The Great British April Fool

Britain has never needed a laugh more. Tensions are running high; Brexit divisions are seemingly intractable. In the next few months, an unprecedented constitutional crisis seems to await us.

We are scheduled to leave the European Union on 29th March. Whatever happens, this date will be significant and loaded with emotion.

Three days after 29th March is April Fools’ Day. For hundreds of years, in Britain and in other European countries, it has been traditional to play jokes and tricks on this day.

Compared to our other annual customs (such as Christmas, Easter, Valentines Day) April Fools’ Day is relatively low key. As a festival it is difficult to commercialise.  Jokes tend to be small scale – confined to single households and workplaces; or spoof articles in individual newspapers. There is however, a high level of cultural saturation with the concept of April Fools’ Day. Almost everyone in the UK knows what it is.

We aren’t going to heal the wounds that have been created and exposed by Brexit through an April Fools’ Joke. But sharing a laugh together, as a country, would be a positive first step to the phase of British history that will begin after 29th March. Even if it’s just for a moment, enjoying a Great British April Fool would help us to remember that we can still share *something*, no matter how different we are.

It has been decades since Britain has had a really good April Fools Joke.  Looking back through the archives, a high-water mark that sticks in many people’s memories is the Spaghetti Harvest Hoax (1957), where BBC’s Panorama announced that thanks to a mild winter and the virtual elimination of the dreaded spaghetti weevil, Swiss farmers were enjoying a bumper spaghetti crop. 

Another big hit came in 1977 with the Guardian’s seven-page supplement devoted to San Serriffe – a series of semi-colon shaped islands in the Indian Ocean whose main islands were named Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse.  The article provoked a stream of inquires from readers about this idyllic holiday location, and is credited with launching the UK press tradition for April tomfoolery. 

Patrick Moore also won a place in the annals for his 1976 gravity joke.  The esteemed astronomer announced on BBC Radio 2 that at 9:47 a once-in-a-lifetime astrological event would temporarily counteract and lessen the Earth’s gravity, and told his listeners that if they jumped in the air at the exact moment the alignment occurred, they would experience a strange floating sensation.  As Moore declared “jump now!”, the BBC switchboard lit up with listeners who had felt the effect.

Perhaps it makes sense that these golden April Fools jokes were played decades ago, in an age where social deference and levels of trust were high.  Could Britain be fooled today?  Could we enjoy it?

But Charlie Chaplin said that to truly laugh, you must take your pain and play with it.  In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, the pain of Britain revolved around anxieties of worldliness, of provincialism, of ignorance – and these insecurities animate the jokes of the era.  Today, our pain revolves around other things:  separateness, mistrust, inequality.  To play a great joke for our times we would have to play with our pain today.

A Great British April Fool for 2019 would do things differently.  We have new tools available – notably through social media – and these offer the potential to play a joke that is radically more inclusive and has an entirely different power dynamic at its heart.  In 2019, we have the potential to create a joke that doesn’t just play out in a single household, single workplace, through a single broadcaster or single newspaper, but across a host of different people and institutions.

As a nation that has always prided itself on our sense of humour, 2019 should be the year that Britain ups its game for April Fools Day.  It is time for a Great British April Fool.   

We will be holding an open planning meeting at a secret location in London, on Saturday 2nd March from 10:30 – 12:30.  All are welcome, and there will be an online option (2pm – 3pm) if you can’t be with us face-to-face.  If you are interested in joining us, please sign up to our mailing list or follow us @MHC_UK.