London Times, May 9, 1957, page 3:
THEATRE-GOING BY TELEPHONE
A FORGOTTEN AMENITY OF LONDON IN THE 1920s
FROM A CORRESPONDENT
When I tell my friends about the Electrophone I have great difficulty in making them believe that there ever was such a thing, and that we actually had one. Quite a number of other people must have had one, but I have never yet met any of them.
My parents had the Electrophone installed in the 1920s and it was put in and run by, believe it or not, that august body the Post Office Telephones. It consisted of two headphones (or four, according to one's need and means) and a post office line which could be connected to most of the theatres in the West End of London. All we had to do was to lift the telephone receiver and say to the operator "Please will you put me through to Electrophones?" and after a few clicks the girl at the other end asked what theatre we required. She then put us through and we replaced the receiver and went back to our headphoncs to listen to a direct relay from the theatre of our choice. It was as simple as that.
In our teens we listened to all our favourite musical plays and revues (straight plays were not relayed, though opera sometimes was) and a kindly designer had so contrived the headphones that they did not have to be worn over the head, but were supported on a long sort of handle affair, which could either be held in the hands or between the knees, the latter position being very convenient as it enabled us to have our hands free so that we could mend our stockings at the same time--a hated chore which we had to do for ourselves. This must have been one of the earliest "Music While You Work" sessions.
CHANGING THE TUNE
In this way we had a very thorough knowledge of all the musical plays and revues on in London, and I am sure that we could at a moment's notice have taken over any part in any show! The people who had four headphones had the additional privilege of being able to switch from one theatre to another during the evening--we were thus able to pick out our favourite numbers from our favourite shows and we knew exactly what time each one came on.
The Electrophone did not, as some people might have thought, keep us away from the theatre--nothing would have done that in our family. On the contrary it made us want to go even more. If a new play or revue appealed to us on the Electrophone then we dashed off to fill the blanks in our imagination with a visual supplement, And having once seen it in the theatre we had the added pleasure of "seeing" it again through our imagination while sitting comfortably by the fire at home--with or without the mending! And we could switch off the dull bits--if any.
We used to like to tune in to a theatre where there might be a comedian who was not above slipping in a few gags, and these could vary from night to night, which gave us a great deal of extra amusement in wondering what he would say. Boat Race night was a great favourite with us and we used to get on to the theatre where we knew that our favourite crew would be in the audience. These performances were very hilarious. I wonder if they are still?
Apart from the pleasure which we ourselves had from our Electrophone we enjoyed asking other people in to listen in--a statement which is not as altruistic as it sounds. Being the only owners of a set in the district, our friends were always pleased to be invited and, having asked them which theatre they would like to be connected to, we would then sit them round the fire, give them each a headphone and then get on with whatever we wanted to do ourselves, at the same time having a look at them every now and then to watch their reactions. It was most amusing to watch four people all listening at the same time to the same thing which we ourselves could not hear. We could tell by their faces exactly when there was a "funny bit," and more often than not one of the four found it funnier than the other three did. Rhythmic tapping of their feet told us when there was music, and the changing expressions on their faces were a source of great amusement to us. Practically the only expressions we never saw were boredom--and horror!
It was, of course, a very easy, if rather lazy, way of entertaining guests who might otherwise have been rather heavy going. I remember one occasion when my father invited a business friend to dinner, a rather grim, taciturn, middle-aged man, who did not play billiards or any sort of card game; the sort of man who normally would have been very difficult to entertain. So we sat him down with the Electrophone and he chuckled quietly to himself all the evening. He told my father afterwards that he had not enjoyed himself so much for years and promptly booked seats and took our parents to see the revue that he had listened to with such pleasure in our house.
Eventually the Electrophone, like all good things, came to an end. What killed it was never quite clear. Probably the wireless, or perhaps it just didn't pay. But we missed it. Very much. There was something very satisfying about listening to a live broadcast from a real theatre, by actors and actresses playing to and having contact with their own audiences and probably being unaware that we at home were eavesdropping.