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First great radio hoax: continued

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Secret London
Murder Ballads

“Humour and satire are dangerous implements when they are applied to mankind in the mass,” added the Irish Times. “The BBC will be wise if, in future, it takes no risk with its public's average standard of intelligence.” Knox's brother made a similar point when speaking to the Daily Sketch: “I am inclined to think my brother over-estimated the people's sense of humour”. (21, 22)
The BBC responded to all this fuss by calmly repeating extracts from its original statement, expressing regret that anyone was distressed, and reminding people again about all the warnings the broadcast had contained. Knox himself remained philosophical. “I had no idea that listeners would take what I said seriously,” he told the Evening Standard: “Even now, I cannot quite see how anyone could have misinterpreted my remarks. I am sure that my 'news reports' were so far-fetched that no-one who thought them out could have been alarmed.” (12)
Waugh confirms this. “Ronald himself was not much cast down by his reception,” he writes. “His conscience was perfectly clear of any malicious intent, and he could not take seriously the annoyance of people so egregiously lacking in humour. [...] A colleague at St Edmund's remembers his unaffected delight in hearing himself roundly abused over their beer by two men in a fishing inn.”

Far from being angry at the storm Broadcasting the Barricades had produced, Reith was delighted. This is a reaction which often surprises people today, who know Reith - later Lord Reith of course - only as the unbendingly stern and puritanical figure which his legend as the BBC's founding father portrays.

BBC figures show more than nine positive responses to the programme for every complaint

“Given that everybody thinks of Reith as a rather grim Scottish Calvinist, you might have expected him to be full of wrath and apologies for the broadcast,” Paddy Scannell told Radio 4. “But actually, he was very pleased by it. What the BBC was above all concerned about at that time was building its audience. He was thrilled with the results, because it proved that people were listening and they were responding to it.”
On February 11, 1926 - less than a month after BTB went out - Reith made his latest report to the BBC's directors. “The outstanding item of last month was unexpected,” he told them “Father Ronald Knox's broadcast aroused much public attention, but press criticism only produced an increase in the number of appreciations received by us.” (23)
Reith's figures show 2,307 appreciations for the programme, against only 249 criticisms, 194 of which were directed at Knox himself. With more than nine positive responses to the programme for every negative one received, he had every reason to be pleased. Five days later, the BBC's programme board decided to authorise its first April Fool's Day programme, suggesting: “a suitable hoax [...] somewhat on the lines of the Father Ronald Knox transmission”.
Knox continued to make occasional BBC broadcasts after all the fuss died down - notably a spoof scientific talk claiming scientists had detected the sound of vegetables in pain - but concentrated mostly on his writing. This ranged from the light detective stories which he wrote for his own amusement to far more ambitious works such 1939's Let Dons Delight, which imagines a series of conversations in an Oxford Common room between Elizabeth I's reign and Knox's own time. Around 1936, he embarked on the mammoth task of producing a new translation of the Bible, the final fruits of which were published in 1950.
Somewhere along the way, Knox met Evelyn Waugh and the two men became close friends. Waugh, who considered Knox “the first prose writer of our time” agreed to serve as his literary executor and, when Knox died in 1957, set about writing his biography. According to Waugh's Times obituary, this was “of all his works the one by which he set the highest store”. (24)
Knox died with many high honours attached to his name, having become a Catholic Monsignor, a Fellow of both Trinity and Balliol colleges, and a Protonotary Apostolic to Pope Pius XII. His own Times obituary calls him “the wittiest churchman in England since Sydney Smith”, but he's now remembered for little more than a couple of entries in the dictionary of quotations. That crack about babies comprising “a loud noise at one end and no responsibility at the other” is one of Knox's, and so is the observation that a good sermon, like a woman's skirt, should be “short enough to rouse the interest, but long enough to cover the essentials”. (25)
Let's leave the last word to Father Ian Ker, Knox's relative, and inheritor of his old job at Oxford. “He was a very clever, brilliant man, who enjoyed satirising things that he thought were potentially harmful,” Ker told us for that Radio 4 programme. “He thought the power of the media in those early days of broadcasting was something that needed to be sent up a bit, and that he was giving a useful lesson to the public that you don't believe everything you hear on the wireless.”

1) Broadcasting the Barricades original script. (BBC archives).
2) Daily Chronicle, January 18, 1926.
3) Daily Graphic, January 18, 1926.
4) Ariel, June 1937.
5) Hoaxes and Scams, by Carl Sifakis (Michael O'Mara Books, 1994).
6) Daily Telegraph, January 19, 1926.
7) The Riot That Never Was (BBC Radio 4, June 16, 2005).
8) Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes, by Ronald Knox (
9) The Life of the Right Reverend Ronald Knox, by Evelyn Waugh (Chapman & Hall, 1959).
10) Sherlock Peoria (
11) A Social History of British Broadcasting, by Paddy Scannell & David Cardiff (Wiley Blackwell, 1991).
12) Evening Standard, January 19, 1926.
13) Daily Mail, January 18, 1926.
14) Evening Standard, January 18, 1926.
15) The Times, January 18, 1926.
16) Daily Express, January 18, 1926.
17) Daily Sketch, January 18, 1926.
18) The Tablet, January 23, 1926.
19) Weekly Scotsman, January 23, 1926.
20) Daily News, January 18, 1926.
21) Irish Times, January 18, 1926.
22) Daily Sketch, January 19, 1926.
23) BBC archives.
24) The Times, April 11, 1966.
25) The Times, August 26, 1957.
26) New York Times, January 19, 1926.
27) New York Times, October 31, 1938.
28) Birmingham Mail, January 18, 1926.
29) Radio Guide, 1938 (quoted on
30) Radio Times, June 29, 1967.
31) John Gosling's War of The Worlds website
32) The Simple Art of Murder, by Raymond Chandler (reprinted in Chandler's Pearls Are a Nuisance (Pan Books, 1980)).
33) Ten Commandments for Detective Fiction, by Ronald Knox

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Killer clergyman: continued

Knox made his own contribution to those rules in a tongue-in-cheek 1929 essay called Ten Commandments for Detective Fiction. He begins by giving his definition of what was then required for a true detective story.
      “A detective story must have as its main interest the unravelling of a mystery,” he writes. “A mystery whose elements are clearly presented to the reader at an early stage of the proceedings, and whose nature is such as to arouse curiosity, a curiosity which is gratified at the end.
      “As with the acrostic, as with the cross-word competition, honourable victory can be achieved only if the clues were 'fair'.” (33)
      His commandments set out the various cheats an unscrupulous writer might employ to put his readers off the scent, and explain why each is unacceptable.
      Number two, for example, rules out all supernatural intervention as means of solving the mystery. Number eight requires that all clues available to the detective be instantly produced for the reader's inspection too.
      Number nine calibrates exactly how stupid the detective's slower friend - “the Watson”, as Knox calls him - is allowed to be. The answer, it turns out, is just slightly stupider than the average reader.
      Knox also cautions (in rule five) that no Chinamen must be allowed to feature in any detective story. “If you are turning over the pages of a book and come across some mention of 'the slit-like eyes of Chin Loo', you had best put it down at once,” he very sensibly warns. “It is bad.”

To hear all ten of Knox's rules enuniciated by Bob Sinfield - Radio 4's own voice of Ronald Knox - click the prompt at the bottom of this BBC page.