Parallels
4:10 am
Tue January 14, 2014

Some Brits Not Ready To Say 'Ta-Ra' To Iconic Telephone Box

Originally published on Wed January 15, 2014 9:14 am

People in the United Kingdom are racing to save a beloved icon, in a mission that in some ways resembles efforts to save the giant panda in China, or the polar bear in the Arctic.

But this icon isn't threatened by habitat loss or climate change. The problem here comes from companies like Apple, Samsung and Nokia.

"Mobiles have taken over," laments Mark Johnson, the man in charge of pay phones for BT (formerly known as British Telecom).

People below a certain age may not even know what a pay phone is: Think great big cellphone that lives in a box on the street. Drop a coin to make a call.

In London, the crimson red "telephone box" is a revered icon, as much as the black taxicab or the double-decker bus. But people still ride black cabs and double-decker buses. Pay phones haven't fared as well: Calls from them have dropped 80 percent in the past five years.

"In 2002 we had 92,000 pay phones," Johnson says. "We've now got 48,000 on the street."

I stood with him in front of the most photographed booth in all of London, the one right at the foot of Big Ben.

"Everybody comes up to it. They have a photograph with Big Ben in the background. And a lot of them are holding up the mobile phone to their ear rather than making a phone call," he says. "I wish everyone that used this made a single call out of it, because it would be absolutely the best-used kiosk in London."

But just because they're no longer useful as phones doesn't mean they're completely obsolete.

In towns all over the country, Johnson has pulled phones out of the booths so locals can transform them into all sorts of things.

"Libraries, art galleries, notice boards, school projects. We even had a pub in one for one night, which was called the Dog and Bone," says Johnson.

Not many people fit in that pub, he confesses.

"Just the barrel of beer, and they were serving out of it," Johnson says.

Software developer Laurie Young is a Londoner who admits he hasn't used a pay phone in at least 15 years. But if they were to disappear?

"It would definitely be a big loss," he says. "Like losing the Empire State Building from New York."

A few thousand of these phone booths are actually listed on Britain's register of historic places.

That's partly thanks to a group called the 20th Century Society whose mission is to preserve 20th century buildings.

It may sound like a stretch for a group that focuses on buildings to preserve phone booths. But the group's director, Catherine Croft, says there's a really good reason for it. The phone booth's designer was a man better known for cathedrals, bridges and power plants.

"I guess most people would perhaps assume it was a product designer or a furniture designer maybe, but no," says Croft. "Giles Gilbert Scott was a really important British architect."

Croft took me to inspect one of Scott's smaller works in a historic market the other day. Up close, the booth has echoes of an ancient temple: fluted columns down the sides, a low curved dome at the top.

"And that's very deliberate," says Croft. "He was a scholar of classical architecture."

Inside, the booth feels a bit less dignified. There is a puddle on the floor, and a funky smell. Hidden in the dark of that booth, about 7 feet off the ground, is a small plaque. It's almost unreadable. The inscription says: "This telephone as designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott is a listed building."

Fortunately, we were able to read the plaque's writing by the light of a cellphone.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Fairly often we bring you stories of beloved species that are disappearing and the people who are trying to save them. It could be poison arrow frogs in the Amazon or polar bears in the Arctic. Today, we have story about a disappearing species with a bit of a twist.

Here's NPR's Ari Shapiro, reporting from London.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: I'm watching a London icon in its native habitat. Tourists who've traveled from thousands of miles away are snapping photos. But this icon is severely endangered, not because of habitat loss or climate change. Here is the real threat to this creature's existence.

(SOUNDBITE OF RING TONES)

MARK JOHNSON: Mobiles have taken over and call usage has plummeted in that time.

SHAPIRO: This is Mark Johnson. He works for British Telecom, as the man in charge of payphones.

Now, if you're under a certain age, you might not know that a payphone is like a great big cell phone that lives in a box on the street. You drop in a coin and make a call.

In London, the crimson red telephone box is a beloved icon, as much as the black taxicab or the double-decker bus. But people still ride black cabs and double-decker buses. Payphone calls have dropped 80 percent in the last five years.

JOHNSON: In 2002 we had 92,000 payphones. We've now got 48,000 on the street.

SHAPIRO: The phone booth we're standing in front of is the most photographed in all of London. It's right at the foot of Big Ben.

JOHNSON: Everybody comes up to it. They have a photograph, you know, with Big Ben in the background. And a lot of them are actually holding up the mobile phone up to their ear rather than making a phone call. I wish everyone that used this made a single call out of it, because it would be absolutely the best used kiosk in London.

SHAPIRO: Just because they're no longer useful as phones doesn't mean they're completely obsolete. Mark Johnson says he's pulled phones out of the booths, so locals can transform them into all sorts of things.

JOHNSON: We have had libraries, art galleries, notice boards, school projects. We even had a pub in one for one night, which was called The Dog and Bone which was absolutely fantastic.

SHAPIRO: How many could fit in that pub?

JOHNSON: Not many. No, just the barrel of beer and they were serving out of it.

SHAPIRO: Software developer Laurie Young is a Londoner who admits that he hasn't used a payphone in at least 15 years. But if they were to disappear?

LAURIE YOUNG: It would definitely be a big loss. It would be like losing the Empire State Building from New York.

SHAPIRO: But it seems they have no function any more. I mean what if the Empire State Building were to be sitting empty for 20 years?

YOUNG: It's not just a matter of function. It's a matter of what it looks like, what it symbolizes.

SHAPIRO: A few thousand of these phone booths are actually listed on Britain's register of historic places. That's partly thanks to the work of a group whose mission is to preserve 20th century buildings.

CATHERINE CROFT: Yes, I'm Catherine Croft and I'm director of the 20th Century Society here in London.

SHAPIRO: It may sound like a stretch for a group that focuses on buildings to preserve phone booths. But Croft says there's actually a really good reason for it. The phone booth's designer was a man better known for cathedrals, bridges, and power plants.

CROFT: I guess most people would perhaps assume it was a product designer or - I don't know - a furniture designer, maybe. But no, Giles Gilbert Scott was a really important British architect.

SHAPIRO: Catherine Croft and I visited one of Sir Gilbert Scott's smaller works in a historic market. Up close, the booth has echoes of an ancient temple: Fluted columns down the sides, a low curved dome at the top.

CROFT: Yeah. And then that's very deliberate.

SHAPIRO: Really?

CROFT: Yeah. No, absolutely. He was a, you know, scholar of classical architecture.

SHAPIRO: Can we both fit inside?

CROFT: Just about.

SHAPIRO: OK. Ooh, there's a little puddle on the floor - careful.

CROFT: It's authentically smelly in here as well...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

Oh, wait a minute. I didn't even notice, just above my head in this telephone booth and it's - I'm a tall person so this is hard to read. In the dark it says: This telephone as designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott is a listed building. We are in a historic building right now.

Fortunately, we were able to decipher the plaque's writing by the light of a cell phone.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, London.

(SOUNDBITE OF THEME MUSIC, "DR. WHO")

MONTAGNE: By the way, we'll be hearing a lot more from Ari who is now based in London.

And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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