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Hoaxes: The Royal Dickens Company, on the fiddle, and the plumbing lama


Dr David Bramwell, creator of the Cheeky Guides series, is also an expert "trickologist" and will be performing a comic lecture on the history of hoaxes, pranks and mischief at Hendrick's Carnival of Knowledge at the Brighton Fringe in May. Here he shares three of his favourite lesser-known pranks.

1 The theatre director and comic actor Ken Campbell was well known for putting on plays up to 24 hours long. So when, in 1980, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) put on an 8-hour version of Nicholas Nickleby, he felt they were stepping on his turf. While the play's producer, Trevor Nunn, was on holiday, Campbell forged a letter from the RSC stating that the success of Nicholas Nickleby had been so great, that they would now be known as the RDC – the Royal Dickens Company. This letter was sent out to hundreds of people and posters for an upcoming version of Little Dorrit were put up. People were writing to the RSC responding to invitations to take part in the new play or expressing their indignation that the RSC was shutting down. When Nunn got back from holiday he was so angry he set up a police investigation. Campbell finally came clean on Newsnight, but never apologised; he maintained he was doing it to highlight the great work of the RSC.

2 Vioinst Rohan Kriwaczek was frustrated with playing at weddings. People would get drunk and getting paid took too long. He thought it would be much more dignified to play violins at funerals, but there wasn't an art form for the funerary violin. So he made one up, writing a book: An Incomplete History of the Art of the Funerary Violin. Published in 2006, it purported to reveal the entire history of a lost form tracing it back to the 16th century, where it was supposed to have been suppressed by the Vatican. Eventually the experts rumbled him, but not before he had set up an career as a funerary violinist.

3 In 1956, Doctor Tuesday Lobsang Rampa wrote the book The Third Eye, an autobiographical account of a Tibetan lama. It went on to be the UK's bestselling book on Tibet. It was the Daily Mail that discovered that the author was plumber from Cornwall called Cyril Hoskin who had not only never been to Tibet, but didn't own a passport.

Hoskin claims all of the information in the book came to him after he fell out of a tree while owl spotting; in a semi-conscious state he had met a passing lama in the astral plane and they had swapped bodies. It was a fantastic hoax set up by a man who, because he fell out of a tree, had put his back out. He couldn't plumb for six months so he reinvented himself as a lama. He went on to write a dozen more books including one allegedly dictated to him by his cat, Mrs Fifi Grey-whiskers the Third.