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April Fool’s gold: the day’s greatest gags

Jeff Koons, David Bowie and William Boyd at the launch of the fictive biography of Nat Tate - Credit: Corbis via Getty Images

RICHARD LUCK looks at some classic April Fool’s Day gags from the past.

As befits a day given over to confusion and subterfuge, very little is known about the origins of April Fools’ Day. Is it in some way related to religion? Does it mark a waypoint on the advent of spring? Was it first popularised by Geoffrey Chaucer? Does it have something to do with the Dutch or the French, or the Dutch and the French? Or was it the Romans? The fact of the matter is, your guess is as good as anybody’s. 

Whatever the reason for dedicating one day a year to taking the mickey, the popularity of April Fools’ Day continues to grow. Heck, in the era of ‘fake news’, there are times when pretty much every day feels like April Fools’ Day. But for every tired newspaper account of penguins flying north for the summer or Dulux finally perfecting their formula for tartan paint, there are those pranks that generate applause rather than groans, admiration rather than irritation. Here are seven of the best…

The Abominable No-Show Man

When it wasn’t investigating buyers’ remorse, chortling at phallic fruit and veg or trying to get Britain singing, BBC consumer programme That’s Life wasn’t above pulling a fast one on the British public.

Cue a short film about the Lirpa Loof, a Himalayan ape man who baffled visitors to London Zoo when he went on display in early April 1984. Exhibited alongside the zoo’s great apes, the Lirpa’s praises were sung by celebrated naturalist David Bellamy, who explained why the primate was facing extinction and how it came to produce purple dung (a rhododendron-heavy diet, apparently).

Such was the stunt’s effectiveness that a week later, host Esther Rantzen had to apologise to the many viewers who’d taken time off to check out the Lirpa Loof only to discover its cage was empty. Would that they’d thought to have spelt the beast’s name backwards…

Our type of resort

With lockdown finally winding down, our thoughts turn to long-delayed trips away from home. To the list of places you might wish to visit might we add the stunning getaway of San Serriffe? Located in the Indian Ocean, this beautiful alternative to the Seychelles consists of two islands, Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse, which form the shape of a semicolon.

Famed for an eccentric school curriculum which awards GCEs for pursuits such as pearl diving, to find out more about San Serriffe you could do worse than track down any of the Bird Bull & Press titles dedicated to the island nation (The First Fine Silver Coinage Of The Republic Of San Serriffe should go down well with the world’s numismatists). Failing that, you should seek out the seven-page supplement published on April 1, 1977, by the Guardian, a paper then widely acknowledged as the font of all travel knowledge.

Meanwhile in Gotham City…

To uncover the earliest known April Fool, one must visit Nottinghamshire in the Middle Ages. Although accounts vary, the legend has it that King John longed to build a hunting lodge near the village of Gotham.

The locals were reluctant, so set out to deter the king’s agents by collectively ‘playing the fool’, doing unusual things like attempting to drown fish and therefore give the impression the area was populated by madmen.

At this, they did such a good job that the scouting party couldn’t return quickly enough to dissuade the monarch from having anything to do with the place. Whether fact or folklore, the story of the foolish folk of Gotham has endured. Oh, and in case you were wondering, yes, Batman’s Gotham is named after the Gotham where – as rarely occurs in the comics – the Joker came out on top.

JOKES ON HIM: hapless King John, here signing Magna Carta, was supposedly the victim of the first April Fool’s trick – Credit: Print Collector/Getty Images

Bowie, Boyd and a very special biography

Remember Nat Tate? He’s only the painter Jackson Pollock could’ve been! Among America’s most cruelly overlooked artists, we’ve author William Boyd to thank for bringing Tate’s tragic story – and his art work, for that matter – to a wider audience. Indeed, such was the hoo-hah surrounding Nate Tate: American Artist 1928-1960, when the book was launched in New York on April 1, 1998, David Bowie was on hand to read from its pages.

It was fitting that the great man should’ve been present since he knew Tate as well as anybody, which is to say, not at all. Entirely a creation of the author – who cannibalised a photo album he found in a junk shop for images of ‘Tate’ at home – Boyd gave the gag legs by making further mention of Nat in his 2002 novel Any Human Heart: The Intimate Journals of Logan Mountstuart.

Baseballs

As a sports journalist, George Plimpton tried out for the Detroit Tigers and tended goal for the Boston Bruins. However, by far his greatest success was in the field of baseball where he convinced the readers of Sports Illustrated that perennial underdogs the New York Mets had found a player who was about to revolutionise the game.

Raised in an English orphanage but educated by Buddhist monks in a Himalayan temple, Siddhartha ‘Sidd’ Finch (and don’t go looking for anagram clues here. Plimpton wasn’t giving such obvious hints) could accurately pitch a baseball in excess of 160 mph. So what if he took to the field wearing only one boot; Finch was a man who could single-handedly steer the Mets to the World Series. What a shame then that, on the eve of signing, Sidd announced that baseball would have to play second fiddle to his true love, the French Horn. The Mets still sell lots of Sidd Finch merchandise, by the way.

Did anyone order ice?

When it comes to innovation and catching the public’s imagination, Australian entrepreneur Dick Smith is in a league of his own. It was in 1978 that the electronics tycoon announced his plan to tow an iceberg from the Antarctic to Sydney Harbour.

Many were the media outlets that welcomed so novel an approach to countering New South Wales’ drought issues. As Smith planned it, he’d moor his unique cargo close to the city’s Opera House from where it would be carved into small pieces which he would then sell to the public using the brand name ‘Dicksicles’. Of course, when the tycoon arrived in Sydney astride something that looked as if it’d been knocked up for a carnival float, the same pressmen who’d given him his due were quick to double-check the day of the year clever Dick had decided to bring his berg into port.

Blue is the colour…

Just what was the big deal with Brexiteers and blue passports? Being old enough to have once owned such an object, I can say that the very possession of it did nothing to enhance my social standing, bank balance and/or sex life.

Still, there were some for whom the reinstatement of said document was a very big deal indeed. And it’s these self same people who probably experienced a complete sense of humour failure when, on April 1, 2018, the EU tweeted that, after a long period of reflection, it had decided to ditch its burgundy passports and bring out some nice blue ones instead.

A superb wheeze that upset all the right people and delighted anyone with an appreciation for taking the piss, were there Olympic medals for trolling, our friends in Brussels would surely have walked off with the gold. 

What do you think? Have your say on this and more by emailing letters@theneweuropean.co.uk