“Future generations will look back on TV as the lead in the water pipes that slowly drove the Romans mad.” – Kurt Vonnegut
In the 1980s, Clive James On TV (and later Tarrant On TV) gave exposure to a Japanese television game show, known as Endurance, in which the contestants were exposed to all manner of torment, humiliation and agony for the public’s amusement. The British viewers scoffed at Endurance, and prided themselves that they would never stoop to having such a degrading form of entertainment on their screens, carrying a feeling of smug superiority.
Flash forward two decades, the British public clamoured for Z-list stars to chow down on bull penis, kangaroo anus and witchetty grubs in I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! It seems as though the explosion in multi-channel viewing in the interim had left huge holes in the schedules needing to be filled with cheap, attention-grabbing programming; into that void stepped the genre of reality television, with shows like Big Brother (originally touted as a genuine sociological and psychological experiment) and Love Island taking some of the slack.
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Reality television has become something of a defining type of programming for a generation; for some people, it’s very difficult to remember a time when it wasn’t a staple part of the TV listings. It’s been argued this is lowbrow stuff, which is aimed squarely at being appealing to the lowest common denominator. Whatever your opinion on it, it appears reality television is here to stay for the immediate future. You may be surprised to learn, however, that all of this was foreseen way back in the 1960s by a visionary writer, who predicted a time when people would be living vicariously.
Nigel Kneale is perhaps best known for his science fiction dramas about Professor Bernard Quatermass of the British Rocket Group throughout the 1950s, a forerunner in some ways to Doctor Who. Kneale had a somewhat tempestuous relationship with the BBC over the years, which led to him working on scripts for ATV and Hammer Films. From 1964 to 1968, BBC Two’s programming included a series called Theatre 625 – named after the higher-definition 625-line transmissions, which replaced the earlier 405-line format – which was a drama anthology.
BBC Two started colour broadcasting on Saturday 1st July 1967, so the final year of Theatre 625 was produced in full colour. Kneale was approached to provide a script for it, but still harboured some resentment over the way in which the Corporation had sold the movie rights to The Quatermass Experiment without giving him any additional money, so he rejected the offer. It was only due to the Director General’s intervention by arranging an ex gratia payment to Kneale that he relented, and finally set to work on what was to become The Year Of The Sex Olympics.
Kneale – who was married to Judith Kerr, the author of The Tiger Who Came To Tea – had become strongly disaffected with the youth counterculture of the 1960s, and he had also harboured concerns about overpopulation. When coming up with a story concept, he decided to base it around a future – described in an on-screen caption as being “sooner than you think” – where the population is separated up into two categories: the ‘high-drives’, who see themselves as being intellectual and moral superiors and the ruling class: and the ‘low-drives’, who are the proletariat and workers, seen as being inferior or less worthy.
In order to control the populace, the ‘high-drives’ broadcast a continual, around-the-clock diet of gluttony – in order to drive people away from overindulging in food, and prevent obesity – and pornography; the latter is put in the form of programmes such as ‘Artsex’ and ‘Sportsex’, where couples are shown engaging in live intercourse, as qualification for the Sex Olympics. By showing such continuous carnal acts, the ‘low-drives’ are desensitised from wishing to indulge in it themselves, and so are content merely to observe others instead.
Live reactions are watched in the broadcasting centre, with cameras focused upon groups of ‘low-drives’, in order to make sure the programming is having the desired effect of keeping them docile and contained. A protester accidentally dies live on TV during one transmission, and the reaction to this gives the ‘high-drives’ the idea of a new programme – ‘The Live-Life Show’ – in which a couple and their child are placed away on a barren, remote island, and left to fend for themselves while the world looks on. However, things start to spiral out of control, as the broadcasters enter a random element into proceedings.
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Kneale was well-versed in delivering dystopian worlds, as he had already adapted Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four for the BBC in 1954, starring Peter Cushing – with his script being used for a remake in 1965, coincidentally as part of Theatre 625 – as well as working on an unmade script for a movie version of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. His near-future Earth has some similarities to Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, such as a defined patois or linguistic style, which has its own unique slang and syntax, making it stand apart from many contemporary sci-fi visions.
One of the broadcasts featured in the play – ‘The Hungry Angry Show’ – features two obese topless men, alternately gorging on and then pelting each other with creamed fish pulp; this graphically shows the level of programming being used to control the ‘low-drives’. It may seem – and, indeed, look – faintly absurd, but you do have to bear in mind just over 20 years later, Channel 4’s late night show The Word had a segment called ‘The Hopefuls’, where fame-hungry viewers would engage in all manner of far more degrading and unsavoury acts, just to get exposure.
It has regularly been said that all science fiction reflects the era in which it was created – in this instance, the design of the costumes is heavily influenced by both the ‘Summer Of Love’ and Flower Power, with garments of a psychedelic or paisley-patterned material worn by the ‘high-drives’; this is in stark contract to the bland, monotone plain garb of the ‘low-drives’. Kneale’s fears of what seeds the growth of the ‘Permissive Society’ might sow are all-too plain to see, as is his cynicism as to the future development of TV.
The cast is particularly strong, with a young Brian Cox as Lasar Opie, a hungry-for-success, ambitious TV producer. Leonard Rossiter plays broadcast co-ordinator Ugo Priest, and delivers a surprisingly straight turn, reminding us that he was an actor of repute, who’d hailed from a theatrical background, despite being best known for his sitcom roles. This wasn’t to be Rossiter’s only foray into science fiction in 1968, as he was also to appear in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Granted, some of the production seems stagey or a bit off-kilter at times, possibly due to the inherent theatricality of television in those days; stage work has been described as “shouting in the evenings”, a phrase commonly attributed to Patrick Troughton. The performance of Tony Vogel as Nat Mender, the ‘high-drive’ who devises – and then becomes a part of – ‘The Live-Life Show’ is full of affectations, with a particular wide-eyed staring which can at times be rather off-putting; however, in our age of much more naturalistic deliveries, this at least tries to be different in convincing us of it being a futuristic world.
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It’s a shame, then, that we’ve been denied the opportunity to enjoy this vision in all its gaudy, vivid glory, due to the original master tape having been a victim of the archival purging by the BBC in the 1960s and 1970s. As a result, it was thought that this was one of the many Theatre 625 plays which had been seemingly lost forever until a black & white telerecording turned up in the 1980s. This print was released on DVD by the BFI back in 2003, but this has been unavailable for some time now, so this reissue is certainly welcome.
However, it’s also something of a wasted opportunity, as it’s previously been said that The Year Of The Sex Olympics is a prime candidate for the colour recovery process, which is used to extract the original colour signal from black & white telerecordings; it’s been used on a number of programmes, including episodes of Doctor Who, The Morecambe & Wise Show, Dad’s Army, and the pilot episode of Are You Being Served? Given that it’ll probably be at least a decade until there’s a further release of The Year Of The Sex Olympics, it’s an awful pity we’ll have to wait to see the piece looking how it was originally made.
At least one of the extras included on the DVD is a look at the original costume designs by designer Joyce Hammond, including the colour swatches, so we can get a glimpse into what the production would have looked like on its original transmission. The special features from the 2003 release are included, with Kim Newman’s introduction, and Brian Cox’s informative commentary track, which gives a lot of background information into the play’s production, and just how television has changed in the intervening period – a ‘making of’ featurette would have been nice, but this is the next best thing.
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Although Nigel Kneale left us back in 2006, he gets some representation, through the inclusion of an audio interview from 2000, in which he talks about his career; bearing in mind there’s a 2003 BBC documentary piece – Time Shift: The Kneale Tapes – in the archive, it’s disappointing this wasn’t put on the disc. An odd bit of curios is the inclusion of Le Pétomane, a 1973 half-hour comedy film written by Ray Galton & Alan Simpson, starring Leonard Rossiter as Joseph Pujol, a real person who turned flatulence into an art form; it’s only on the DVD by dint of Rossiter’s connection to the main feature, but is a fun little piece all the same.
It’s easy to bandy about words such as ‘groundbreaking’ or ‘prescient’, but as far as The Year Of The Sex Olympics is concerned, they’re not only appropriate, but richly deserved. The play picks up on themes which resonate strongly with today’s world, and it’s fascinating to see how much Kneale got right, even in just broad strokes. It’s interesting to note that even Doctor Who did its own take on the idea of a television-dominated society in 1985’s story ‘Vengeance On Varos’, which dealt more with violence, due to the rise of ‘video nasties’.
Kneale, however, was well ahead of the curve, and it’s only right that this landmark piece of television is available to as wide an audience as possible. Given that 2020 has ended up being the year of no Olympics, it’s perhaps worth making it The Year Of The Sex Olympics instead.
The Year of the Sex Olympics is out now on DVD.