In 1957, The BBC news program (I’m sorry, programme) Panorama played an April Fools Day joke, convincing many viewers that spaghetti noodles grew on trees.
You can watch it in its entirety here:
So it’s ludicrous, right? But there’s some added context to consider (provided by Hoaxes.org):
- The world was a lot less connected at that time.
- The British were not big on eating spaghetti in the 1950s
- There were only two main channels for British television at the time, BBC and iTV. Fewer sources of information give those sources more credibility.
It’s not just the message, but the messenger
The narrator of the video was a notable BBC newscaster. The show was a weekly news broadcast not known for April Fools Day pranks, or humor in general. And the video is shot in the same style as other travelogue/documentary segments of the time.
The beginning of the narration starts by grounding the story in something familiar to the intended audience: An early Spring across Europe. That first connection is an important part of the trappings of believability that helps the audience think about what they know is true for them, and sets up their credulity for what comes next.
You saw it with your own eyes
The clip shows spaghetti noodles hanging from trees. We watch women pick them and place them gently in wicker baskets. They’re even shown laying out the noodles to dry in the sun.
All of these images play to what the audience would know about the actual harvesting of real crops. They didn’t invent an entirely new plant that spaghetti would grow from, or come up with some kind of complicated process for harvesting it.
Everything is kept simple, direct, and familiar. The only odd element in all of it is the product being harvested.
A familiar wrapper with a surprise inside
When building the world of a story that skews away from our known reality, it can help to add in things familiar to the intended audience to ground the stranger, unfamiliar elements.
As an example, the 2006 movie Children of Men needs audiences to buy into the idea of a world that has spent years falling apart due to global infertility. The first minute of the movie is dedicated to grounding this idea with a familiar delivery device: A news broadcast featuring a celebrity tragedy.
In this case, the film shows us a coffee shop full of people stunned into silence by the news that the youngest person on Earth has been murdered.
There’s the familiar:
- The dramatic emotional response people have to a tragic celebrity death
- The news broadcast format, complete with the In Memorium shot
- The tone of the writing and delivery of the broadcasters
But there’s also the unfamiliar that this opening draws our attention to:
- The lack of any children in the crowded coffee shop
- The idea of heralding the “youngest” person on Earth, which gives an in-universe bit of exposition to the audience
This small, intimate moment of public grieving prepares the audience for moments later when they’re bombarded with the imagery of a post-apocalyptic London, full of digital billboards, motorized rickshaws, and random acts of terrorist violence.
Familiar details lay the groundwork for the audience to accept the intensely different and terrifying world they’re about to experience.