01 April 2020

The Night Big Ben Fell


I expected this piece to be the highlight of my January 15th column on Today in Mystery History.  Unfortunately it turned out that my original source was wrong: the event in question happened a day later.  Rather than hold back until 2030, the next time January 16 falls on a Wednesday, I decided to make this a free-standing entry, so to speak.

Our subject is a radio hoax, one that terrified large parts of a nation and led to furious condemnation of the brilliant man who conceived it.  It happened--

Excuse me?

I believe I heard some of you saying: "Slow your roll, Lopresti.  You are off by a lot more than one day.  Orson Welles famous broadcast of 'War of the Worlds' didn't happen in January at all.  It was the night before Halloween, 1938."

Right you are, dear friend, and completely wrong as well.  Because I was referring to a different hoax. One with a mystery writer front and center.

Monsignor Ronald Knox was an English Catholic priest, and a mystery writer.  He is best remembered today for his  Ten Commandments of detective fiction, which were at least partly tongue in cheek.  Example: "Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable".

In 1926 the  British Broadcasting Company (It didn't become the Corporation for another year) was being criticized for being boring, so they hired the famously witty Knox to give them some spark. And spark he did.

On January 16th, in a studio in the back of an Edinburgh music store he performed a one-man show.  The BBC warned that the show was going to be humor, but it began like any news show.  Then it reported that protesters had gathered in Trafalgar Square, led by Mr. Poppleberry, the leader of the National Movement for Abolishing Theatre Queues.

In between less-interesting news reports came announcements of mob violence, explosions, and the roasting alive of one official who "will therefore be unable to deliver his lecture to you." And then a mortar attack on the Houses of Parliament:  “The clock tower, 320 feet in height, has just fallen to the ground, together with the famous clock Big Ben.” Finally the BBC itself was attacked.

It may seem crazy that anyone could take this nonsense seriously, but radio was still a new medium (having started in the UK in 1920) and sound effects - used liberally here - were unheard of, so to speak.  Keep in mind that the Bolshevik Revolution was a fresh memory, and a national strike in Britain was being planned for the spring.

So people called the BBC demanding to know what was really going on.  Some people wanted the Navy to attack the entirely fictional rioters.  "People Alarmed All Week-End" ran one newspaper headline.

Martin Edwards, in his excellent book, The Golden Age of Murder, suggests that this disaster encouraged the BBC to look for a less risky form of entertainment and led to some of the greatest British crime writers, including Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, and yes, even Father Knox,  to create a round-robin mystery for the radio.

So, that's the true story of a radio hoax.  And none of this has been an April Fool's joke.

7 comments:

  1. Now that's interesting. I wonder if there's a recording online like the Welles recording.

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  2. We can't be too smug, given the Martian Invasion scare.

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  3. I guess the BBC got more than they bargained for.

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  4. Nice little-known-history item, Rob.

    I was going to quote Abe Lincoln and say, "You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, etc.," but it turns out that attribution is a fake too, although for a different reason.

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  5. Thanks, all. R.T., here is a useful analysis of that alleged Lincoln citation. https://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/12/11/cannot-fool/

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  6. I'd read Knox's The Ten Commandments, but never heard of his radio hoax. Thanks for sharing this.

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  7. Whow, Rob. Good to remember these events.

    >… sound effects … unheard of …

    Also good to know!

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