I was watching an old Amicus horror film today; they don't make them like that any more. Amicus, if you don't know them, were a rival to Hammer in the good old days of 1970s British horror. They are most famous for their portmanteau fims - a series of short films strung together by a central overarching storyline - and they include Asylum, Tales from the Crypt, Dr Terror's House of Horror and The House that dripped Blood. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee were in most of them but they did also boast stars like Donald Sutherland, Terry-Thomas, Diana Dors, Ian Carmichael, Roy Castle, Herbert Lom, Tom Baker, Burgess Meredith, Joan Collins, Jack Palance and many others.
However, what struck me about the film was the use of telephones as a dramatic device - something that we've now lost to some degree. For example, in one scene, arranging to meet someone at a call box results in a murder. In another, a predatory Britt Ekland snips someone's phone line prior to killing them. Does anyone do that any more? Or do they just unplug the router?
In these days of instant global communication and mobile/cell phones, it must be increasingly difficult to isolate the heroes from any chance of help. Writers have to include some artifice (radio mast hit by lightning) or a line like 'No signal!' in every such screenplay. Sadly, however, far too many opt for the latter rather than the former, as you can see in this excellent 'supercut' by blogger Rich Juzwiak..
'97% of the country has signal. We managed to find ourselves in the 3%.' Yeah, you and just about everyone else, apparently.
'No signal' has quickly become a movie cliche; as boring and predictable as using air ducts to escape (there's a great rant on that very subject here), or using the hatch in the ceiling of a lift (have you ever been in a lift that had one??), or rubbing two wires together under the steering wheel to hot-wire a car (complete arse gravy - you try it). You can do better. And we deserve better.
Saying that, where's the consistency? Apparently, you can't get a signal in most open spaces in the world but you can get a signal in a bomb-proof bunker and accept a call from your daughter? That was the one irksome thing in the Season 1 finale episode of the otherwise excellent Homeland.
And don't get me started on the iPhone that still had a charge after several years in a box in the Dirk Gently pilot ...
In Sky's drama Mad Dogs, the four stars agree to put their phones in a safe because they won't have a proper break 'if the office can get hold of us'. The subsequent murder of the safe's owner (and loss of the combination) means that they are truly isolated. That's infinitely better than 'No signal' isn't it? As you saw in the second half of that video just now, there are other, more inventive, ways to cut people off from civilisation.
The arrival of new technology means that, as writers, we have to be more inventive in finding new ways to circumvent it. So I think it's fair to say that the day I put 'No signal' into a book or script is the day I should probably hang up my writing hat.
Of course, I love new technology and don't really miss the old analogue phones on a cable. However I do miss the ability to slam a phone receiver down on the cradle in anger or frustration. Pressing the red disconnect button to the sound of a gentle beep just isn't the same, is it?