Comedian Simon Brodkin caused controversy and momentary havoc at the Conservative party conference this week when he interrupted the Prime Minister mid cough to hand her a P45. The jury is out on how amusing this was but situationist pranks by their nature do not have to be funny. The Situationist International movement was more about surrealism cocking a snoop at capitalism, faith and the conventions of polite society, than practical jokers having larks. It’s a fascinating movement and the Wikipedia page makes for a genuinely good read.
I’m no purist in these matters. I would hold that at the right time and in the right moment, situationsim, like love – can happen anywhere.
There are those who make a distinction between hoaxes, cons, pranks and tomfoolery but really, any of the above done well, could be considered a work of art.
Here, in no particular order are five personal favourites. One of them itself – is a fraud. Can you spot it?
1: The Dreadnought Hoax:
In February 1910, the Commander of HMS Dreadnought, then moored in Portland Harbour, received a telegram from the Foreign Office, informing him that an Abyssinian Prince and his entourage were on their way to review The Fleet. Later that day, the elaborately dressed dignitaries descended from a train which had been chartered for them in London and were duly treated to a full display by the Royal Navy’s finest ships. Claiming not to speak any English, they had brought a translator with them – who proceeded to decipher their gibberish before the ‘Prince’ attempted to bestow honours upon the senior officers. In fact this exotic bunch were a group of writers and artists, including a young Virginia Woolf and lead by inveterate hoaxer Horace Cole. Their motive doesn’t matter. The bar for subsequent pranksters had been set very high indeed.
2: The Man who sold Nelson:
In 1923 an American millionaire visiting London was whiling away a leisurely morning in Trafalgar Square admiring the 170 foot high column and the lions at its base when he was approached by the “official square guide.” After a little factual introduction and background on the late lamented Admiral the guide went on to explain that at some point in the near future it would all have to be pulled down, as the risk of falling masonry posed a threat to passers-by. Britain, he explained, was broke as a result of the Great War and could not afford to meet the upkeep of her national monuments any longer. Indeed, the guide went on, the government was thinking of selling things off to pay for the cost of war. The American was flabbergasted but at the same time thrilled. This column was just the thing to ornament his garden in Iowa.
“Six thousand pounds.”
A cheque was given, made out to “cash” and an official receipt received and it was only, days later, when the American contacted a bemused building firm owner in the hope that he might help in the dismantling of Nelson’s Column it that the swindle was revealed. Arthur Furguson, the genius behind this con was later to sell both Big Ben and The Eiffel Tower – but this was his masterpiece.
3: The Spaghetti harvest
In 1957 Panorama broadcast a three minute item about the booming spaghetti harvest. This short straight faced April Fool remains the high water mark of broadcast tom-foolery and with the advent of google – would now be impossible to replicate
4: The Notre Dame Affair
On Easter Sunday, 1950, mid-way through a live broadcast of mass, the French viewing public were stunned, when a Dominican monk climbed into the pulpit of Paris’s most famous cathedral and began to deliver an extraordinary faux sermon. The friar denounced the Catholic Church for its ‘funereal morality’ before declaring that God was dead with the immortal line:
“Nous clamons la mort du Christ-Dieu pour qu’enfin vive l’Homme”
(We proclaim the death of the Christ-god, so that Man may live at last.)
The monk – Michel Mourre – actually a member of the avant-garde Lettrist movement was arrested along with his co-conspirators but the Police and authorities did not wish to inflame the situation and after briefly being committed to an asylum – he was let go.
5: The ‘James’ Ossuary
In 2002 The Discovery Channel and the Biblical Archaeology Society co-hosted a press conference in Washington in which they made an explosive statement. A collector had come forward with a 1st century ‘ossuary’ – a stone coffin used for keeping bones in accordance with Jewish custom of that period.
It was one of several that had been found in the Silwan area in the Kidron Valley in Israel and it had a quite remarkable inscription on the side that had far reaching historical and religious implications. For this simple stone tub claimed once to have held the bones of:
“James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”
The delicate state of the ossuary seemed to confirm its date. Scholars concurred that the mention of a brother would be quite possible “if” that sibling was a significant person. Here was apparent “concrete” proof for the existence of Jesus Christ.
The problem is that you can’t (in the words of Spinal Tap) dust for stone.
When doubts were raised over the authenticity of the antiquity, Oded Golan, the entrepreneur who had come forward with the artefact protested his innocence, insisting he had acquired the tomb in good faith. He was put on trial and after years eventually acquitted. Arguments continue to rage over the legitimacy of the ‘relic.’ Thousands of words have been written and documentaries made but ask yourself this – if it is real….. isn’t it just a little bit too good to be true?
Prank? Hoax? Crime? Perhaps we will never know – but perhaps someone somewhere is reading this – and smiling.
Did you spot the fraud?