a burlesque

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The Riot That Never Was

“Unemployed demonstration in London. The crowd has now passed along Whitehall and, at the suggestion of Mr Popplebury, Secretary of the National Movement for Abolishing Theatre Queues, is preparing to demolish the Houses of Parliament with trench mortars. […] The clock tower, 320 feet in height, has just fallen to the ground, together with the famous clock Big Ben, which used to strike the hours on a bell weighing nine tons.”

– Ronald Knox, Broadcasting the Barricades

In January 1926, the BBC sparked a national panic …

It broadcast a 12-minute report of a murderous riot in central London, which turned out to be a spoof, masterminded by a literary priest.

The show was the work of a Catholic priest, a satirist, and a writer of detective fiction who all happened to be the same man: Father Ronald Arbuthnott Knox. Knox penned the skit to poke fun at the BBC, because he believed his countrymen took what they heard on the radio too seriously. But he copied the style of BBC news bulletins so well that some listeners mistook his satire for the real thing.

Broadcasting the Barricades “reported” that a mob of unemployed workers were attacking London and lynching government ministers. A portion of Knox’s audience apparently believed these reports to be true, because newspapers and the BBC soon found themselves overwhelmed with calls about the fictitious uprising. This incident is often cited as a predecessor to the alleged panic surrounding Orson Welles’s 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast. But, as with the later show, there are definite indications that the reports of hysteria surrounding Knox’s broadcast were exaggerated. The BBC, for instance, later reported receiving an influx of mail from listeners who enjoyed the show, as Welles and CBS would in 1938.

Knox, interrupted an apparently genuine BBC talk on 18th century literature with a report that Big Ben had been toppled by trench mortars, the Savoy Hotel torched, and a Government minister lynched.

The Russian revolution was then less than a decade old, the General Strike already in preparation. 

In this febrile atmosphere, many took Knox’s satire seriously, besieging the BBC with worried phone calls. Bad weather delayed delivery of the next day’s papers, giving rural listeners prolonged reason to assume the capital was in flames.
The BBC made several announcements later that evening that the programme had been ‘a burlesque’ but these assurances went largely unheard.

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