“Sooner than you think…” reads the text that opens Michael Elliott’s telemovie The Year of the Sex Olympics, filmed as part of BBC2’s Theatre 625. It is a promise of prescience in this science fiction from 1968 – and viewed now, it is all too easy to discern something of our own present being extrapolated from the film’s past futurism.
Writer Nigel Kneale (best known for the various Quatermass serials and films) imagines a dystopian tomorrow in which privileged ‘hi-drive’ television producers feed the proletarian ‘low-drives’ on a constant stream of live sexual programmes, all to ensure that the addled audience remain happy to live their short lives vicariously and passively, free from the potentially explosive ‘tension’ of agency. This is television as a measure of social control, like the ultraviolent games of Norman Jewison’s Rollerball (made seven years later in 1975). Yet viewed now, it is hard not to see, in the film’s fictive shows like ‘Art-Sex’, ‘Sport-Sex’, ‘The Sex Olympics’ and ultimately ‘The Live Life Show’, the raw templates of the ‘reality TV’ format that would emerge some three decades later to dumb down viewers with its stultifying blend of packaged actuality, sexualised ‘personalities’ and artificial competition. Meanwhile, The Year of the Sex Olympics is concerned not just with these shows, but with their mesmerised audience, content to watch rather than to do, and kept in a dull-minded, even brain-washed, state to ensure that they present no threat to the state’s order.
Yet if we cannot help looking back at Elliott’s film with 2020 hindsight, it was in fact building its ideas from the preoccupations of its own immediate past and present. In 1954, Kneale had adapted Nineteen Eighty-Four for the BBC, and some of George Orwell’s ideas – in particular the reduction of language to a ‘mediaspeak’ that restricts freedom of thought – had found their way into the texture of The Year of the Sex Olympics. Kneale was also responding to an understandable fear of conflict that hung over post-war British society, which explains the state’s promotion of ‘apathy’ among the public to ensure that its members are not riven by desire and rage and other combustible emotions. The film’s obsessions with blank-faced youth (the ‘lo-drives’, we are told, tend not to live beyond 35 years of age) and with cheapened, pornified sexuality, reflected the author’s own anxieties about emerging cultural movements in the Sixties amid the pill- (and Pill-) popping generation of free love.
So, however much The Year of the Sex Olympics may seem to resonate with the reality television of today, the film’s speculative concepts did not come from a vacuum, but were instead free-associating on the flotsam and jetsam of their own times. Set on an island with cameras taking in its isolated players’ every interaction, the film’s final programme ‘The Live Life Show’ might sound superficially like a fictive precursor to Survivor, I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! or Love Island, but in fact its location is a cold, craggy wasteland, devoid of the bikinis or tropical delights that give such appeal to those later shows.
For the disaffected producer (Tony Vogel), his ex-girlfriend Deanie Webb (Suzanne Neve), and their degenerate daughter Keten (Lesley Roach) who are together to become its always-on-camera residents, this isle represents less an entry into a sexy, self-promoting competition than an all-out, atavistic retreat into the values and emotions of a primitive age long passed. The aims of this family are actively backward-looking, nostalgic even, for a bygone era (the Fifties, perhaps) when things were simpler. Too bad that the show’s producers – the enthusiastic Lasar Opie (Brian Cox) and the older, more haunted Ugo Priest (Leonard Rossiter) – are stage-managing this rough idyll to ensure that their audience get the kind of cathartic kicks, rooted in the Shadenfreude of vicarious violence and horror, that it needs as the sedative to keep it ‘cool’. So Elliott’s monochrome sci-fi draws on the past to look to the future – and to make the future look bleak. It is just an unfortunate contingency that we now, in a return of the repressed, find ourselves living something not unlike that future…
© Anton Bitel