Why the iconic red phone box still rings a bell


Last updated at 00:24 24 November 2007

There are three red telephone booths outside the post office close to where I live in South London.

I know that only because I checked the other day, not because I've had occasion to use them. No one else uses them, either, or so my half-hour random survey on a busy weekday morning would suggest.

They're there as heritage and because British Telecom is compelled by a "universal services obligation" agreement of 1984 to ensure that everyone has access to basic telephone services.

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Now that nine in ten people over the age of 13 own at least one mobile phone, it's likely that agreement will soon be scrapped, with telephone booths being sent to the scrap heap or air-freighted to American theme parks.

Since BT's revenue from call boxes has dropped by 50 per cent in the past three years, it can't be blamed for wanting shot of them.

And I suppose I should be grateful that the three near me are all in the classic design originated by Giles Gilbert Scott - one of them a rare K2 from 1926, and the other two the model that people all over the world recognise as the British telephone box, the K6 (produced for George V's silver jubilee in 1935).

Around 2,000 of Scott's telephone boxes (mostly K6s) are listed buildings, saved for the nation.

Still, the day when they go the way of the Routemaster bus or the British Museum Reading Room - kept on for touristic photo opportunities, rather than doing the job they were built for - cannot be far off.

Perhaps it would have helped if the K6 had been given a proper name, rather than a letter and number, to distinguish it from a mountain in Pakistan, Mozart's sonata in C for violin and piano, and a state highway in Kansas.

But everyone knows what a "red phone box" means and there are buffs who still drool over the subtleties of Scott's original design - the reeded Grecian door surround, the leather retaining strap, the domed roof (allegedly inspired by the tomb of architect Sir John Soane), the segment-headed pediments.

The former Today presenter, the late John Timpson, devoted a book to the subject with his Requiem For A Red Box in 1989.

But as the title suggests, the days of the phone booth were already numbered by then - many were being sold to private collectors to enjoy a new life as gazebos, shower rooms or cocktail cabinets.

Today you can buy them on eBay and at englishphoneboxes.com. Or if transporting an object that weighs three- quarters of a tonne is too daunting a prospect, phoneybox.com sells lightweight replica models in kit form.

If that's still too much, in bulk or cost (replicas go for £1,200 and upwards, the genuine article for anything from £2,000 to £6,000), you can make do with novelty cufflinks, piggy banks, keyrings, teapots, posters and alarm clocks instead - the market for boothabilia is endless.

What is it about phone boxes that inspires such affection?

For people of my generation, who grew up (as our predecessors hadn't) with a phone at home, they were only ever a fallback, to be used in emergency, or while on holiday, or to contact parents (reverse charges) during the university term.

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tom jones phone box

They seemed old-fashioned even then, sturdy veterans of the Thirties and Forties, bombproof, regal (each with a crown on its head) and proudly British. Unpretentious, too: rivets poked out of their glazing bars, plain as pikestaffs, and the only bit of furniture they boasted - a directory hanging from a chain - was strictly functional and often in tatters.

In a postwar world of impermanence and plastic, Scott's booths could be trusted to keep their feet on the ground. Their purpose was to help us communicate.

And what they themselves communicated - the message of their cast-iron solidity - was: we will not change.

That they didn't change was part of their charm, and whenever the Post Office sought to modify them, if ever so slightly, there was a public outcry.

But they didn't work very well, either, and when (all too often) they swallowed your coins without keeping their part of the bargain, it was hard not to retaliate.

Much of the violence done to phone boxes was richly deserved rather than gratuitous. The severed wires and broken glass that young thugs were blamed for could also be the product of middle-aged phone rage.

Whoever perpetrated it, the vandalism created a vicious circle, so you couldn't tell whether phone boxes had been vandalised because they weren't working or weren't working because they'd been vandalised.

Later models such as the K8 (Bruce Martin's version in the 60s, which replaced Scott's little glass rectangles with a single pane), and the brutalist 80s KX range fared no better in this respect: since they didn't look much cop to start with, people had less compunction about wrecking them.

Logic said that telecommunications were improving, that connections were made more swiftly than in the old days of pressing Button B.

You could even dial overseas without going through an operator. Public payphones were part of the global village.

But enter a booth and you discovered that the global village was medieval, reeking of smoke and urine.

The booth always was - and still is - paradoxical in nature: a private space on a public street; a cubicle where you could be seen but not heard by passers-by; an anonymous box for deeply personal calls.

The first soundproof booth was supposedly improvised by Alexander Bell's assistant, Watson, who used blankets to stop his Boston landlady overhearing his calls. And a sense of privacy was integral to the booths designed by Scott. Once inside, it was easy to forget about the world beyond.

I can remember being in love and in Wales and calling my inamorata from a moonlit cliff-top, the telephone booth, at the edge of a caravan site, perched implausibly above the sea.

The romance of the situation got the better of me, the man waiting next in line angrily rapping on the glass when he decided my time was up: a call I thought was just getting going had, he claimed, already lasted 20 minutes.

In those days, there were always queues for telephone boxes, and the custom was that, with others waiting, you shouldn't take long.

But no one specified how long that was. I don't know that anyone was ever killed for outstaying their welcome in a phone booth, but if murder rates have dropped since the advent of mobiles, that could be the reason.

At night, dimly lit in the style of Chinese lanterns, phone booths could look beautiful - like beehives inviting you to enter their honeyed glow or glazed confessional boxes in which you could spill your secrets to a faceless confidante.

But at some point they lost their innocence, becoming a place for pimps and prostitutes to leave their cards, or for terrorists to phone through their bomb warnings, or for heavy breathers to make obscene calls.

They could feel claustrophobic, too: the Seventies film La Cabina played on the fantasy of becoming trapped inside a telephone box; that favourite student stunt - how many people could you cram inside a phone box? - played with it, too.

In an open society, the demand was for open booths, in which callers would be audible and therefore accountable.

The KX100 was the result, a flimsy, stainless-steel glasshouse with a door that didn't reach the ground: here was a booth that let your words escape and your feet show, like a stall in a public convenience.

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banksy phone

Other more overt KXs followed: some were roofless and had only one side, offering no shelter from the British weather and little opportunity for furtive sex or urination.

Now with the existence of mobile phones, the concept of privacy that old-style booths enshrined has all but disappeared.

I can remember at home once as a teenager getting a crossed line and hearing a girl describe to a friend how she'd lost her virginity the night before. I felt like a trespasser; she'd have been horrified to know a third party was listening.

But since the onset of the age of mobiles, it's common to overhear - or to be forced to listen to - the deepest emotions and darkest secrets being aired in public.

(The most brazen lies, too: the man on the Norwich train telling his wife - and the carriage - he won't be home tonight because he's stuck in Birmingham.)

In Philip Roth's new novel, Exit Ghost, the novelist's alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, laments "this boundless longing to be heard, and the accompanying disregard for being overheard . . . Having lived largely in the era of the telephone booth, whose substantial folding doors could be pulled tightly shut, I was impressed by the conspicuousness of it all".

I share Zuckerman's fear of the mobile - the way it outs us all, broadcasting our lives to strangers and keeping a dossier of our calls. The booth, by contrast, was a haven - a hide-out, a priest hole, a cave.

Superman used to change from civvies to stuntsuit in a phone booth. Tippi Hedren withstood the avian onslaught in Hitchcock's The Birds by taking refuge in one. Dr Who travelled through time in one - though the Tardis, of course, was a police booth, since no one would have believed a BT booth capable of space flight.

Thanks to its role in films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Die Hard and Dirty Harry, the phone booth's place in cultural history is secure.

Contemporary artists such as Banksy have exploited its iconic potential, too, much as Warhol did with Campbell's soup cans: when Banksy created a crumpled red call box with a pickaxe in its side and left it on a Soho street, conservationists took it as an incisive attack on BT's disregard for its heritage, whereas BT welcomed it as a "stunning visual comment" on its transformation from an oldfashioned company into a state- oftheart telecommunications giant.

The pickaxe seems appropriate, whatever. There are only 62,000 phone boxes left in Britain; in 1999 there were 140,000.

Even if it were to turn out that mobile phones cause brain disease and cancer, it's hard to see the phone box enjoying a revival. After all, fears about its effect on public health have a long history, too.

The Lancet once called it "a bacteriological box" and spoke of the "growing danger arising from the use of the common mouthpiece by promiscuous callers".

And panics about "filthy phones" covered in germs or excreta were still around as late as the 70s.

Even today, phone booths are widely regarded as a health hazard - another argument for removing them, of course.

They will never be removed completely: the reputation of Giles Gilbert Scott - the man also responsible for Liverpool Cathedral and the power stations at Battersea and Bankside (now Tate Modern) - is enough to secure the survival of at least some of the booths he designed, the K2s and K3s and K6s. But their unlovely successors are surely doomed.

That's fine, isn't it? Let's not make a fetish of public phones. They were only ever metal boxes, not magic wardrobes through which you could enter another world.

Though it's true they sometimes created that illusion. And that mobiles, for all their wizardry, can never provide the same thrill.

° Guardian News and Media 2007.

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