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New TV plays fuel millennium fears

CHANNEL Four's film production arm, Film Four, has commissioned a special series of television dramas inspired by the millennium, to be scripted by acclaimed new writers.

Eight psychological thrillers will explore society's "low-level hysteria" about the future and the growing pre-millennial tension, it says. The project has a budget of about pounds 6m and is a departure for Film Four, which normally makes feature films; this is the first time it has collaborated on television drama with Channel Four.

The dramas are seen as harking back to a Seventies genre of films such as Demon Seed and Don't Look Now, portraying the psychological turmoil of a society that feels dehumanised by technology.

Elinor Day, deputy head of production for Film Four, says the dramas, on which filming is expected to start next spring, will address such themes as the threat to identity from cloning and gender selection.

"They are aimed at capturing the deep-seated fear surrounding the millennium from a personal and psychological perspective," she said.

"There is a general sense at the moment of low-level hysteria which has not been explored yet in television drama. Everyone is groping towards this milestone but we do not know whether there will be anything on the other side.

"There is also a sense of urban paranoia, with people feeling detached from each other and alienated. Society tends to project its fears on the future and the millennium is a peg for this. It is the fear of meeting yourself in the dark one day, because of science creating things like Dolly the sheep and tampering with genetics."

The writers include Michael Marshall Smith, who has won numerous awards. His novel Spares is under development by Steven Spielberg. This will be his first television drama script, based on his short story The Owner, about a single woman in her thirties who has just come out of a long- term relationship and finds herself isolated from friends and society. She moves into a rented flat and becomes paranoid about the strangers who also live in the building.

Mr Marshall Smith, a Cambridge Footlights contemporary of David Baddiel and Nick Hancock, turned to futuristic thrillers after writing comedy for the BBC. He claims the sense of alienation his heroine feels is one shared by many people as the millennium approaches. "This millennial tension operates on a number of levels," he says. "We are surrounded by people we do not know. The friends we do have are sprinkled all over the place if you are in London and it takes a long time to visit them. In the last couple of years both men and women have felt their biological clocks ticking. We inherit timescales from our parents and we find we get panicky when we go past them."

He says he is not unduly worried about the millennium, but can empathise with others' fears. "I'm fairly relaxed about it but I think it would be a really odd person who would not wonder if everything was going to go black as we count in the year 2000. But of course, we will wake up and probably feel disappointed that everything is the same as before."