These days such a title may seem just like click-bait, but Nigel Kneale’s The Year of the Sex Olympics was one of the most forward-looking television drama’s of its day, innovative in tone, design and subject matter.
First broadcast in 1968 it posits a world in which the elite (“hi-drives” in the parlance of the play) keep control of the workers (“lo-drive”) through a succession of more and more extreme reality TV shows. Shows such as ArtSex, FoodShow and the eponymous Sex Olympics lull the lo-drives into a state of apathy; “Watch, not do” is the controllers’ mantra as they come up with new programmes to fill the schedules.
Kneale sets up a world in which everyone, both the lo-drive populace and the hi-drive elites, have become divorced from real feeling. They exist in a bubble of sex, drugs and pure pleasure (the hi-drive) and numb addiction to TV (the lo-drive). When one character, the hi-drive but troubled Kin, starts to produce genuine works of art, the other characters don’t have the words to explain their feelings. Tension and hurt is all they can come up with. The grotesque images that don’t move variously revolt and excite the hi-drives that see them. When Kin manages to show one on air it provokes audience’s fear, and the team at the TV station have to work hard to calm them down. Kin goes on the run, falling to his death live on air as he attempts to show more of his paintings. To the surprise and glee of Co-ordinator Ugo Priest (the big boss played with relish by Leonard Rossiter) the audience burst out laughing at the tragedy, releasing the tension.
Priest realises that laughter is a better soporific than sex and develops more slapstick, violent shows. While this is going on, one of the top hi-drives, Nat Mender, has become torn by the paintings of Kin. Fascinated by them and also developing feelings for his daughter who, raised in a nursery, shows signs of being lo-drive, he loses his focus and moves towards a relationship with the mother of his child, Deannie (long-term relationships are a thing of the past in this world). As the world of SportSex and lo versus hi-drive becomes too much for them Nat, Deannie and their daughter move to a remote island. However, Priest and new golden-boy Lasar (a very young Brian Cox) have other ideas and launch The Live Life Show, a live broadcast of the family trying to survive outside the system. It is a ratings hit at first, but when the audience becomes restless Lasar has the idea of introducing a psychopath to the island with predictable results. This is too much even for Priest who is horrified as the slaughter brings the best audience reaction ever.
Whilst owing a tremendous debt to 1984 and Brave New World Kneale’s coup is in using TV to deconstruct itself and predict the direction the medium was travelling in. When early reality TV shows such as Castaway and Big Brother were first shown in 2000, many commentators pointed to The Year of the Sex Olympics as the model, with a perceived move towards lowest common denominator broadcasting doing nothing to dispel these thoughts. As critic Kim Newman notes in his introduction to the re-released DVD of The Year of the Sex Olympics “Nigel Kneale might be quite justified in shouting, “I was right! I was right!””
Fear of TV as an opiate for the masses has been around since its invention but where The Year of the Sex Olympics stands out is that there isn’t passive mind-control. The lo-drive audience is a collaborator in its repression and the hi-drive programmers, for all their power, rely on rating and retain for their success. There is a delightful tension between repressed and repressor, with the former only remaining passive as long as it is fed a diet of people food-fighting, sex and violence. It also predicts the rise in audience risk aversion and comfort – Kin’s art challenges the audience and is therefore to be shunned. Genuine fear leads to genuine thought which neither hi nor lo-drives seem to want.
The creation of The Live Life Show also demonstrates how culture can inoculate itself against challenge. There is no resistance to the dominant system here for as soon as you rebel you become interesting, you become something worth watching and become part of the TV schedules to be viewed, to be consumed. Vicarious rebellion is safer than actual rebellions, so as long as only a few resist, it can be commoditized and packaged.
Whilst to a modern audience such concerns could come across as a bit “student politics”, Kneale never lets the viewer settle and invites us to examine our own collaboration in the process; we are after all watching them watch the shows that keep them numb. Whilst it never goes as far as Michael Haneke’s Funny Games as a commentary on audience collaboration by addressing the viewer directly, it does make us uncomfortable with our complicity.
The Year of the Sex Olympics is also notable for its production design. Unusually for 1968 it was broadcast in colour which was made full use of. Characters are painted gold and wear extravagantly coloured, asymmetrical clothes (very similar to the fashions of the Capitol in The Hunger Games). Sadly, The Year of the Sex Olympics fell foul of the BBCs old policy of reusing tapes (the same policy that has robbed us of so many 1950s and 1960s classics) and the only version we have left is a slightly fuzzy black and white transfer. While this does nothing to diminish the story, we have only contemporary reviews and a few production stills to give us a flavour of the vividness of the design.
One of the most far-sighted dramas ever broadcast (not only the rise of reality TV but also in its equation of government with media – those who control the airwaves control the populace) The Year of the Sex Olympics remain a startlingly good watch; thought-provoking, prescient and worryingly on the nail.
GS Blogger: Bobby Diabolus