The bizarre 1980 BBC news report that attempted to convince viewers that dinosaurs were being genetically engineered in Hertfordshire.
The BBC has a long, and some might say irresponsible history of crowbarring April Fool’s jokes into current affairs programming. These spoofs have often been wildly successful in their aim of fooling the public, though we might say that in many ways it’s like shooting fish in a barrel – after all, people will be more inclined to believe something if they see it in a news broadcast. OK, perhaps not now where huge swathes of the population believe everything to be a false flag operation that has been staged – but there was a lot more trust in broadcasters, especially Auntie Beeb, back in the day.
The most famous BBC April Fool spoof was their first, the 1957 Panorama story on the spaghetti harvest that convinced the nation that spaghetti was grown on trees and harvested in Switzerland. Back in 1957, Britain was a far more insular nation than it is today – there was far less international travel, immigration or exposure to other cultures and so it was not too surprising that many people had no real idea about just how spaghetti was made or even what it was made of – indeed, it might’ve been a mysterious exotic treat for many who were still labouring under post-war rationing restrictions. Given that Panorama was (and is) the BBC’s flagship heavyweight current affairs show, viewers were not exactly forewarned that it might suddenly lurch into satire – especially with no precedent for such things. It is also notable that shows like this would be broadcast long after the midday cut-off point for April Fool’s pranks – the broadcaster’s desperate desire to be in on the joke disregarding the basic rules of engagement. By the evening, you might reasonably expect that most viewers with better things to worry about will have forgotten that it is April Fool’s Day, if it had even registered with them to begin with.
Nationwide was not a heavyweight current affairs show. It was broadcast in the slot after the national and local teatime news programmes, at 6.30 and might be best described as a less lowbrow version of The One Show (I’m aware that you could hardly get more lowbrow than The One Show), mixing consumer stories, lightweight news and feel-good story slots by regional presenters brought together for the nation to unwind from the more serious news stories with. It was, essentially, a conduit from the news to the primetime evening broadcasts, shown every weekday and watched – effectively by default more than anything – by a huge audience. It was also exactly the sort of show that you might well expect to engage in April tomfoolery.
In 1980, Nationwide ran a story that – in retrospect – was so ludicrous that you can barely credit anyone falling for it, if only because the ramifications of what they uncovered were so huge that you might have expected the story to have appeared in a rather more heavyweight slot rather than being a seven-minute slot in amongst local trivia and stories about people growing giant vegetables.
In this story, a Terry Waite lookalike reporter investigates the mysterious Revel Biochemicals, a shady US genetics business that has set up in the gated stately home of Hobden House in Hertfordshire. Run by Hans Joachim Lügner – Nobel Prize winner, disgraced author of Genetic Engineering: Myths, Realities and Possibilities and, worst of all, a German – rumours abound locally about just what Revel Biochemicals are up to. Are they carrying out forbidden animal experiments? The 500 pounds of meat delivered to the house each week and the mysterious noises emitting from the house suggest so, and reassurances from the furtive Lügner are hard to believe, given that he comes to the gate wearing a bloodstained lab coat. After hearing strange roars, a brave cameraman climbs over the wall in what today would be seen as unethical reporting and captures footage that fair boggles the mind – actual dinosaurs wandering around the grounds.
It’s dramatic stuff and, of course, entirely ludicrous. But the report is brilliantly crafted to slowly pull you in and make you suspend any sense of disbelief so that the final revelation could actually, momentarily, make you believe that what you are seeing is real. Yes, the dinosaur is a bit rubbery and probably stays on camera slightly too long but by this point, many viewers would be so caught up in the story – and, lest we forget, watching on small analogue screens and perhaps not paying full attention – that it must’ve seemed oddly plausible. Certainly, my mother had been outraged by the more convincing earlier part (“Look at his coat! He’s definitely up to something!”) and so was perfectly primed to be sucked in by the final revelation. Common sense quickly kicked in but just for a moment, it all seemed oddly real.
The report didn’t have the same impact as the spaghetti harvest – it was, perhaps, a little too ludicrous and outrageous. Certainly, it rarely pops up in those lazy TV countdowns of the best TV satires. Nevertheless, it remains one of the maddest and most amusing spoofs, played with a suitably straight face throughout. What’s more, if it didn’t seem entirely unlikely, you could easily imagine that Michael Crichton had been holidaying in the UK and caught this on TV, thinking to himself “there’s a book in this…”
The full story is now available for your viewing delectation. Don’t have nightmares.
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