Posts Tagged ‘The Year of the Sex Olympics’

A family agree to participate in a new TV series, in which they get the kind of lifestyle they have always dreamed of, on condition that their every moment is broadcast in real time to¬† a vast and eager audience. However, what they do not realise is that the producers of the programme, believing that ‘something’s got to happen’ have secretly introduced a violent psychopath into the proceedings. The consequences are horrific, but the viewing figures go through the roof.

By modern standards this is not a terribly original scenario for a film or TV series: it’s not a million miles away from the premise of Halloween: Resurrection, for one thing. Reality TV with added horror and death has gone beyond a trope to become an actual cliche – and it’s not even as if reality TV itself is a particularly worthwhile subject for satire. Millions still watch programmes like The X Factor and Big Brother, but surely no-one actually takes them seriously any more. The most extravagant examples of the form do a good job of satirising themselves, anyway.


Of course – I say of course – the plot outline at the top of the page is that of The Year of the Sex Olympics, one of the two or three pieces of writing that are the cornerstones of Nigel Kneale’s reputation. As a satire of modern TV it is effective enough, but what makes it such an extraordinary piece of work for the modern viewer is that it was written 45 years ago.

All culture dates, just at different speeds. Once a few years have passed it’s almost impossible to recapture the original impact that a film or a TV show had when they first appeared: special effects progress, innovative plots become formulaic cliches, standards of audience credulity shift. All of these are true of The Year of the Sex Olympics, but what makes it especially difficult to judge this drama effectively is the sheer impact it seems to have had at the time – it has penetrated deep into the culture, to the point where it was one of the touchstones used by any serious commentator talking about the advent of actual reality TV around the turn of the century. You could seriously argue that this is one of the foundation texts of modern TV culture.

There’s always been debate as to whether serious SF genuinely attempts to predict the future, or simply comments on the present. Most of the predictions it does make turn out to be technological, and most of those turn out to be wrong. The Year of the Sex Olympics, on the other hand, has proven to be a startlingly accurate cultural prediction of the way TV has gone – the question is, was it intended as such by Kneale? Was he simply making a satire, based on his own experiences as a TV scriptwriter?

I find it hard to say. What is striking, and little commented upon compared to the play’s success as a piece of prophecy, is how closely it ties in to Kneale’s own past body of work. He rose to prominence, after all, for adapting Orwell’s 1984 for the BBC in the early 50s, and Sex Olympics owes a huge debt to Orwell’s vision. From Orwell’s telescreen to Kneale’s telly screen is not a great distance, while the play explicitly refers to Orwellian ideas of language simplification and the intellectual limitations resulting from it. In both works there is the idea of the tiny elite ruling a vast, inert population – the Party in Orwell, the TV executives in Kneale.

Of course, it would be a mistake to suggest that The Year of the Sex Olympics is purely an updating of 1984 for the TV era. It also draws significantly upon Huxley’s Brave New World, with its pacifying drugs freely available to all and its emphasis on stability achieved through sensory gratification. Huxley’s ‘feelies’ also, perhaps, contributed to the idea of a society where the bulk of the population only experience life vicariously.

Certainly the play looks and feels more like Huxley than Orwell – another way in which the original sense of this play has been lost to us is in the fact that the original colour recordings have been erased, leaving only a black and white copy. The few colour stills which have survived suggest the world of sensory overload in which the hi-drive caste live.

Inevitably, the paisley togas and peculiar hairstyles of most of the hi-drives are one of the things which superficially date Sex Olympics very badly, and it’s not as if the realisation of the script is absolutely flawless, either. Tony Vogel as the protagonist is a bit too boggle-eyed and manic to be entirely sympathetic, while anyone who routinely criticises Dick van Dyke’s attempt at an English accent should listen to Brian Cox’s go at an American one here (obviously he has improved since). On the other hand, Suzanne Neve is just right as Vogel’s partner, and Leonard Rossiter is particularly good in a difficult part as the man who authorises the ‘Live-Life’ show without realising the consequences of his actions.

But most of the things you would instinctively criticise Sex Olympics for – the way the plot feels slightly hackneyed, the manner in which the satire feels slightly obvious – are simply the result of the way this play has been assimilated, consciously or not, into the wider culture. It’s not trading in cliches but originating them, and if the satire feels obvious, that’s because it’s satirising things that weren’t to come into being for another 30 years. And even by today’s standards, the closing scenes of the play still have considerable power to move, disturb, and shock. By any standards it remains a remarkable piece of work.

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