Sunday 29 July 2018

The Year of the Sex Olympics: 50 Years On


Today's blog is written by Jonathan Hayward, a man with an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of British TV

This Monday will see the finale of this year’s series of Love Island on ITV2, the most successful yet in terms of viewing figures and, indeed, the most successful in the channel’s and digital TV history. What will also be truly extraordinary, if a trifle disturbing, will be the fact that it will be almost 50 years to the day, and virtually the exact time, that Nigel Kneale’s The Year of The Sex Olympics was first broadcast by BBC2.

Kneale’s teleplay was a dystopian and mordantly satirical prediction for the future of the TV medium, with devious but shrewd producers and executives (named the High Drives) broadcasting deliberately lowest common denominator programming (“Sports-sex") to keep the masses (named the Low Drives) docile and apathetic. This world of television is portrayed by 24 hour programming featuring photogenic young people during coupling, mulled over by a hyperactive female host, Misch (Vickery Turner), who encourages the viewers to vote for their favourite lovebirds.

Sounds familiar, you say? It was astonishingly prescient, almost chillingly, of Kneale to envisage such eventualities (all predetermined by the foreboding sub-title, ”Sooner Than You Think.....”). If anything, the process of dumbing down and anaesthetizing the public to tawdry, tacky and often sensationalized events and incidents in such programmes has turned out far worse than he could have ever assumed. In fact, the level of cultural interest appropriated to Love Island would probably leave Kneale spinning in his grave with even The Guardian devoting two dozen articles towards the current series.

Going back to the original, the High Drive producers (Brian Cox and Leonard Rossiter) have CCTV to observe the reaction of the Low Drive audience, which is one of bored indifference, designed to wean them off sex. Other programmes on offer show elderly men, and later various circus clowns, throwing what seems to be custard at each other in an attempt to wean the viewers off food.

The main co-ordinator, Ugo Priest (Rossiter) believes that there is not enough tension, while another associate, Nat Mender (Tony Vogel), feels TV should be used more to educate and inform the masses. One young man behind the scenes (Martin Potter), attempts to force a bit of culture onto the box by getting his avant-garde paintings shown on live TV. He tries to achieve this by climbing up the studio scaffolding, but falls to his death, a demise which brings a reaction of roaring laughter from the Low Drives as it is broadcast.

The audience reaction to such an incident persuades Priest and his closest associate Lasar Opie (Cox) to develop a new programme concept entitled The Live-Life Show. This series places Nat, his former partner (Suzanne Neve) and their daughter on a bleak island, monitored again by cameras 24 hours a day, with no modern creature comforts at hand, having to live a primitive life.

This initially appears rather dull and innocuous as if to placate the Low Drives into more apathy, but both Priest and Opie have a plan to deliberately create more 'tension' again, or the 'fruitskin' as they call it, by planting a violent criminal (George Murcell) on the island without the family knowing. Will this truly engender the tension and audience reaction they desire?

Big Brother, Survivor, Love Island and even I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here can be compared to Kneale's uncannily accurate and doom-laden scenario for the future of the medium he graced with such distinction in serials such as Quatermass and The Stone Tape. There are also concepts from Orwell such as "Prole Feed" (keeping the masses quiet by deliberately providing lowbrow culture) and the characters speak in a barely articulate patois (a la Burgess in A Clockwork Orange), a neat move that reduces the importance of words and sentences compared to imagery.

The language choice is brave, but results in a mixed bag on-screen. Some of the actor's struggle with such complicated prose, particularly Vogel who appears rather baffled and plays most of his role with permanently bulging eyes. But Rossiter and Cox cope better with the stylized dialogue, as does Vickery Turner, whose personality and presenting style cleverly anticipates that of Davina McCall and (perhaps) Caroline Flack.

The play is also slightly overlong with some scenes tending to ramble on pointlessly, and the costuming (which feature paisley shirts and togas) and set designs are inevitably dated. It's possible that the aesthetics were deliberately garish as The Year of the Sex Olympics was an early example of a colour transmission, which was probably seen by very few people on its initial broadcast. The colour version has been lost for decades, but a black and white recording of the programme was eventually found in the 1980s.

We can be grateful for its rediscovery as it allows us again to observe Kneale’s uniquely fascinating and amazingly prescient forecast for the future of TV. A future which he hoped would never come to fruition, but in the end was probably ruefully and regretfully surveyed by him in his later years. No doubt, before his death in 2006, he had wryly explained to those who listened (excluding modern TV executives) that "I told you so..."

The Year of the Sex Olympics is a very intellectual treatise on a very non-intellectual subject, ruthlessly manipulated by powerful individuals behind the scenes. It leads to a horrifying finale which, although it hasn’t actually happened as yet on British reality TV, still chimes disturbingly with the squalid exaggeration and sensationalism designed to court publicity and hype to attract more viewers. Such quality and intelligence now feels very distant in the memory when it comes to reviewing contemporary television.

And as many of us will also mark the 50th anniversary of the first episode of Dad’s Army first was broadcast two days later after The Year of the Sex Olympics on the 31st July 1968, it now appears we can now only pray for the return of “quality TV”.

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