The Null Device
An article in the Graun looks at how changes in telephone technology have affected the plots of novels, plays and films:
Victoria Wood's Talent, first staged in 1978 and now showing at the Old Laundry theatre in Bowness-on-Windermere, includes a scene in which an important call is made from a coin-operated phonebox. Wood, who is directing, had to explain to young members of the cast how the strange apparatus worked: listen for an answer, then push in your sometimes-resistant 10p pieces. It sounded like science fiction to the young actors. So, while the play's first audiences will have regarded this scene as social realism (perhaps reflecting on their own experiences of trying to finding an unvandalised phone that didn't spit your silver out), the same sequence, within three decades, has become social history.
In Pedro Almodóvar's latest movie, Broken Embraces, which cuts from the present to the 1980s, the director uses mobiles as a visual clue to where we are. The older sequences are signalled by the wielding of brick-like instruments, while present-day characters effortlessly palm their thin, flippable devices.
Wood, in Talent, rings comic embarrassment from the fact that a character's mother has an extension in her bedroom. But the detail is revealing in other ways: in the 1970s, multiple receivers in the home distinguished the upper-middle classes from the plebs who had a single instrument in the hallway. In a later TV play by Wood, it matters that a character has a "kitchen extension". Indeed, in Dial M for Murder, the "perfect murder plot" turns on luring a woman to the living room to answer the phone. Within 20 years, Knott's plot had been rendered a period piece by multi-phone homes; after a further 30, mobiles had made the plot absurd.
But, although mobiles have provided writers with rich new storylines, they have also worryingly closed off many traditional developments. This is of most concern to authors of horrors, thrillers and mysteries, in which a regular premise is the protagonist's total isolation. If there had been a Nokia in Janet Leigh's handbag, Hitchcock's Psycho would have been a short film with a happy ending. The avoidance of this problem has already created a new movie cliche: the closeup showing the "no signal" warning on the star's phone.