Thankfully, quality does seem to win out in the end. Copies of Big Brother 3: Unseen and Uncut! can be picked up for a song from your local bargain bins. But twenty-five years after its first broadcast, Nigel Kneale’s extraordinary TV play The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968) has just been released on DVD. It’s a tale of the near future – ‘sooner than you think’, according to the opening titles – where almighty television has become a vacuous social placebo, awash with sexual content expressly designed to suppress physical desire in viewers, and thereby keep the population explosion down. A spirited dissenter manages to get on screen, but is accidentally killed. The viewers respond well to this, though, and canny executives promptly launch The Live-Life Show, in which a young family is filmed twenty-four hours a day struggling to survive on a weather-beaten island. And to keep proceedings on the boil, they’re unwittingly sharing the place with a psychotic killer. It’s dark, satirical stuff, a rich and compelling work from one of television’s great unsung directors.
Kneale’s unparalleled TV writing career kicked off fifty years ago this July, when his groundbreaking BBC serial The Quatermass Experiment (1953) (intended merely to plug a gap in the summer schedules) became a national phenomenon, spawning three follow-ups and a memorable set of big screen adaptations from the then-unknown Hammer Studios. Today, Kneale is increasingly regarded as the forefather of British television drama, worshipped as a genius by modern TV writers such as Russell T. Davies and The League of Gentlemen. Although he’s been lauded for predicting the coming of Reality TV thirty years in advance with The Year of the Sex Olympics, Kneale is wary of this oversimplified comparison (and who can blame him: would you like to be held responsible for I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here?). Kneale’s piece has a wider point to make about the nature of television, and what society needs from it. The series seems to be saying that, if allowed, television will quickly be sapped of any worth or intelligence, and will pander to the very lowest common denominator. Although capable of stirring and challenging the viewer in his own home, it’s more likely to turn into an armchair-friendly version of throwing Christians to the lions.
Kneale had, in fact, left television to write for film some years previously. On the recommendation of Kenneth Tynan, he adapted John Osbourne’s Look Back In Anger (1959) and The Entertainer (1960) for director Tony Richardson. Other adaptation work followed, but two cinema projects that fell by the wayside were a version of Lord of the Flies for the fading Ealing Studios, and a film of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which was to have been directed by Jack Cardiff.
The Year of the Sex Olympics therefore marked Kneale’s first TV work for four years, the BBC having effected a tenuous reconciliation with the writer. Looking back today, Kneale is clearly proud of it, but remembers a production beset by problems. ‘It was a funny piece. It was a nightmare to even contemplate doing it, and we had every possible trouble’. Indeed, there had been initial doubts as to whether it would go ahead at all. ‘Mary Whitehouse somehow got hold of the script’, Kneale says. ‘There was always some little spy around to slip her things. She read little more than the title before announcing "This must not be put on! I will have the producer sacked!" Thankfully, her demands fell on deaf ears and the BBC brazened it out. This was to be an unusual piece, part of a season of new dramas and made entirely in colour; it made extensive, early use of the ‘chromakey’ process, electronically patching studio performances over artificial scenery. The designers promptly went to town on an elaborate, gaudy vision of the future, not stopping short of gold face make-up (causing Nancy Banks-Smith, in a contemporary review, to exclaim ‘If you didn’t see it in colour, you didn’t really see it’).
Director Michael Elliott, a regular collaborator with Kneale during the period, knew a thing or two about actors: at the time, he was busy putting Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre on the map. Leonard Rossiter, then a staple of TV drama (before his 70s sitcom heyday), was cast as cynical TV producer Ugo Priest. The role of ambitious young TV executive Lasar Opie was actually earmarked for Tom Courtenay, who elected late in the day to star in a production of Hamlet instead (and received as a result some of the poorest notices of his career). The part went instead to a TV newcomer – one Brian Cox, today a staple of Hollywood fare such as X Men 2 (2003) and The Ring (2002). Kneale retains much fondness for Cox’s ‘outstandingly good’ performance. Likewise, Cox clearly holds his debut in some regard, as he provides a commentary track for this DVD release. Production was further blighted by a BBC electricians’ strike, as Kneale recalls. ‘We lost days. Meanwhile they all came back here [to Kneale’s family home in South London] – Leonard Rossiter, Brian Cox and the others. They all just sat about in acute gloom, wondering if they’d ever finish the thing’.
Nevertheless, finish it they did. Kneale remembers the result as ‘a very splendid show – it looked marvellous on the screen’. Sadly, the transmitted colour version no longer exists. Much archive TV material was, of course, wiped prior to the coming of home video and DVD, as the costs of storing it vastly outweighed the seemingly negligible advantages of keeping it for posterity. Many of Kneale’s key works were lost in this manner, not least his unsettling 1963 nuclear catastrophe warning The Road. The Year of the Sex Olympics was thought to have suffered the same fate, but a telecine copy was located in recent years. Regrettably, it’s in black and white, which robs the result of the impact of an overwhelming barrage of colour.
Nevertheless, what ultimately gives the piece its power is the clarity of its vision. One of the pioneers of television drama is allowed to predict a very unappealing future for the medium, creating a whole future world with its own attitudes and even speech patterns. With its notions of widespread social control and a sterile, state-controlled future, it’s in much the same vein as Huxley’s Brave New World, suggesting the unmade film project left its mark on Kneale. And it bears some comparison to Orwell’s dystopian Nineteen Eighty-Four, which Kneale had previously adapted for television in 1954 to extremely powerful effect (questions were raised in Parliament about the impact of the serial, and high-level discussions almost scuppered a repeat performance days later). Most importantly, however, The Year of the Sex Olympics is the work of a remarkable TV writer creating something entirely unique to television, and it stands, rather ironically, as a testament – perhaps even an inspiration – to the idea that television can have a vision, and be truly original and powerful in the process.