Dial “B” for Britain: the Story of the Landline (BBC4)
Guerrilla (Sky Atlantic)
Friends poke fun when they come to our house. Our television is too small, and our telephone – the landline of yore – stands on a tiny table in the hall. They seem not to understand that, for a couple of a certain age, the hall is simply where telephones belong: a symbol of agony and ecstasy long after such crazy emotions have been (more or less) erased from one’s life. Mobile phones rule us now, but it was once the landline that was God – and boy, do I remember its tyranny. The blush-inducing lack of privacy as you tried to whisper into the ear of some gorgeous (ie, lumpen) teenage boy; the itchy
misery of having to wait until 6pm to make the call, and of knowing that six minutes precisely thereafter an adult would appear, tapping their watch; the delirious freedom of switching to the red box down the road, even though it stank of pee and Bubblicious.
I’d have liked a bit more of this kind of thing in Dial “B” for Britain: the Story of the Landline (20 April, 9pm). The closest we got was when the Radio 3 presenter Matthew Sweet described the weirdness of the shared “party line” (people you didn’t know jawing away in your ear). Nevertheless, by the standards of most BBC4 documentaries, this one was a treat. Not only did it dig up Buzby, the Post Office bird that told Britons to “make someone happy with a cheap-rate phone call” (or, in my case, unhappy), but someone had also thought to include the episode of Trumpton in which, thanks to an engineer’s mistakes, the town’s telephone exchange was thrown into chaos (a period of mayhem that, as Sweet wryly noted, put its already somewhat stretched emergency services under even more pressure). Best of all, the show had no presenter, so we were not expected to endure the sight of some annoying TV historian in a backcombed wig and headphones pretending – “What number, caller?” – to be a Sixties telephonist.
I guess everyone knows who invented the telephone (Alexander Graham Bell), and that in Britain it was that wild old Queen Victoria who purchased the first couple of machines. But the film delivered so many more interesting facts than these. The Victorians, for instance, worried that the telephone would be too great a leveller, enabling their maids to converse with gentlemen callers. Much later, Giles Gilbert Scott designed his classic K2 telephone box (he took his inspiration from the Soane mausoleum in the yard of St Pancras Old Church) and in 1925 two of the earlier K1s, with thatched roofs, were despatched to Eastbourne, to match the roofs of local pavilions. I do miss telephone boxes, for all that they were such a faff, and so very stinky. Or maybe I just miss
what they symbolise, which is a time when we still valued – and even craved – privacy.
Meanwhile, over on Sky Atlantic, a more horrible kind of nostalgia, in the form of a whacking great dose of Seventies racism and police brutality. You may already have encountered Guerrilla (Thursdays, 9pm), a drama about the Black Power movement in Britain, written by an American, John Ridley, who won an Oscar for his screen adaptation of 12 Years a Slave. Not only are all six episodes now available to watch (assuming you’re a Sky subscriber), it has also been celebrated in the newspapers and online for its ambition and its amazing cast (Zawe Ashton, Babou Ceesay, Idris Elba, Rory Kinnear, Nathaniel Martello-White, Daniel Mays), but attacked because its principal female character (Jas Mitra, played by Freida Pinto) is Asian rather than black.
I go along with the stuff about ambition, and the cast is completely wonderful. But I have great misgivings about the show in other respects. What a missed opportunity. For one thing, there is the way it plays with historical facts, arming its revolutionaries not with serious arguments, but with guns. For another, thus far, our heroes Jas and Marcus (Ceesay) have devoted their energies to springing a simple thug (a burglar called Dhari) from jail. If the viewer can’t sympathise with this, how can she sympathise with them? Answer: she can’t. I can also do without the (patronising) speeches people keep making to each other. Two episodes in and, alas, I’m already out.
This article appears in the 19 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble