Review The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968)

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The Year of the Sex Olympics is a 1968 television play made by the BBC and first broadcast on BBC2 as part of Theatre 625. It stars Leonard Rossiter, Tony Vogel, Suzanne Neve and Brian Cox. It was directed by Michael Elliott. The writer was Nigel Kneale, best known as the creator of Quatermass.

Influenced by concerns about overpopulation, the counterculture of the 1960s and the societal effects of television, the play depicts a world of the future where a small elite control the media, keeping the lower classes docile by serving them an endless diet of lowest common denominator programmes
and pornography.

The play concentrates on an idea the programme controllers have for a new programme which will follow the trials and tribulations of a group of people left to fend for themselves on a remote island.

In this respect, the play is often cited as having anticipated the craze for reality television.

Kneale had fourteen years earlier adapted George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four as a classic and controversial BBC broadcast and the play reflects much of Kneale's assimilation of Orwell's concern about the power of the media and Kneale's experience of the evolving media industry.



Background

Origins

Kneale's concept concerned "the world of the future, and a way of keeping the population happy without being active".

According to Kneale, the notion for the play came from the "worldwide dread of populations exploding out of all control" leading him to devise a world where pornography hooks the population "on a substitute for sex rather than the real thing and so keeping the population down".

Kneale was also influenced by the dropout counterculture of the late 1960s, recalling "I didn't like the Sixties at all because of the whole thing of 'let it all hang out' and let's stop thinking [...] which was the all too frequent theme of the Sixties which I hated".

Dissatisfaction with the youth culture of the time was a preoccupation of Kneale's—in the mid-sixties he had worked on The Big, Big, Giggle, an unmade script about a teenage suicide cult, and following The Year of the Sex Olympics he returned to the theme of youth out of control in his 1969 play Bam! Pow! Zapp!, and in the fourth and final Quatermass serial in 1979.

Many cultural icons of the youth movement, including members of The Beatles, Pink Floyd and Monty Python, were fans of Kneale's work.

For The Year of the Sex Olympics Kneale extrapolated the possible consequences of the youth movement's desire for freedom from "traditional" cultural inhibitions, asking as the academic John R. Cook puts it, "In a world of no limits, will the result quickly be apathy if there is nothing any more to get excited about, nothing precious or illicit to fight for in the teeth of the censor?".

Kneale also sought to make "a comment on television and the idea of the passive audience", depicting a world where the media is controlled by an elite who feed the population with a diet of low-quality programmes and echoing the Orwellian concept of language reduction, where vocabulary has been eroded through exposure to advertising slogans, mediaspeak and predominantly visual media.

He later recalled, "I thought people in those conditions would have very, very, reduced language—they wouldn't be really a verbal society any more, and I think we're heading towards that.

Television is mainly responsible for it, the fact that people are now conditioned to image.

The pictures they see on television screens more and more dominate their thinking, as far as people do a lot of thinking, and if you had a verbally reduced society, you would get the kind of language—possibly—that you did get in the play".


Production

Cast as Lasar Opie was Brian Cox, who would go on to have a distinguished career in film and television.

The Year of the Sex Olympics proved to be a difficult production when the 'Clean-Up TV' campaigner Mary Whitehouse of the National Viewers and Listeners Association obtained a copy of the script and attempted to block the production.

Her objections were overruled by Hugh Greene.

BBC2 was the only UK television station broadcasting in colour at the time.

The Year of the Sex Olympics presented a production with gaudy sets, costumes and makeup.

In a contemporary review of the play for The Sun newspaper, Nancy Banks-Smith commented that "If you didn't see it in colour, you didn't really see it".

Appearing on arts programme Late Night Line Up later that night to discuss the play, Kneale said "You can't write about the future. One can play with the processes that might occur in the future, but one is really always writing about the present because that is what we know. It's largely an image of television as I know it".
The Year of the Sex Olympics was watched by 1.5 million viewers. Audience Research Report indicated that many viewers found the play impenetrable.

As often happened in this era, the colour master tapes of The Year of the Sex Olympics were wiped some time after broadcast and the play was believed lost until the 1980s when a black and white telerecording was discovered.



Cultural significance

One of the first to draw comparisons with The Year of the Sex Olympics and the rise of reality television programmes (soap operas without professional actors), such as Big Brother, Castaway 2000 and Survivor, was the journalist Nancy Banks-Smith in a review of the first series of the UK version of Big Brother for The Guardian in 2000, a theme she later expounded upon in 2003, writing that the play "foretold the reality show and, in the scramble for greater sensation, its logical outcome".

Banks-Smith had long been an admirer of The Year of the Sex Olympics, having written in The Sun following its original broadcast in 1968: "Quite apart from the excellent script and the 'big big' treatment, the play radiated ripples. Is television a substitute for living? Does the spectacle of pain at a distance atrophy sympathy? Can this coffin with knobs on furnish all we need to ask?".

Another admirer, the writer and actor Mark Gatiss, has said that upon seeing Big Brother he yelled at the television, "Don't they know what they're doing? [...] It's The Year of the Sex Olympics! Nigel Kneale was right!".

Paul Hoggart in The Times noted that "in many respects Kneale was right on the money [...] when you consider that nothing gets contemporary reality show audiences more excited than an emotional train-wreck on live TV".

Although the reality television of The Live Life Show is the aspect most commentators pick up on, The Year of the Sex Olympics is also a wider satire on sensationalist television and the media in general.

Mark Gatiss has noted that the Artsex and Foodshow programmes that also appear in the play "ingeniously depicted the future of lowest common denominator TV".

This view is echoed by the writer and critic Kim Newman, who has said "Nigel Kneale might be quite justified in shouting, 'I was right! I was right!'"
 
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