The April Fool prank has had its day

Donald Clarke: Once enthusiastically embraced by newspapers, the tradition has ebbed in recent years

This column has learned the internet is suffering from dry rot and will cease to function by the end of the current decade. Does that work? It is not exactly plausible, but, if skimmed quickly, it might just adhere to a more credulous brain. Let me try again. Erm … something about King Charles checking the scrolls of accession and learning he still has dominion over Dún Laoghaire? That’s the one. Kingstown, you see? Now we’re cooking.

Today is April Fools’ Day. Parents are patiently pretending to believe their children met a werewolf in the attic and then faking embarrassment at their own staged credulity. For decades, newspapers and broadcasters have joined in what I am required to call “the fun” (or, still worse, “the cra*c”). Reports of such public pranks go back as far as Jonathan Swift. But the modern mode really seems to have kicked in with the BBC’s notorious “spaghetti tree hoax” in 1957. It says something about British dietary habits in the Macmillan era that millions believed pasta might grow on trees and that it might be susceptible to the “spaghetti weevil”. The broadcaster’s pride in its own antique cleverness – confirmed by endless revisits in nostalgia shows – is nothing to the Guardian’s commitment to its most-famous contribution. “The spoof by which all others are measured is the Guardian’s 1977 San Serriffe travel guide,” the newspaper bragged close to 40 years after that prank emerged. “The success of this hoax is widely credited with inspiring the British media’s enthusiasm for April 1st jokes in subsequent years.”

On April 1st, 2005, Michael Dwyer, my predecessor as film correspondent, published a “six-star” review of a non-existent film called Sail-Proof Lady

Those raised on throwaway paragraphs at the bottom of page six will be rocked by the paper’s keenness for the task. The thing goes on for pages and pages. There is a dedicated advertisement from Access. You can “win two weeks in San Serriffe as the guest of James Hunt” (the cavalier racing driver had just beaten Nikki Lauda to the world championship). Tape up sides to protect them from splitting as I remind you the geographical names were all puns derived from printing and typesetting. The islands were called, in English, Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse. Bodoni, the capital, reminded us of a font. General MJ Pica, the country’s dictator, is “named after a unit of measurement in type”. And they weren’t finished. In 1999 the Guardian returned to San Serriffe to discover a “vibrant nation transformed by a visionary leader”. The contemporary reader could be forgiven for suspecting they were here reading an April Fool about an April Fool that never happened. But the information is out there.

It is hard to imagine anyone putting in such effort today. It takes seconds to discover the truth. Readers are primed to disbelieve anything that passes before their cynical eyes. But the tradition had a good run. The film pages in this newspaper were on board for a good portion of the current century. On April 1st, 2005, Michael Dwyer, my predecessor as film correspondent, published a “six-star” review of a non-existent film called Sail-Proof Lady. Michael knew the rules. The reader deserves a few clues to the hoax’s unreliability (like naming everything after typography jargon). Eve Channing, a fictional actor in Joseph L Mankiewicz’s Sleuth named for antagonists in the same director’s All About Eve, was among the supposed cast of Sail-Proof Lady. The title is an anagram of “April Fools”. Six years later, following Michael’s death, I reviewed a fanciful 3D remake of Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon and was delighted to see the notice quoted in Phoenix magazine’s Hot Air Brigade. That record of pretentious journalism – a cousin of Private Eye’s Pseuds Corner – did not seem to detect the self-deprecation in “The proto-earthly intensity of the sub-Monostrovian narrative remains visibly, uncomfortably stratified”. Did I just win? Was this game still worth playing?


Last year, April 1st again fell on a Friday, the day film reviews are published, but, two years after the deceits that circled Covid, with related and unrelated false narratives still clogging the air, it hardly seemed worth adding to the chronic confusion. Most everyone has an electronic fact-checker in their pocket. Most everyone will already have been electronically misled twice before lunchtime. It is far too easy to set up a hoax in 2023. Nobody needs to pull journalists away from the British Leyland dispute to compose a many-paged supplement on an imaginary island nation. You can do that on your phone while standing at the bus stop.

None of which is an argument against the media April Fool. There may well be a witty one elsewhere in the newspaper you are reading (obviously, I am offering no clues). But the golden era for the tradition has passed. What are those blue remembered hills? What spires, what spaghetti trees are those?