Iconic British Things No.10: The Phone Box

'Out Of Order' by David Mach (1988)

As we’re now frantically getting ready for the Doctor Who convention this weekend, now seems a perfect time to launch an appreciation of the Great British phone box, which has enjoyed not one but two iconic design moments, of the sort guaranteed to provoke spontaneous outbreaks of sobbing nostalgia in the hearts of all expats, or indeed anyone born earlier than 1980.

The first, and most iconic (if you can have a ‘most iconic’), is the Police Box. This was designed for emergency contact with the authorities in the event of something awful happening. In the years before every household having their own landline (and therefore aeons before the advent of cellphones), the police box was a bright way to make use of new technology in the constant fight against crime. And of course, the first place to have one fitted was New York City, in 1877.

They looked very different then, of course. The design was hexagonal and there was a gas light on top. It wasn’t until 1929 that the classic design, known as the Gilbert MacKenzie Trench, was first unveiled in London.

The way it worked was that you could put your hand into a little door, behind which was the phone itself, connected directly to the police station. Inside the box, unseen by the general public, was a miniature office for patrolling police officers, complete with incident report forms, first aid kit, fire extinguisher, sharp pencils and very probably a place to put a flask of hot soup. If the blue light was flashing, this meant the police officer was to use the phone to contact the station as soon as possible.

You would imagine it was the advent of the red public telephone box, a phone anyone could use for any purpose, which brought about the demise of its blue brother, but actually once police officers began to use personal radios more, the need for these mini-offices declined sharply, coinciding with the end of the 1960s. So the period of overlap between their use and the appearance on Doctor Who was incredibly short, especially bearing in mind the show’s near-50 year lifespan.

The classic British red telephone box (always box in Britain, never booth) was designed by Giles Gilbert Scott and made in cast iron and first came into use in 1926. It was originally known as K2 (or Kiosk2), because it was a secondary design to some unpopular concrete phone boxes which had been in use over the previous few years. K3 soon arrived, then K4 and K5, and finally, with K6, the design became firmly established. Public telephone boxes remained this shape and color for the next 50 years, gradually being phased out after British Telecom was privatised in the early ’80s.

By comparison, the curent shape of our phone boxes (where you can still find phone boxes) is a utilitarian stainless steel, glass-walled shrug of a thing, much like they are the world over. The K6 continues to fire the imagination, but chiefly for artists like Banksy, or the David Mach (see above).

Banksy's dead phone box (2006)

Thankfully we’ll always have the red pillar box!

*fingercross*

Fraser McAlpine

Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 13 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Music.

He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.

Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic

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