzles,” says the Ronald Knox Society.
      Evelyn Waugh makes a similar point in his 1959 biography of Knox, praising above all the stories' scrupulous logic. “Very few women have ever enjoyed them,” he adds.
      In 1930, Knox became a founding member of The Detection Club, joining writers like GK Chesterton and Dorothy Sayers on what was then the Mount Olympus of crime fiction. “Their books, in one form or another sold into the millions, and in a dozen languages,” Raymond Chandler writes in The Simple Art of Murder. “These were the people who fixed the form and established the rules.”

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