Last call for Britain's little red telephone booths

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Last call for Britain's little red telephone booths

Postby Paul Clerkin » Tue Jun 22, 2004 4:08 pm

Last call for Britain's little red telephone booths

LONDON — To the tourist, it is as much a symbol of British life as Buckingham Palace. Yet the humble red telephone booth -- on the country's streets for a good 80 years -- is fast becoming an endangered species.

Disappearing especially quickly is the K6, a famous, elegant metal-framed design that first appeared in 1936 and has been featured in many thousands of tourist photographs. Of 60,000 such kiosks on Britain's streets at the peak of their popularity, only 15,000 remain.

British Telecom announced recently that it plans to remove about 10,000 of the 75,000 public booths of all types still in existence.

Among them will be many K6s, designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the design genius who was also the architect of Liverpool's famous Anglican cathedral.

"Obviously, we want to keep as many of the red boxes as we can, and maintain them when it's feasible," BT spokesman Les King said. "The red boxes are lovely, but if you are elderly or disabled or a child, they are hard to use and their door is heavy. You have to step up to get inside, and they don't have good ventilation, as in the new models."

However the true culprit in the phone booth's demise is not accessibility: It is the cellphone.

With about 80 per cent of Britons now using cellphones, fixed-line phone booths are swiftly falling into disuse. BT's revenues from them have fallen 40 per cent in the past three years alone.

Yet while the 750-kilogram dinosaurs are vanishing from the streets, most are simply popping up elsewhere, notably in the hands of collectors.

Many K6 models are Grade II listed by the government, meaning they cannot be altered or moved without official permission, but examples are easily available from specialist collectors for those with the money.

For about $5,500, an Internet company called British Bits will sell you a complete K6 box, restored and stripped of its fittings and ideal for use as a shower cubicle or even a modest-sized home bar, as the firm's website suggests. A hefty $11,000 will get a "museum quality" restoration, complete with original fittings.

Another company, Unicorn Kiosk Restorations, can provide a fully restored example of the K2, also designed by Mr. Scott and used from 1926, but found to be too expensive for national use. Only a few hundred models remain.

"Mostly people like them as garden ornaments," said a spokeswoman for the Surrey-based company. "But we even set down one in a NATO bunker."

Purchasers of kiosks from Unicorn have included stars such as British pop singer Cliff Richard and France's soccer captain Marcel Desailly, who plays for the English club Chelsea.

While the K6 is the best-known model, collectors have their own preferences.

Reg Lewis, the head of Unicorn Kiosk Restorations, talks fondly of the K4, the so-called "vermillion giant" produced at the start of the 1930s. It incorporates both a letter box and two automated stamp machines. Sixties fans also like the sleeker K8, designed in 1968 by Bruce Martin.

And a restored kiosk must be painted in precisely the right shade. For K2 to K7 models, this is "post office red," while the K8 saw a slight change of hue to "poppy red."

Other colours were even briefly dabbled with, such as the "telecom yellow" of some 1981 kiosks, and some extremely rare green boxes.
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