Phil Gyford


Friday 16 September 2005

PreviousIndexNext If you see Sid, tell him the future's broken

I don’t remember much else from the campaign to privatise BT, other than that advertising catchline. [Update: But as Lee points out below, I even got that wrong. Doh.] But I’m sure one of the benefits of the whole sell-off — aside from making everyone rich, RICH! — was improved efficiency, modernisation, all that kind of thing. So why is it that, however many years on, five years into the future of the 21st century, that when our phone line goes mysteriously dead it’s going to take BT a week, seven entire dial-tone-free days to do anything about it?

This isn’t the future I was promised. Never mind the lack of jet-packs and cures for diseases, what about the future in which corporations respect their customers? No, BT aren’t going to make any quick cash from fixing our phone line now, rather than sometime next week, but haven’t Margaret and John and Tony promised us a world in which individuals matter, where conusmer is king? I’m an individual, I’m a consumer, and yet you have to wonder who’s the king if I’m sitting here nodding, saying, “oh, well, if it can’t be done any quicker, that’s that,” when a service I’m paying for stops working, while the company responsible is raking in £2 billion profit a year.


Tragically, the advertising catchline "if you see Sid, tell him" was for the privatisation of British Gas.

Posted by Lee Maguire on 16 September 2005, 1:55 pm | Link

One Week, sheer unadultarated luxury. In the Sixties and Seventies, which is as far back as I can remember, telephones were not what they are today.
When you moved house you had to apply for a reconnection, this would take three months. Three months even if there was already a phone in the new house. To get a phone installed for the first time, well that was a big job. So if you moved house you could expect to be 90 days without a phone and there was no question of taking your old number with you because numbers were very specific to location and you couldn't muck up that system.

Just as numbers didn't transfer nor did telephones. Customers did not own their own telephone, they rented it from the GPO, for a hefty sum each month. When you left a house the phone stayed and when you arrived in a new home you got the phone that was there, at least that's the way I remember it. The phone had a dial on it, not push button but one which you wound clockwise. Took quite a time to dial a number with lots of zeros in it.
We had a red phone I remember, there was no question of requesting a phone with a different colour, not may people were vain enough to want a phone which matched their decor, it just wouldn't have occurred to you that such a thing was possible. If you had a problem with your phone, you went around to the post office, where the post master might take up your case if it seemed deserving enough.

My Mum's hairdresser had one of the first non standard phones, it had a thin pointy handle and it sat perpendicular to the cradle rather than parallel,it was quite a sight, it was the most interesting thing about the hairdressers and it gave the establishment a high class and elitist air. We used to discuss at great length how much the phone must of cost to rent and how long it must have taken them to get it. It was not every day you saw a high class phone like that one.

We were all taught never to make a call before six o'clock in the evening. That was the way to financial ruin. Even now I find myself looking at my watch and wondering whether I should wait another ten minutes. Old habits die hard. You only had to use a call box once during the day to realise it was costing you an arm and a leg. Those old GPO telephone boxes had two slots one for 2ps and one for 10ps. As a lad you had to exert such force to push the coin in that it required you to use both hands, two thumbs and cradle the receiver on your neck. If you only had 2ps then you would do more pushing and feeding of the box than talking, it took such concentration and strength that you didn't have much left over for conversation any way. Those were the days.

Posted by Richard Hyett on 16 September 2005, 3:17 pm | Link

Richard's right to invoke the days of 'the list' under the GPO. My family didn't have a phone until moving house in 1979, and throughout my childhood, local calls were monitored like hawks, even after 6pm, since 'this is costing us money!' Compare that to my wife's experience in the US, where 3-hour phone conversations with friends were part of growing up.

(And it was only after watching 'Bullitt' some years ago that I realised you only needed to add money once in US phone boxes if you were making a local call.)

In a sense, BT's always been in a strange corporate position. It's been broadsided three times: by mobile phones, by cable phone service, and now by VoIP. But it still seems to think that its competition is the 'Mercury' button from the early 90s.

Irony of ironies: I'd really like one of those old scarlet Bell dial-phones now.

Posted by nick on 16 September 2005, 4:50 pm | Link

This is all getting a bit 'Four Yorkshiremen' isn't it. I remember the old pay phones and I remember that we used to share a phone line with an old woman who lived across the street, so we'd often pick up the receiver to hear a strange conversation. Doesn't mean a week to repair a problem is "luxury" though.

Posted by Phil Gyford on 19 September 2005, 12:47 pm | Link

Monty Python's Four Yorkshire men sketch was first performed in 1967. It is interesting what gets remembered, what lasts and what gets forgotten. So much popular culture lives on and on, way past it's sell by date, there's probably been more documentaries about the Pythons than there were Python shows. Yet how many people have any idea or remember what it was like to rent or use a telephone in the sixties and early seventies in the UK.

Posted by Richard Hyett on 19 September 2005, 10:02 pm | Link

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