Twelve years before Orson Welles’ classic radio play The War of the Worlds, BBC Radio broadcast a hoax revolution in which government ministers were murdered and Big Ben demolished by trench mortars.
As a teenager I was completely suckered in by a television documentary hoax (Forgotten Silver, by Peter Jackson pre-Lord of the Rings). For many years it was quite a sore spot for me that I was duped. I imagine the many people who believed that The War of the Worlds depicted an actual Martian invasion felt the same way. And twelve years before Orson Welles’ famous 1938 radio play another hoax on the airwaves was terrifying the innocent public.
Broadcasting the Barricades by the mystery writer Ronald Knox was performed on BBC Radio in early 1926. Styled like a news report, it described a Bolshevik revolution running through the streets of London. Government ministers were captured and strung up; the Savoy Hotel and the Palace of Westminster were both blown up (thus toppling the Clock Tower and Big Ben too).
Now, there were plenty of clues that it was a hoax. Not least of which was that they told everyone it was not real at the start. Not everyone caught that, or the many announcements to the same effect on the same channel later that night. Complicating matters, a snowstorm prevented the next day’s newspapers getting out of London, stoking fears that the capital city was in ruins or occupied by revolutionary forces. And 1926 UK was a tense place already: four months after Broadcasting the Barricades, 1.7 million workers joined a general strike in support of locked out coal miners.
The next year, a similar programme was broadcast in Adelaide, Australia; this one presented an air invasion complete with screams and realistic sound effects. The BBC production, though, was the one that directly inspired Orson Welles to produce his own news hoax.