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banner Monday, 23 July, 2001, 14:07 GMT 15:07 UK
Technology thins the plot
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Could 1471 have helped Fay Wray avoid the attentions of King Kong
Modern telephony has robbed film and TV thrillers of many tried and trusted plot devices, writes BBC News Online technology correspondent Mark Ward

Distraught parents cling to each other on the sofa. Flanked by frowning detectives, the couple stare at their phone waiting for the kidnappers to call.


A lot of plot situations do not work now because of the mobile telephone

David Cook
The dramatic logic of countless films and TV shows demand that the kidnapper must talk for at least 30 seconds to allow the call to be traced. But always the taunting villain hangs up before being pinpointed.

Well, no longer. Caller ID has made all calls instantly traceable. Even if the caller blocks it so you don't know who is ringing, the network will (for billing purposes) and the boys in blue could be speeding round to arrest the perp in a trice.

Technology traps

But this is not the only plot device that technology is rendering obsolete. You can use 1471 in the UK to trace the source of all those wrong numbers you are suddenly getting, and perhaps discover your spouse's infidelity long before they, and their "partner", think about doing away with you.

John Gielgud playing Hamlet
Could a mobile phone have helped Hamlet?
The 1471 service is used about 13 million times a day according to BT, so any drama that ignores it is going to test the tolerance of its audience.

Many modern TV dramas have made use of it, and 1471 has even been used in the odd film - notably Sliding Doors with Gwyneth Paltrow.

Then there are all the dramas that depend for their suspense on a character being out of touch, unwittingly wandering into the path of the storm or too close to a volcano. If they had a mobile phone you could ring (or txt) to alert them to the danger.

Plot points

So is technology in danger of killing drama, rendering useless many hoary plot devices and heralding a return to period pieces into which the piercing ring tones of mobile phones cannot intrude?

"There are a lot of plot situations that do not work now because of the mobile telephone," said author David Cook, who has seen his novels about detective Hetty Wainthropp transferred to television.

Patricia Routledge plays Hetty Wainthropp
Should Hetty Wainthropp investigate mobile phones?
But there were also some dramatic situations that had been worn out by overuse, so if technology had now made them impossible to justify then that might not be a bad thing, he said.

Veteran screenwriter John Bowen said dramatists had to reflect the world around them, and he too expected to see some traditional ways of generating tension drama dwindle thanks to technology.

But this won't mean a return to period pieces where drama can be allowed to play out without being short-circuited by someone whipping out their mobile phone or a GPS handset.

"It is much easier to depict the use of mobile telephones or e-mail than it would be to recreate a 1927 double-decker bus," he said.

Devices and excursions

Susan Rogers, a writer/director and programme director for the MA in screenwriting at Royal Holloway College in London, said films had always explored new ideas and their effect on society.

"The mobile phone has gone from irritant to must-have in only a few years. That it has had a profound effect is a really interesting subject."

Mr Bowen said technology gave writers a chance to explore new ways of generating dramatic tension rather than just cancelling out the old ones.

"If one wanted to use tension then with a mobile telephone it is very easy to lose the signal. If you want to create suspense you will use whatever is around. Any dramatist will use modern technology to tell stories."

Ultimately, what makes drama involving is the relationships between people, and the conflict played out as they develop and deepen. New technology is as good as old when it comes to exploring these subjects.

After all, a mobile phone would not have saved Shakespeare's Othello from feeling jealous - that was down to Iago's masterful manipulation of his fears. No technology in the world can salve our psyche when it starts to suspect and turn on itself. But that is another story.

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