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Where have all the great hoaxers gone?

Now that reality is never quite as real as it seems, when even footage of the Queen walking out of a room turns out to be have been faked, the great hoaxes of the past have acquired a weird sort of glamour. Steven Spielberg took the story of a 1960s fraudster, Frank Abagnale, and turned him into a dashing anti-hero, played by Leonard di Caprio, for the film Catch Me If You Can. Lasse Hallström’s forthcoming film The Hoax has Richard Gere playing the part of Clifford Irving, the writer who, in the early 1970s, earned himself £750,000 for the autobiography, lovingly faked, of the reclusive millionaire Howard Hughes.

It is a rather inspiring story. Irving pitted his wits and nerve against the might of the media and the law, and almost got away with it. It was only just before his alleged autobiography was due to be published that Hughes cracked and gave a press conference over the telephone revealing that Irving’s work was “totally fantastic fiction”. Irving was sentenced to two years in jail, since when he has more or less disappeared from public view. His 15 minutes were up.

Where have all the great fakes gone? There was a time, from the mid-1960s onwards, when a small number of people executed some brilliantly imaginative scams. Irving used Hughes’s mysteriously private persona against itself. Elmyr de Hory, the great art forger and the subject of a previous Irving work Fake!, was motivated by rage against a snobbish art establishment. In England, Tom Keating, an art forger from the East End, was playing a similar game.

When done well, hoaxing is a revealing, even rather honourable business. Just as Irving played on the gullibility of the media, de Hory and Keating exploited the greed of the art world. The writer Willie Donaldson, who was living in Ibiza at the same time as Irving and de Hory, later took faking to a new comic extreme, inventing the character of Henry Root, the great right-wing letter writer of the early 1980s. For each of these people, the act of impersonation, and of taking people in, seems to have answered some need within his personality, a tic of intellectual curiosity.

The last gasp of the great age of the hoax was probably the Hitler diaries scam of 1983. Since then, fakery has changed, becoming less a question of individual ingenuity and daring, more generally part of the culture – almost institutionalised. There is nothing new or surprising in the well-heeled and self-important being gulled into making fools of themselves in public. Chris Morris did it effectively 10 years ago and was followed by Sacha Baron Cohen with Ali G.

The truth is that faking is now a game that everyone can play. It has been democratised. Not only does the new technology make manipulating film easy, but hoaxing has entered the culture under the name of PR. The elevation of marketing to a high art has meant that advertisers, politicians, documentary-makers and job applicants are utterly relaxed in making the evidence fit the story they would like to tell.

There is no longer any surprise when on TV, phone-in competitions on kiddy and charity shows are rigged, when the stars of survival programmes sleep overnight in motels, when gritty, tell-it-like-it-is documentaries turn out to have been as carefully shaped as any drama.

Yet even the most successful fakers have had a brief shelf-life as celebrities. We like to hear about the great scams of the past but prefer the scammers to fade into obscurity. Perhaps their crimes are rather too close to our own everyday lives for comfort.

Viewers of Celebrity Sex Tapes Unwound might have been surprised to find that one of the contributing experts was Professor Germaine Greer. While it was interesting to know that Germaine, left, had a knowledge of a minor American actor’s bedroom video, some might have wondered whether her deconstruction was not a waste of that mighty brain.

A similar thought occurs with Greer’s new headline-grabber, an essay about Princess Diana, soon to be published in Australia, in which the People’s Princess (Diana, not Germaine) is portrayed as slow-witted, dishonest, cowardly and over-sexed.

The evidence is now irrefutable that celebrity attention deficit disorder, a desperate craving for attention at all times, is a severe, debilitating addiction. The professor is an extreme case, but other sufferers – Jeremy Clarkson, Christopher Hitchens, Russell Brand – should seek help before it is too late.

The market town of Diss in Norfolk rarely gets into the news and, when it does, many of those who live nearby probably wish it had put up with obscurity for a bit longer. It was once the setting of a peculiarly mawkish poem by John Betjeman about Mary Wilson. More recently, it joined a European campaign for slowness, prompting unkind jokes from visitors about how the town could be even slower than it is.

Now, far worse, there is a campaign to get the ageing, reformed Spice Girls to choose Diss as one of the few UK venues of their world tour. Cleverly, the group’s management has encouraged fans to vote for where they would like the girls to play. “This is your chance to turn your city into Spice City!” the website reads.

It is thought by some historians that the name Diss derived from an ancient word for hell. Should the town, by some unhappy chance, become Spice City, it will be living up to its name at last.

  • Chris Rust

    It’s not a trivial issue that the researchers here don’t seem to have any notion of irony or context. If McCartney is saying old people are unloveable how come so many oldies belt that song out at their 64th birthday parties? It’s an affectionate song about love persisting despite the inevitable effects of getting older, what could be more positive?

    But there’s something quite sinister here, the conclusions of the article say:
    “It is imagined that the negative representations of age and ageing can be dispiriting and confidence and esteem lowering for older people and that more scrutiny of these texts by censorship boards should be exercised.”

    In other words it’s a manifesto for the thought police to start telling artists what to do, based on a particularly numb piece of research. Decidedly chilling.