Saturday, January 07, 2006

A British icon

click photo to enlarge
"They know the price of everything and the value of nothing". That saying was certainly true of the managers of the UK telephone provider, British Telecom (now BT), following its privatisation in the 1980s. It led them to destroy a British icon, and replace it with tat.

In 1935 the architect, Gilbert Scott, designed the K6 telephone box. It was the first standardised metal and glass model to be used throughout the country. Virtually everywhere it was painted bright red to be easily seen. The box was well proportioned, had square glass panes on three sides, an elegantly curved roof above, and was tough. It became, along with Bobbies, the Routemaster bus and black taxis, a symbol of Britain. Towns and cities had red telephone boxes spread strategically through them: mostly singly, occasionally in pairs, and outside main post offices in scarlet rows like a rank of guardsmen.

But in the 1980s and 1990s the significance of this iconic structure meant nothing compared with the bottom line. The new KX100 design was promoted as a replacement. It was cheaper to build (flat slabs of glass) and clean (open at the bottom). Its shape (a functional cuboid), its colour scheme (puce), and its decorative silhouette of a figure blowing a trumpet (why?) simply could not compare with Scott's masterpiece. It became universally reviled. But the bean counters, like their political mistress who had set them free - Margaret Thatcher - weren't for turning. The old boxes were scrapped or sold off as antiques (sometimes for shower cubicles)! Local councils were given the opportunity to retain their K6 as long as they took over the maintenance. Some did so with diligence. Others kept them, but neglected to clean, repair or paint them. You can see examples of these faded (now pink) boxes dotted about the country.

The photograph above, of the green at North Newbald, East Yorkshire, shows the contribution that the old telephone box made to a village. The flash of red stands stands out and contrasts with the backdrop in - I think - a pleasing way. Rapid growth in mobile phone use may have done for the boxes even if corporate vandalism had not got there first. However, in recent years many K6 boxes have been "listed": that is given protection by planning law against removal or change, in the way that buildings can be. Clearly the historic and aesthetic qualitities of the remaining boxes are now recognised. Which reminds me of another saying "you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone"!
photograph & text (c) T. Boughen