Ten years ago this month, the newly-privatised British Telecom pushed ahead with what for many will always be the most dramatic innovation of the digital revolution. It began to demolish its 80,000-strong fleet of red telephone boxes. Heavy doors and the red box's widely recognised role as an alternative public lavatory meant that the atmosphere inside had not always been bracing. Disabled access was non-existent, and thieves were robbing the boxes of pounds 30 million a year. In any case, the new chairman of BT, Sir Iain Vallance, wanted a new image for his company.
The cull has been relentless ever since. British Telecom has torn out all but 15,000 of Giles Gilbert Scott's classic models. Scott's K2 design, which won the original Post Office commission in 1924, and the smaller, more numerous K6 refinement of 1935, have been replaced by a less popular range of easy-to-clean, difficult-to-rob plastic booths. But BT, which recently persuaded New World Payphones not to establish their own red boxes, has consistently refused to quench the nostalgic thirst of a British public addicted to programmes like Hamish Macbeth and Ballykissangel.
Public opinion has never been reconciled with the old red box's successors. Open-air telephone booths were windy and noisy. Mercury's blue and silver phone booths also failed to satisfy. Last year, BT finally answered calls for something more familiar, unveiling a new stainless steel-based payphone with a red-topped roof and a "softer, more rounded" shape.
But even this tribute to the past failed to impress Scott devotee Lord St John of Fawsley, who described it as "illiterate" and "visually incoherent".
Westminster City Council has reintroduced the red box to conservation areas, and 2000 originals, mostly in rural areas, were listed by English Heritage in 1988. But otherwise, Scott's creations have found more useful employment as bathroom showers. As for that box in Hamish Macbeth's village of Loch Dubh: in real life, it's privately owned. But never mind - with several telephone companies developing miniature mobile "tele-headsets" that transmit sounds through the cheekbone, we may soon be wondering what all the fuss was about.
Conal WalshReuse content