Making its first appearance on Britain’s streets 100 years ago, the telephone box is often celebrated as one of our quintessential landmarks. On film, however, it tends to take on a more subversive role. As a space of secrecy for illicit negotiations or a means to conceal conversations, the on-screen phone box is a gateway to crime and desire.
It’s all a far cry from the intentions behind Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s K2 design with its bright vermillion tint, which replaced the original 1921 design in 1924 and was intended to make the booths stand out in case of emergencies.
An early example of the new phone boxes’ clandestine uses can be found in Alfred Hitchcock’s silent thriller Blackmail (1929). Frank (John Longden) reveals a glove that Alice (Anny Ondra) has left behind at the scene of a murder inside the phone box of her father’s tobacco store, only to then hide this evidence from the authorities.
In Night and the City (1950), Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) starts out as a cunning conman, using a phone box by his girlfriend’s flat to trick her into leaving in order to steal some cash. By the end of the film, while he’s being pursued by London’s wrestling underworld, Harry makes a desperate call from a phone booth to Figler (James Hayter), who ultimately betrays him.
In the same year, Basil Dearden’s The Blue Lamp shows a brief moment where the telephone box is used for its intended emergency purpose when a member of the public relays the getaway vehicle’s license plate to a man in a nearby kiosk after a shooting.
Dial M for Murder (1954) is another Hitchcock film where a telephone box is crucial to its suspenseful plot. When Tony (Ray Milland) plans to have his wife Margot (Grace Kelly) killed, he phones her from a booth with full-length glass panels as part of his intricate plan; his crime hidden in plain sight.
Telephone boxes are used throughout Victim (1961), Basil Dearden’s thriller about homosexual encounters being exploited for blackmail, as much of the action takes place on the streets of London. From the following year, Don’t Talk to Strange Men tells a cautionary tale in which a girl is groomed by an anonymous voice who makes regular calls to her bus stop phone box.
Almost a decade later, in Mike Hodges’ gritty gangland drama Get Carter (1971), Jack Carter (Michael Caine) makes a critical call from a phone box in his hometown; the red landmark standing out against the rural Newcastle backdrop as much as he does.
The Ipcress File’s (1965) jarring cinematography mirrors its mind-bending story of brainwashing and espionage. Harry Palmer’s (Michael Caine) fight with Housemartin (Oliver MacGreevy) is no exception: we voyeuristically observe their scuffle through the red panes of a nearby phone box.
I Start Counting (1969) also leaves us to look on as Corinne (Clare Sutcliffe) unknowingly gets into the car of a dangerous killer after phoning her friend Wynne (Jenny Agutter).
In Performance (1970), Chas’s (James Fox) unhinged panic, following killing a rival in self-defence, is emphasised through claustrophobic high angles and shaky handheld camera inside a phone box.
The seemingly innocuous telephone box can also be a portal of desire. They provide an oasis within public spaces where the private self can be revealed. For instance, in Peter Greenaway’s short Dear Phone (1976), the static, documentary-style shots of red telephone boxes are juxtaposed with detailed, intimate accounts of unlikely phone experiences.
In David Lean’s The Passionate Friends (1949), Steven (Trevor Howard) reignites an affair with Mary (Ann Todd) from a phone box. Later, the end of their relationship is punctuated with him walking into a telephone kiosk to call his wife.
Another tale of ‘forbidden’ romance, Girl with Green Eyes (1964) shows Kate (Rita Tushingham) taking a call from Eugene (Peter Finch) in her local telephone box. It’s a moment of privacy away from her brash flatmate Baba (Lynn Redgrave). By the end of the film, they realise that their relationship can’t go on. Kate is ready to take a boat from Ireland to London with Baba, so she tries reaching Eugene from a nearby phone box to no avail.
A rare K8 model, which was adopted between the late 1960s and early 1980s, can be seen in Gregory’s Girl (1980) when Carol (Caroline Guthrie) changes clothes in a phone box. The full-height glass windows underscore her exhibitionism.
The red telephone box is also used to accentuate ‘Britishness’. For example, in East Is East (1999), the Khan family covertly contact their disowned brother, who has rejected Pakistani traditions in favour of British values.
Local Hero’s (1983) red phone box in the remote Scottish village of Ferness stands out against the azure shoreline. The antiquated booth is the only form of contact which Mac (Peter Riegert), a US businessman, has to his office in Houston.
While the Local Hero phone box is an integrated part of Ferness’s overall quaintness, in a similar setting Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger show one as a modern divergence from Mull’s natural beauty in 1945’s I Know Where I’m Going! The sound of a waterfall overpowering her phone calls reflects Joan’s (Wendy Hiller) growing love for the isolated island over her metropolitan life.
There’s also a nod to the conflicts that sometimes occurred when the GPO installed the phone boxes in rural communities. Torquil (Roger Livesey) explains how his fellow islander, Catriona (Pamela Brown), refused to have one placed atop the hill. Similarly, 1980s newsreel footage on BFI Player shows a Worcestershire community fighting to keep their phone box green to blend in with its countryside surroundings.
The telephone box has also been employed in a variety of comedy scenes, perhaps most famously when the crooks from The Ladykillers (1955) pile into a phone box to listen in on their heist.
Britannia of Billingsgate (1933) uses a set of three phone booths in order to humorously capture the transition of working-class fish shop owners into movie musical producers.
In the 1980s the ageing phone boxes became the butt of the joke themselves, with public call boxes seeming more and more faulty and outmoded. In Clockwise (1986) a frustrated headmaster played by John Cleese bashes the already defective telephones as an onlooker cries “they’re vandalising those phones again!”
Although Withnail & I (1987) is set at the end of the 1960s, Withnail (Richard E. Grant) calls his agent from a telephone box, complaining to the operator about its flawed coin-operated system.
The 2008 teen comedy Wild Child jokes about the sleazy side of phone box ads when Poppy (Emma Roberts) and her friends prank snooty head girl Harriet (Georgia King) by pasting her face on to a call girl’s poster.
Over the last few decades, the telephone box has been seen less as a useful facility and more a touristic symbol. Its use in international hits and period pieces, such as Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007), Christopher Robin (2018) and Rocketman (2019), to name just a few, lean on its status as a recognised British emblem.
With telephone boxes becoming fewer across the country, or becoming repurposed for different uses, films such as these provide an essential time-capsule, giving us glimpses and memorable subversions of the iconic box.