Doorstep entertainment

In America, people buy them to impress; here they sell as a kitsch gimm ick. Vicky Ward marks the dawning of the door-chime Just think of it, `Greensleeves' over and over again, as often as you want
Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind, Should auld acquaintance be forgot for the sake of auld lang syne.

New Year's Eve? Until 1980, the answer had to be yes. Now, however, thanks to the wonderful world of musical doorbells, this seasonal touchstone is likely to be heard any day of the year.

Door-chimes were first im-ported to Britain from the United States by Caradon Friedland, a Stockport-based manufacturer. Fifteen years later, unsuspecting visitors to what look like traditional, unprepossessing porches are just as likely to be blasted off their feet by "Battle Hymn of the Republic" as by "God Save the Queen".

Their buttons are indistinguishable from ordinary doorbells, so the visitor may be taken unawares by the incongruous sound of "Jingle Bells" in July, or the Westminster chimes playing in Liverpool (currently the most popular tune in the country), or a lumbering, slowed-down version of "Oh My Darling Clementine".

How and why did we let this invasion of naffdom in? Do we seriously believe that our friends would love us more if they could be assured of hearing "Camptown Races" every time they came to visit? The answer, tragically, appears to be yes.

Friedland is Britain's sole manufacturer of tune chimes, sales of which are now around 100,000 a year - a tenth of all annual doorbell sales. According to the company's marketing manager, David Adams, sales peaked when the concept was first introduced here, and then declined. "There was a slight rise again when we updated ourmodels in 1992," he says, "precisely because they really are a novelty thing."

The Friedland range, available at all good electrical stores, consists of two models. The Harmony (£24) automatically rotates 25 tunes and is mainly American in content. Patriotic melodies such as "Amazing Grace", "American Patrol", "Dixieland" and "America the Beautiful" are interspersed with "Three Blind Mice", "Frere Jacques" and "She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain", replete with a strangulated "Toot Toot".

More continental in theme is Friedland's Chorus model (£40) which offers 29 tunes including one ("Cookhouse Door") for the back door. The joy of this machine is that you get to select and play your favourite over and over again. Just think of it, "Greensleeves" over and over, as often as you want.

Still, we should be grateful we're not in America. According to Adams, door-chimes sell much better over there, because, to put it bluntly, Americans like showing off more.

"Americans want their doorbells to say something about their homes," says Mr Adams. "They are often elaborate in shape - clocks or animals, for instance and they are made of rich, heavy materials: oak, brass, gold."

In England, the appeal of the musical bells is more as a gimmick, although he stresses that the word "gimmick" considerably undervalues the high quality of the product.

Sales of tune chimes are roughly even all over the country, with a slight peak in Liverpool. This, Mr Adams suggests, is because of the "Liverpudlian sense of humour".

Elsewhere, householders are less amused. "This is a conservation area ... musical doorbells - you must be joking. Try the naff people down the road in Finchley," barked a middle-aged man at me, while I was conducting a tunes survey in Golders Green, tippedoff to me as the door-chime capital of London.

He was wrong: I found one only 50 yards from the very spot where he had been refuting the bell's existence. But it was difficult to hear the melody through the closed door: when the owner kindly invited me in to listen more closely, it was completely unrecognisable.

"What is it?" I asked amazed, "Dunno," came the reply. "I only bought the bell because I liked its shape [round] but the shop I bought it from eight years ago closed down. You can't get them near here anymore."

Ah well. There are those who develop a closer, more loving relationship with their singing doorbells. Rosie Fordham, a 36-year-old social worker who lives in a flat in Waterloo, was given hers as an act of vengeance by two friends, to whom she had given a wedding present of some coasters - each with a picture of herself on it.

"The doorbell was their way of retaliating for my naffness," she explains, "but, instead of hating it, I instantly loved it." Her favourite tune is Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, but she gets a kick out of playing "Happy Birthday" for friends who come round on the appropriate day and seasonal melodies such as "Oh Come All Ye faithful" at Christmas. Before long, her brother even asked her to buy one for him.

Back in Golders Green, I had a good peek at the bells on the houses where fake flowers climbed plastic trellises, Rolls Royces were covered by plastic sheeting and neo-architecture abounded but, alas, only the boring old Ding-Dong was forthcoming.

"You have to remember," says Mr Adams, "that the full effect of the bells is only appreciated inside the house, so often the buyers tend to be young people more concerned with interior gimmicks than external appearances."

Still, Ms Fordham is thinking of giving her beloved door-chime to her boyfriend. He has a proper front door whereas the entrance to her flat is through an entryphone which, she says, undoubtedly diminishes the full glory of her doorbell. But she adds: "If my boyfriend and I were to split up, there'd be no question - I'd just have to take it back."