UK tv drama (1968). British Broadcasting Corporation. Directed by Michael Elliott. Written by Nigel Kneale. Cast includes Brian Cox, George Murcell, Suzanne Neve, Martin Potter, Lesley Roach, Leonard Rossiter, Hira Talfrey, Vickery Turner and Tony Vogel. 103 minutes. Black and white (original colour print wiped by BBC).
Long thought lost or irretrievably mutilated, The Year of the Sex Olympics was released in 2020 by the British Film Institute in a remastered version of the original 16mm black and white telerecording. Sadly, although glitches have been cleaned up, there is no miracle of digital reclamation on view here; the "miracle" is to be able to see anything at all. As the 2020 notes from the BFI suggest, and viewer's memories from half a century ago seem to confirm, the original colour version of at least the first half of The Year of the Sex Olympics, which was shot indoors, was immensely superior to the residue now available; the second half, however, shot on location in the Isle of Man, might even be preferable as it now survives. But the first half now seems perspectively flattened out, with the actors' makeup uncannily foregrounded, and the shots of cosmetically half-undressed men and women leached into bodged background "naughtiness": blocking and cinematography in general seem to have been heavily dependent on a deliberately gouached and garish colour palette, in the absence of which what is left is ashen, cluttered, cramped. The BBC's 1968 decision to wipe the colour tape, in order to save money, seems deficient on all counts: mutilation of a unique work of art; partial erasure of the careers of Nigel Kneale, of Michael Elliott (1931-1984), of cast and crew; and – years after American Television series like I Love Lucy (1951-various iterations) had begun to generate substantial sums through reruns – train-wreck incompetence at asset management. It is understood that the black-and-white tape was accidentally not wiped: the BBC proving incompetent even at cultural-heritage erasure. What remains is a paraphrase of a sketch of a story intended to convey an indelible warning.
That indelible warning, consistent with late 1960s worries about masscult and Overpopulation, can be extracted from what remains. We begin in a possibly post-World War Three Dystopian Near Future UK, no date given, attempts at announcing the future being restricted to "futuristic" costumes, perspex shields, marshmallow-sized Food Pills, and an absurdly reduced vocabulary in anyone raised in the new world (reading is no longer part of schooling). The first half of the narrative, shot entirely on set, is mostly restricted to clocking behind-the-scenes turmoil behind the scenes of the daily live-action Sportsex programme produced by Output; it is one of several shows designed to reinforce "Apathy Control" over the almost entirely supine, "low-drive" UK population, whose fixation on moronically reiterated events like real Sex and pantomimic food fights is meant to keep them so inactive they will be disinclined to breed, thus saving the damaged planet from more vegetative creatures like themselves. The managers and presenters of Sportsex are themselves "high-drive" individuals, encouraged by an unseen government to have the occasional child to keep the race afloat, an Eugenics initiative strongly if vaguely evocative of the Cultural Engineering described by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World (1932). But the hand of the government this time round is invisible.
Output site controller Nat Mender (Vogel) supervises his assistant operator Lasar Opie (Cox) from behind a Computer console as Nat's current lover, the hyperbolically bubbly but by no means airheaded Misch (Turner), emcees another daily Sportsex episode: several demurely framed exhibitions of competitive "real" sex in front of an audience of low-drives, whose apathy is constantly clocked. Mentoring all of this, Coordinator Ugo Priest (Rossiter), whose large vocabulary identifies him as a person raised before Brave New World began, attempts to convey through a series of shortish Infodumps some sense of perspective to Dan, so he can do his job better. "Before we got Apathy Control." Ugo says, "it was a real Maybe time." The answer to this threatened collapse of civilization, he continues, was
just to call a big halt. No more progress. It was done kindly. Not by lasering foetuses or chemical conditioning ... just by gentle discouragement, [leaving] a huge reservoir of genes, a huge genetic stockpile just waiting till it's safe to go on again: to give humanity a chance to survive.
Meanwhile Ned must consult with Deanie Webb (Neve), a former lover (forty-five partners back) and mother of their child Keten Webb (Roach), who has disastrously turned out to be low-drive. Deanie's own current lover, Kin Hodder (Potter), is a throwback, an artist compelled to make things: usually expressionist portraits of human beings in moral anguish, the very sight of which profoundly assaults viewers (see Basilisks), driving them into self-destructive hysteria: in great art you share the pain. At the same time, Ned and Ugo need to solve a new problem: their audiences have become too apathetic, a condition they could die from. Ugo and Nat try slapstick comedy, mounting a custard-pie Walpurgisnacht complete with Harpo Marx lookalike, which puts the low-drives into something like a coma. But then Kin, attempting to display his paintings in the middle of a Sportsex episode, falls off a ladder on camera to his death. The low-drive audience explodes in laughter. Ugo, realizing in a flash that the experience of genuine danger for others might solve his audience problem, comes up with the idea of reality tv.
Part two of The Year of the Sex Olympics begins. Ned and Deanie and Keten are chosen to star in Live Life Show. They will be put on an isolated Island, with only a bare minimum of resources, where they will live and maybe die on camera. They are landed on the island and the world of The Year of the Sex Olympics changes utterly. Their new home, the here unnamed Isle of Man, is photographed with something of the chiaroscuro-driven intensity of an Ingmar Bergman film like The Seventh Seal (1957), including a vision of dancing figures silhouetted against an empty sky. Ned and Deanie's initial incompetence is both comical and terrifying, and underlined by the poverty of Ned's cripplingly minuscule vocabulary, his description for instance of windows as "holes to look out" not being instantly useful. Young Keten is terrified by the noise of the world, the wind, the cold, the splashes of rain, a lit match: the world is "too big" for her. Her eventual death from an infected cut seems inevitable. Monitoring events remotely from Output-world, Lasar clocks that her death, and the parents' grief, arouses the low-life audience to laughter, as with Kin. This was the plan.
But nothing is left to chance. Even before Keten dies, a second couple has appeared, the bear-like Grels ( Murcell) and his seemingly mute partner Betty (Talfrey), who have lived on the other side of the island for years; contemporary viewers may be reminded of similar devices in Lost (2004-2010). Here their sudden appearance is part of Output's game-plan to raise the stakes. Grels is a "psycho" who had accidentally killed an earlier partner on camera twelve years earlier, and is now in exile; he is a wild man dressed in uncured furs, a wodewose. He tells the dying Keten a story about fish lost in a deep cavern under the mountain. Soon after he kills Betty, and then Deannie, who is heard screaming her last in pain and horror in the locked hut where Grels has trapped her. Ned batters the door down and finds her mutilated body. Ned then hacks Grels to death; the sight of his axe chopping away seemingly forever at the prone wodewose drives the low-drive audience into unstoppable gales of laughter. Monitoring all of this from the Output studio, Lasar and Misch can also be seen laughing boisterously, congratulating each other for having created a smash hit. In the background, Ugo's face breaks into contortions of remorse.
Like a relic excavated from a ruined factory, The Year of the Sex Olympics must today be not only seen but deciphered, not only because the print was mutilated. Unlike many films budgeted for theatre release, this television "episode" exposes radical faultlines in the execution of mise en scene (as noted), in the theatrically shouty script (Kneale was perhaps less skilled at conveying Satire-bearing infodump than his contemporaries seemed to realize), and in the acting. The eye-rolling Tony Vogel seems to think the best way to convey a restricted vocabulary is to pretend he is in a silent film (though in fact the very last thing a silent film ever does is try to speak); Brian Cox overstacks a repertory of moues intended to denote villainous smug giggly manipulative glee until it seems he is about to topple from his chair; even Leonard Rossiter is unable to resist the occasional pantomime grimace. Bunched together on one set, they seem to be delivering monologues in three different registers; the blame for this failure of ensemble must laid to the director. Oddly the women actors, Vickery Turner and Suzanne Neve, seem to have been left alone to render humans under stress; and seem entirely contemporary. The task for viewers half a century onwards is to pick out what Kneale had to say inside the shouting, to clock his prescience about the Media Landscape to come, and to give him a bye, it may be, for failing to ground his understandable premonitions in some sense or other of the cui bono within the bone that gives point to any significant vision of how the future might be shaped. It may seem minor, but the lack of any sponsors (see Advertising) for either Sportsex or the Live Life Show is a telling vacancy. No one, it seems, gains from the distressing world created in The Year of the Sex Olympics: there is no engine of exploitation behind the sadism of the Live Life Show, no sense that the world itself is being curated by a power behind the scenes. In the end The Year of the Sex Olympics leaves an impression that what has been presented is not so much an indictment from outside the walls as a skit from within them. [JC]
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