TV Cream

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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.

Click to comment


  1. Claire

    May 30, 2009 at 9:48 pm

    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

    May 30, 2009 at 10:30 pm

    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

    May 30, 2009 at 10:34 pm

    “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. Glenn Aylett

    June 13, 2009 at 3:10 pm

    Apparently getting through to Swap Shop was the equivalent of winning the pools 30 years ago as several million kids used to phone in at once. However, one memorable moment from Saturday BBC kids shows is when one character got through to the Saturday Superstore and started insulting Five Star( for those who can’t remember them a very bland family pop group). Nice one.

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