If the line is busy, please do keep trying

Once upon a time, everybody knew this number:


Surely giving children the chance to pick up the phone and talk directly to their heroes was one of the most brilliantly imaginative yet beautifully simple ideas in the history of telly? And surely TV is so much poorer for not doing it anymore? Why the conceit has died is not especially difficult to guess; presumably Them Upstairs think kids nowadays prefer email, texting and other alternatives to speaking. Which is, naturally, bollocks.

Phones, or ‘phones to be precise, have come a hell of a long way since they could be the subject of an entire photo opportunity:


Yup, that’s the hotline to Moscow. Disappointingly, only the handset is red. Harold seems unimpressed by its presence, presumably because he’s more preoccupied with the doodle-potential of that conveniently-placed sheet of A3 paper. These two seem more interested in the possibilities of a telephone conversation…


…though admittedly this was back when watching monitors showing pictures of other people speaking into a telephone was self-evidently the pastime du jour of the chattering (do you see?) class. Telephones soon became a universal trope of TV, fording the otherwise stubbornly insurmountable chasm of current affairs…


…and light entertainment:


It’s not immediately clear what Larry is supposed to be doing here, but that’s kind of not the point. The photo itself is the important thing: Lal with a bank of standard issue handsets, perhaps passing on the latest gossip about Everard and Slack Alice (“She never puts it out, you see, except on Wednesdays, and then only after half-day closing”), perhaps counselling a distraught Pop-It-In Pete; it doesn’t really matter. The profusion of ‘phones, plus that towering montage of dials behind him, more than justifies this photo’s existence. By this point in history, the more telephones on TV, the better. Hence the Saturday morning ‘phone-in, culminating in the arrival of the – gasp – cordless handset on Going Live:


This was a time when the Beeb not only cared about the appearance of the presenters of their flagship shows, they also bothered to give them equally stylish technical gizmos. Hence Phil was able to do Live Line perched on one of the studio gantries, or out in the Concrete Doughnut if it was a nice day, or anywhere that afforded ample potential to busk when, as Had To Happen, he misdialled, or nobody answered, or there were problems on the line (“Come on, come on! Tch, this always happens! I think I dialled it right – let me just try again…[speaks while presses keys] dur dur dur, dur dur dur, dur dur dur…ho hum, bom bom bom, come on! I’m sorry about this viewers – is anyone from British Telecom watching? Only joking!”)

Then, as always happens with a good thing that doesn’t need changing, somebody changed it. Exciting, fresh and funny exchanges twixt caller and celeb were replaced by cold, clinical and soulless online chats and email exchanges. Presenters thought they knew better than the public at asking questions, culminating in the isn’t-this-enquiry-crap-and-aren’t-interviews-just-a-fucking-waste-of-time business perpetuated by the presenters of T4. This kind of stuff didn’t help either:


What’s wrong love, don’t you know what a dial is? Neither was this likely to rescue the telephone’s reputation:


Yes, it’s the Amstrad emailphoneatron, as available to view every Wednesday night on BBC1 on the desk of the person hired to play this week’s incarnation of Frances.

A TV show that had the top celebrities of the day on one end of a telephone and ordinary folk on the other would rescue the ‘phone from these and other malign influences (such as playing stooge to Noel Edmonds) and turn it once more into a thing of import and entertainment.

Unfortunately such an idea would probably be dismissed as “not contemporary enough” by Them Upstairs and passed over in favour of another talent show for freaks like they had in the 70s.


10 Responses to If the line is busy, please do keep trying

  1. Claire says:

    God that Scary Spice picture is nightmarish. It’s the only time I’ve ever found her scary.

    Phones are only good for voting with these days it seems. Where are the opportunities to abuse 5 Star via text? They’d just delete it.

  2. Chris says:

    Remember when 081 811 8181 became 0181 811 8181? The trouble BT caused the people who had to work that bloody one into a jingle!

    It is quite strange that I can’t think of any positive use of phones on tv today. Late night quizzes, through the day quizes, crappy Wright Stuff type programme phone calls to complain about the state of the country (a la Talk Sport)and like the first comment mentioned voting. It’s all very strange. Then again, thank goodness Noel’s programmes aren’t phone connected any more. I don’t think I could stand even hearing word of mouth about what sort of phone calls HQ would get! (“word of mouth” being the thing I try to avoid after quite happily avoiding the programme)

  3. Claire says:

    “Remember when 081 811 8181 became 0181 811 8181? The trouble BT caused the people who had to work that bloody one into a jingle!”

    They succeeded pretty well though, I’ve not been able to get it out of my head ever since.

  4. Mark Jones says:

    “A TV show that had the top celebrities of the day on one end of a telephone and ordinary folk on the other” of course did happen, it being Ring My Bell with Laurie Pike*, which went out on Channel 4 in the early 1990s. It didn’t really set the schedules alight, mainly because the show kept cutting between all the different ‘celebrities’ so frequently, the viewers weren’t allowed to listen in to any one conversation for long enough to make any sense of it.

    (*As mentioned at http://tv.cream.org/extras/timecapsule/ark90s2.htm, of course.)

    Interestingly, thanks to a quick Google search to ascertain whether Laurie’s ‘Pike’ is spelled with an ‘i’ or a ‘y’, it seems World Of Wonder tried to revive the format in 2006, in an online-only format. Given the URL ringmybell.tv is now just linked to a 404 on the World Of Wonder site, it seems that didn’t fare much better.

  5. Lolsworth says:

    I remember being genuinely concerned in 1995 about how the Going Live and Kicking “081 811 8181” jingle would work with the extra 1.

  6. Stuart says:

    All those years of watching Saturday morning TV and it only recently occurred to me that the phones were just decorative.

    When did it change from 8055 to 8181, was it during Going Live?

  7. Adrian says:

    Remember when the number of phones on someone’s desk was a sign of their importance in an organisation? As in the photo above, one was normally red and a ‘hotline’.

    Also, old dramas/comedies often used a faintly absure device whereby a self-important diner in a restaurant would have a phone brought to his table by a waiter, trailing the cable behind and sometimes carried on a silver platter. I’m not sure if ever happened in real life!

    John Craven’s Newsround (as was) was into Trimphones big time, with one one his desk to complement the knitted sweater..

    The only thing I have to say to Alan Sugar about that ’email phone’ is: “You’re fired!”.

  8. Steve Williams says:

    It changed from 8055 to 8181 in 1990, when it also changed from 01 to 081. Then in 1999, when Live and Kicking had gone down the dumper big time, they changed it before they had to alter it to 0208, they got in a completely new number, 0845 610 1515, and I remember someone from ‘stEnders complaining that the number was too long and unmemorable.

    I also remember Motormouth having 0622 100000, which is a ridiculously unmemorable number. It’s a Maidstone number of course.

    I love old phone numbers, I was in my colleague’s car the other day and it’s a T reg, and on all the windows there are stickers for the Autoglass helpline, which is an 081 number. Does anyone still have a four digit phone number anymore, you’d think they’d all changed by now but seemingly not.

    But yes, we do need a programme where kids can phone in and talk to Huw Edwards in a jumper, who wouldn’t want to see that?

  9. David Smith says:

    Of course, 811 8055 wasn’t Swap Shop’s original number – in its first series (or two?) it was 288 8055 IIRC…

  10. RossMc says:

    As Swap Shop, and all the other programmes came from TV Centre in central London surely they should have had an 071, and later an 0171 number when they switched over?

    Or did they, as I’d like to hope, get the 081 number specially so it scanned nicely…

    I also notice that the new number for TV Centre has switched over the extremely new ’03’ prefix (0370 901 1227 – if anyone’s interested), which just doesn’t seem right at all.

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