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The Suffolk joker who kept Cavendish villagers on their toes on April Fools Day for decades




The exact origins of April Fools Day are lost in the mists of time. The tradition of hoaxes and pranks has been around in Britain since the 18th century.

But for 20 years residents of one Suffolk village had more reason than most to keep their wits about them on April 1.

On that day in 1996 residents of Cavendish awoke with spots before their eyes.

For 20 years residents of one Suffolk village had more reason than most to keep their wits about them on April 1
For 20 years residents of one Suffolk village had more reason than most to keep their wits about them on April 1

Overnight, the thatched pink cottages beside the village green - a scene that appeared on chocolate boxes around the world - had sprouted a crop of bright yellow spots.

Now they looked less picture postcard, and more Mr Blobby - the spotty pink and yellow character famous at the time on Noel Edmonds’ TV show.

No vandalism was involved. The spots were made of paper. They appeared at the dead of night while the elderly occupants of the much-photographed almshouses were fast asleep.

How the Suffolk Free Press covered one of the Joker's early exploits
How the Suffolk Free Press covered one of the Joker's early exploits

It was the first strike of the Cavendish joker, the soon-to-be notorious prankster who kept villagers guessing for the next 20 years.

Every April Fools Day there would be a new stunt - often more than one, and always carried out under cover of darkness.

They ranged from a flock of cardboard sheep on the green, to an alien landing, to notices delivered with the morning papers telling villagers time was going metric.

A flock of sheep on Cavendish's famous green was the Joker's second stunt
A flock of sheep on Cavendish's famous green was the Joker's second stunt

One was so subtle it slipped by unnoticed at first. It was easy to drive past the familiar Cavendish sign at the entrance to the village and not spot the addition “twinned with Las Vegas”.

Another time posters on the then-derelict former Cavendish cinema announced its imminent conversion to a lap dancing club.

Notices posted by The Joker on the disused Cavendish Cinema
Notices posted by The Joker on the disused Cavendish Cinema

Leaflets telling villagers St Edmundsbury Council planned to up their wheelie bin quota to ten for more efficient recycling was so almost believable that quite a few jaws dropped before the penny did.

And in 2002 the grave of missing peer and murder suspect Lord Lucan appeared in the churchyard.

Lord Lucan's gravestone mysteriously appeared in Cavendish churchyard
Lord Lucan's gravestone mysteriously appeared in Cavendish churchyard

The village green was often the focus of the stunts, like the time two wind turbines appeared ... the first of a planned 24 according to posters around the site.

They said Utah Airlfloop, an American energy conglomorate, was supplying the turbines, which would produce 20 megawatts per day, enough to power all of Cavendish.

People took to driving through the village on April Fools Day to spot the latest hoax. Speculation as to who was behind the pranks was rife.

Then, in early April 2014, The Joker granted an exclusive interview to Suffolk News’s sister paper the Suffolk Free Press, on condition his identity was not revealed.

“This year’s joke was one of my most ambitious,” he said. “Alien surveyors from a distant galaxy had landed on the green to prepare a report on the use of the glebe land.”

He spent two months cutting out aliens from cardboard boxes and painting them silver. Use of the dining room table caused some domestic friction, he admitted.

Plans for the saucer were drawn up using helium balloons for uplift. But lack of space to test it meant last-minute construction before dawn on April 1.

A few hours later two balloons escaped causing a crash landing. “Ah well, it was a prototype,” sighed The Joker.

His main mission was to make people forget, for a moment, the stresses of their daily lives.

“It’s a little bit of anarchy,” he said.

“I want to bring humour into people’s lives and make them smile.There is so much doom and gloom around.”

He was also no fan of bureaucracy. “If you look closely at the stunts,” he said, “there is usually a slight edge to them. They contain a touch of irony and gentle sarcasm ... an up-yours to the bureaucrats.”

A small team of helpers - their identities guarded as closely as his own - helped set up the hoaxes.

The Joker retired in 2016. His final prank was a flock of penguins that took up residence outside the village shop.

Historians cannot agree on the origins of April Fools Day. Some believe it dates from 1582, when France switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. In the Julian Calendar the new year began around April 1.

Those slow to realise the start of the year had moved to January 1 became the butt of jokes and hoaxes. They had paper fish placed on their backs and were called “poisson d’Avril” (April fish), meaning a young, easily caught fish or a gullible person.

April Fools’ Day has also been linked to the festival of Hilaria (Latin for joyful) celebrated in ancient Rome at the end of March.

There is also speculation that it was tied to the vernal equinox when Nature fooled people with changing, unpredictable weather.

Whatever its source, the tradition of playing tricks on April 1 has remained popular.

Probably the most famous April Fools hoax of all time was an episode of the BBC documentary Panorama screened in 1957.

Straight-faced, the highly-distinguished broadcaster Richard Dimbleby - who four years earlier had commentated on the Queen’s coronation - presented an item on the annual spaghetti harvest in Switzerland.

The famous BBC spaghetti trees April Fools hoax
The famous BBC spaghetti trees April Fools hoax

It showed women carefully plucking strands of spaghetti from a tree and laying them in the sun to dry.

Mr Dimbleby told viewers that the end of March is always an anxious time for spaghetti growers all over Europe as severe frost can impair the flavour of the crop.

He explained how each strand of spaghetti always grows to the same length thanks to years of hard work by generations of farmers.

It’s hard to believe today, but in 1957 spaghetti was seen as a exotic delicacy and the programme fooled several viewers.

Some wrote in to ask where they could buy their own spaghetti bush. But others were not amused and complained to the BBC for airing the item on what was supposed to be a serious factual programme.

The Panorama hoax is believed to be one of the first April Fools Day pranks ever staged on television. Since then running a spoof story on April 1 has become traditional in the media.

Tycoon Sir Richard Branson is also a famed April Fools hoaxer.

In 1989 police investigated reports of a glowing flying saucer landing in a field in Surrey. As they approached a small figure in a silver space suit emerged.

The officers fled and one later admitted he had never been so scared. The alien was a man with dwarfism, and the saucer a specially-built hot air balloon piloted by Branson.

In 2002 Virgin Atlantic announced plans to advertise using genetically modified butterflies with the airline logo lasered onto their wings.

Other famous jokes include Burger King’s advert for a “left handed Whopper” which fooled customers into asking for the fake meal.

And Google has hosted April Fools’ Day pranks including a “telepathic search” and the ability to play Pac Man on Google Maps.

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