Doctoring historical fact

Hugh Pearman laments the demise of the Met police box – for which the BBC has, oddly, obtained copyright. But he thinks the boxes could be due a re-run

Strange news. You must have heard it. A police box is no longer a police box. It is, officially, a Tardis. This is because police boxes have not been seen in London for a good quarter century, whereas the Tardis, which first appeared on television in 1963, is firmly lodged in everybody’s mind as a time-travelling device. Obvious, isn’t it?

Perhaps not so obvious, since no new series of Dr Who, the BBC sci-fi series in which the Tardis featured, has been seen for years. However, it is a cult. We are all supposed to know about it, just as we are Bagpuss or the Clangers. In fact, this attitude merely reflects the age group of the people currently running the media, but let that pass. The point is this: who owns the image of something? The people who devised it? Or other people, who adopt it?

The people who devised the Metropolitan Police box are, obviously, the Metropolitan Police. It thought it had the rights to the thing. But the Old Bill has always been slow when it comes to cosmic shifts in perception. At a recent arbitration hearing, it was ruled that the people empowered to depict the box on mugs, T-shirts and so on, are the BBC. The reason being that this iconic object has changed its nature. It was once a specialist phone box. It is now officially not that, but a fictional time-travelling device that is bigger inside than out. Equipped with a cylindrical electronic gubbins inside that pumps up and down and makes wheezing noises as it works.

But that is the new reality. In the old reality, it was a place where – in the days before walkie-talkies – constables on the beat would make contact with the station. If the station wanted to make contact with them, the light on top flashed. They also had a small electric fire, a tiny desk with an incident book, a first-aid kit, a fire extinguisher, and a set of brushes and dusters – presumably for the cleaning of uniforms. They were thus more than just call boxes. They were miniaturised police stations. Also jails, since occasionally a policeman might stuff an obstreperous drunk into one while calling reinforcements. Many had phones built into the outside so that people without phones of their own could call the cops.

And when did this archaic bit of equipment cease to be used? The last real Tardis-style police box I saw was abandoned, stuck by the side of the A1 on the outskirts of London, leaning at a slight angle. It was around 1980. When the road was widened, it went. I’m now told this was indeed the last of the breed, although you’ll find a later replica at Earl’s Court Tube station. Others of a different, classical design survive in Scotland, but no one cares about those because they did not become part of a TV cult.

Long ago, I inquired about the boxes. The Met said that because they were made of timber (later, concrete), they couldn’t be dismantled or moved – like a cast-iron telephone kiosk – so tended to fall apart. A call to the BBC confirmed this. Its Tardis, it said, wasn’t a real example, but a faithful mock-up.

You can see why the things became obsolete in their first incarnation. The system depended on frequent beat patrols of low-tech coppers, equipped only with truncheon and notebook, to work. As soon as they got their personal radios and their cars, that was it. The two phases did briefly overlap – when the box was both a time-travelling Tardis on TV, and a functioning bit of police equipment. But Troy Kennedy Martin’s grittily realistic BBC series Z Cars, showing the new high-tech force in action, had launched a year before the Doctor, in 1962. The only reason the boxes stayed around on the street so long was bec

ause, like all obsolete street furniture, nobody could be bothered to remove them.

So by a curious alchemical process, a real physical object has officially morphed into a fictive object, while retaining its exact form – externally. But should the BBC have the rights to it? Consider this. The things were designed by the Met’s surveyor, G Mackenzie-Trench, in 1929. They were phased out from 1969. That means 40 years as a functioning piece of product design. The year 2003 will mark 40 years of the Tardis, which arguably the BBC designed on the inside. So the honours are shared.

But if product designs can have more than one life, can’t they have more than two? Police boxes did more than their functional brief. Their mere physical presence was vital. Besides, miniaturised police stations, decentralised, marking the physical presence of a reassuring security service out in the community? Aren’t people now calling for just such an innovation? Maybe this idea hasn’t run its course yet.

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