Acorn Fools’ Day
April Fools’ Day tends to get a bit of a bad rap these days. Every year, my Twitter feed gets more and more filled with complaints about how lame it is. As someone involved in a few April Fools over the years, I admit I find myself getting a bit defensive about it. My argument: it’s easy to get hung up on the “prank” aspect of it, with a roll of the eyes, or a scowl. The very best April Fools take the prank aspect as a starting point… and do something interesting instead. The real joy in most good April Fools gags is them going off and doing something else entirely.
The best example of this that I’ve been involved with was pretending the script for the Red Dwarf movie had been leaked. Sure, of course we were trying to fool people into thinking it was true. But beyond that, the actual script extracts we wrote as part of it… kinda have their own interest. They certainly set my mind thinking as to how a Red Dwarf movie would work – which ends up being far more interesting than the actual prank itself.
Still, I get it. Perhaps the internet does make the day lose a bit of its lustre. These days, as soon as you wake up on April 1st and check online, you’re inundated with EVERY WEBSITE DOING A FUNNY. It can get rather wearing, especially when there’s so much crap about – and as you’re automatically on your guard, the whole thing is far less fun. In the old days, it was different. The April edition of a magazine might plop on your mat, way before April 1st… and maybe, just maybe, catch you unawares. The whole thing had a… less mechanical air.
Which leads us to this article. Some of my favourite April Fools growing up were in the pages of Acorn User and The Micro User; two Acorn computing magazines I was absolutely besotted with. I thought it’d be fun to take a look at some of the April Fools they ran over the years. It’s not a complete rundown of every single one they ever did – just a sample of some of the more interesting ones. Neither are they all gold: I’ve not cherry-picked just the really good ones just to make my point. But it’s a nice reminder of the days when April Fools gags were given just a little time to breathe.
It’s also perhaps a reminder that some of the best April Fools gags are often ones targeted at a very specific audience, rather than a general one. By their very nature, April Fools are a bit self-indulgent – and they’re one place where in-jokes can run riot to very good effect. (Another reason why I think some of the Red Dwarf ones I’ve been involved in work so well.) If you don’t have the background knowledge required for some of these, they’ll inevitably fall rather flat. I’ll give some notes as we go, but that’s very much Worth Bearing In Mind.
The Micro User, 1984: The BBC II Micro
To kick us off then, the first in a long line of April Fools from The Micro User: a look at the supposed next-generation BBC Micro. Timely, too – the actual next model, the B+, was introduced the following year in 1985. This was exactly the right time to do this gag.
Sadly, whilst timely, it’s hardly the best example – jokes about the “hamster” would work better if they didn’t force the “mouse” reference down your throat as well JUST IN CASE WE DIDN’T GET THE JOKE. Some stuff still raises a smile, however: I especially like “The only reason for the existence of micros is to run personal business software”, and “a forecasting package which not only guarantees its forecasts to be 100 per cent accurate, but has a hindsight function… which explains afterwards why they were wrong”. I also rather like the description given to the software package In-Visi-Ble.
Unfortunately, it loses all these points for the “gag” about the replacement secretary “Super-Visi-Or”, who apparently “sulks if given more than a minimal workload, and bursts into tears in a most realistic fashion if told off”. Fuck off!
Never mind. The very next year, The Micro User was to surpass itself…
The Micro User, 1985: Mornington Crescent
Now, this is more like it. Out goes the belaboured stuff, and the gag is played entirely straight: a version of I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue‘s Mornington Crescent – for the BBC Micro. Type-in listing and all. Which will run, and will actually play the game. I presume nobody reading this now feels inspired to type that listing in – what, seriously, you have better things to do? – but the game was included on the The Micro User disc magazine for that month, which you can download here and run using an emulator.
Maybe the best part though, is the letter which appeared in the following issue of the magazine:
Superb. Can it be beaten?
Acorn User, 1985: Touch Screen
1985 was a good year for April Fools. This one loses points for being too obvious with the name – come on, “Alf Ripool”, really? – but everything else about it is great. The idea that touchscreen hardware is already built into the BBC Micro but just not utilised sounds just plausible enough for you to believe it if you’re not thinking correctly.
Bonus points, of course, for giving you an entire page of code to type in for the final gag. People these days have their April Fools too easy, innit. And what’s the result of all that typing? After the long process of calibrating your new touchscreen – complete with you jabbing your monitor repeatedly with your finger – the numbers from 0 to 9 change into:
Bastards. Absolute bastards.
OK, cards on the table: this is my favourite of the lot… although I admit that’s probably because it got me at exactly the right time. The Temporal Operating System Supervisor – a chip which would predict exactly what you were about to do, and so issue commands before you typed them in – is a really fun idea, although one that any sensible person would cotton on was a joke immediately. But it caught me at the age – much like Ghostwatch – where I wasn’t quite sure. Even when I finally realised, it stuck in my head for years. (In fact, it was the initial inspiration for this article.) The screenshot in the article tells its own little story all by itself.
My favourite bit? How the idea is taken to its logical conclusion, and points out that if you have the chip installed, you’ll always remain at the same level of knowledge and never learn anything new…
Oddly enough, despite the well-known Acorn Abuser comedy page, The Micro User was always better at April Fools gags than Acorn User. But the following year, Acorn User would make by far its best stab. (No, sadly, those Dianetics ads in the magazine’s dying years were real.)
For this one, you really do have to know a bit about the situation at the time. The previous year, Acorn’s brand new 32-bit machine – the Acorn Archimedes – had been released. One of the flagship games for the machine was Zarch, featuring a 3D landscape rendered in real time which absolutely blew the minds of people used to the graphics of 8-bit machines. And understandably, die-hard BBC Micro users would occasionally glance at coverage of the new game, rather enviously.
So, when Acorn User announced a BBC Micro version of Zarch… lots of people really wanted this one to be true. The ideal way to trick people. The mock-up screenshot and description is especially clever in terms of believability: a full-size playing area would immediately clue people in that it was fake, but shrinking it down adds an immediate sense of verisimilitude.
Though my favourite line has to be “Electron owners will have to wait until the end of the year”. Electron Zarch. My head hurts.
Back to the pages of The Micro User for one final April Fools. This parody of parallel processing is fun enough, although it doesn’t even nearly reach the heights of their previous two attempts – and sadly, the final gag where you get the result of a program before running it is exactly the same as TOSS from a couple of years ago. Still, the parody of the kind of codenames Acorn was using at the time is amusing, as is just entirely giving up right at the end.
All three of The Micro User April Fools pieces featured here were written by Mike Cook, incidentally: one of the best columnists I’ve ever read in any magazine, computing or otherwise. His hardware projects were fascinating, despite the fact I never dared attempt any of them. It was especially amusing reading him barely manage to be civil to people if they wrote in asking a stupid question. Well worth hunting down some of his columns if you ever get the chance.
Sadly, that’s the last of the golden-era Micro User April Fools. Back to…
If the very first example in our rundown fails for being badly-written with a slight hint of misogyny, at least it wasn’t boring. Sadly, we’ve run out of luck here.
In many ways the most traditional of all the April Fools on this page – no jokes based on technical jargon here. An Archimedes plays music to plants to make them grow faster. You can imagine the BBC doing a joke news item exactly like this. Sadly, in an attempt to be believable, it ends up stripping out all the fun. You could easily imagine an “And finally” item on the news playing this for real. If it’s a choice between this or chips which can predict the future, I know which I’d go for. A shame, as the format of the piece – an actual ongoing series about how people used their computers – leaves plenty of room for imagination, which they steadfastly refused to take. (For a far more compelling example of this article series, see behind-the-scenes on Strike It Lucky. All real.)
Luckily, the lesson was learnt for our final example…
Again, one that stuck in my head for years – and one which I sadly gave far too much credence at the time. Apparently, by connecting a potato to a BBC Master Compact – the Econet port, to be precise – you could “connect wirelessly with any other Acorn computer within a 200-mile radius”.
I was very young, OK.
Seriously, really young.
Especially cruel that this little titbit was given in an article aimed at beginners to computing, rather than grizzled veterans who spot nonsense a mile off.
…A POTATO, THOUGH, COME ON, I WAS A FUCKING IDIOT.
All scans sourced from the truly excellent 8-Bit Software site. A resource you could get lost in for years.
UPDATE (01/04/17): Touch screen April Fool from Acorn User 1985 added, with thanks to Mark Fraser.