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Year of the Sex Olympics, The (1968)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Year of the Sex Olympics, The (1968)
For Theatre 625, BBC, tx. 29/7/1968
105 minutes, colour (only black & white version survives)
Directed byMichael Elliott
ProducerRonald Travers
Script (uncredited)Nigel Kneale
Story EditorJames Brabazon

Cast: Leonard Rossiter (Co-ordinator Ugo Priest), Suzanne Neve (Deanie Webb), Tony Vogel (Nat Mender), Brian Cox (Laser Opie), Vickery Turner (Misch), George Murcell (Grels)

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In a future Britain, the appetites and passions of the masses are controlled by television, with a constant stream of pornography regulating sexual desire. When audiences show signs of boredom, the 'high drive' broadcasters must find new methods to engage them.

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The Year of the Sex Olympics (tx. 29/7/1968) was first broadcast as part of BBC2's Theatre 625 and provides an excellent example of writer Nigel Kneale at his most imaginative but downbeat. His earlier work, Quatermass and the Pit (BBC, 1958-59), concludes with the hope that mankind could rise above its baser, more aggressive tendencies, and his following play, Wine of India (BBC, 15/4/1970), set in 2050, presents a flawed but essentially civilised society. The Year of the Sex Olympics, however, delivers a considerably more Orwellian vision of the future, seemingly influenced by 1984, which Kneale had adapted both in 1954 and 1965.

Now regarded as one of the 1960s' most effective and engaging one-off pieces of science fiction, the play is chiefly remembered for the prescience of the scenarios it develops. Most obviously, the play's characters devise a television programme called 'The Live Life Show' in which a group of people is separated from society. The ensuing struggle to adapt to new surroundings is broadcast live, with the viewing public's voyeuristic pleasure heightened by the problems participants endure. Both the template for this fictitious entertainment and the audience's rapt reaction seem to presage the proliferation of 'reality' television in the 1990s, and, in particular, Castaway (BBC, 2000), a show in which members of the public volunteered to live on an inhospitable island deprived of everyday luxuries normally available to society. Similarly, the 'dumbing down', 'sexing up' and sheer predominance of television appear to have been predicted by Kneale's play.

In reality, however, Kneale was merely identifying current trends and evolving them to their logical extremes. For example, reality television had already proved popular with Granada's ground-breaking 7-Up (ITV, 1964), independent television was constantly facing accusations of appealing to the lowest common denominator and the 1960s laissez-faire attitude towards onscreen sex was already manifest in a profusion of cinematic soft porn. Even the bizarre, modified form of English spoken throughout The Year of the Sex Olympics brings to mind Anthony Burgess's novel A Clockwork Orange, published seven years earlier and filmed by Stanley Kubrick in 1971. Nevertheless, Kneale's expert marshalling of these elements, sound characterisation and the inexorable tension and pathos which pervade the play ensure it stands as one of his most effective scripts.

Roger Andrews' extraordinary set design offers another bonus but, sadly, only a black and white version survives today.

Gavin Collinson

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. Callibrating the ratings (2:49)
2. Old days words (2:10)
3. The Live Life Show (1:21)
Castaway 2000 (2000-01)
Guardians, The (1971)
Living in the Past (1978)
Cox, Brian (1946-)
Kneale, Nigel (1922-2006)
Rossiter, Leonard (1926-1984)
Social Experiment TV
TV Sci-Fi