The Year of the Sex Olympics Review

Much of the coverage The Year of the Sex Olympics has garnered recently (much of it prompted by this DVD release) has settled, perhaps unfairly, on its relation to the current spate of “reality TV” programming. It is certainly true that elements of Big Brother and Survivor especially have been foreseen, so to speak, by writer Nigel Kneale, yet to concentrate solely on this incidental element suggests that he has simply gotten lucky. Certainly, being the writer of the various Quatermass instalments and The Stone Tape, not to mention film adaptations of Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer, it is clear that Kneale is beyond such gimmickry; the primary force of The Year of the Sex Olympics is rather its savage satire of the media industry.

The play does this by focusing solely on a number of television executives, albeit ones working in a future where the media has become, to all appearances, the major industry. Indeed, it no longer offers its audiences mere entertainment, but pacification - the shows present their viewers with sex and violence in order to suppress any such urges (“sex is not to do, sex is to watch”). Cracks are beginning to appear however, and it is these which provide The Year of the Sex Olympics with its narrative drive: a worker on the ‘Artsex’ show, Martin Potter (best known for playing the lead in Fellini-Satyricon), is beginning to discover to long-lost emotions (“like something you remember but never seen”) and wishes to impel on the populace at large. Meanwhile, ‘Sportsex’ executive Tony Vogel discovers that his daughter is “low-drive” despite selective breeding; the population now being split between “high-” and “low-drive”, or those that make television and those that simply watch. These two events conspire to prompt Vogel to initiate and participate in ‘The Live-Life Show’, a non-stop slice of reality TV that will him returning to the “old-days” style of living.

Given his intentions, Kneale has obviously used the futuristic setting in order to allow for a more exaggerated situation. This does however come with its own set of difficulties as this future must be palatable for the satire to work. Of course, as The Year of the Sex Olympics has essentially conceived of a number of future TV programmes and prophetically presented the media industry as an unwieldy ratings grabbing monster, any major problems fail to materialise. However, there is still a gaudiness to Kneale’s vision of the future that does affect proceedings. Such concepts as the communication watches, gold body paint and kitsch costuming immediately place the play alongside its sixties and seventies counterparts, especially its thematic partners Logan’s Run and the little seen ZPG. What’s more frustrating is the likelihood that these ideas are the probable input of director Michael Elliot rather than Kneale himself. It’s a shame that he couldn’t have taken his influence from two then-recent nouvelle vague cinematic sci-fi offerings, Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville and Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451, both of which draw fine results from a simpler, more understated approach.

Thankfully, Kneale's script is dark enough to prevent The Year of the Sex Olympics becoming too Barbarella-like for its own good. Being a television play, the emphasis is more greatly inclined towards the dialogue, and as such relies a huge amount on its performers. Brian Cox is the play’s standout in this regard, presenting a heartless incarnation of a television executive who’s coming up through the ranks and is dominated entirely by his own ego. Vickery Turner likewise deserves praise for her spot-on take on the vacuous blonde female presenter. (Sadly, Leonard Rossiter whom you would expect to be the standout has a role that essentially reduces his to spouting exposition; as such he’s good but not great.) What makes these performances especially pointed is the media-speak that Kneale has them utter. He has posited a gradual regression of vocabulary to simple adjectives and a few nouns, and hints at a chilling America-ruled future by having it spoken in a Transatlantic burr.

Kneale does however encounter some problems in this area by making his characters based so closely on caricatures. Tony Vogel, most notably, is such the perfect embodiment of his character that he comes across, unintentionally, as wooden and highly unlikable as a leading man. His intellectually stunted (by today’s standards, though this doesn’t seem a problem in Kneale’s future) persona works well during the busier first half -during which there’s a wonderful moment where Vogel and Rossiter watch a game of ‘Auto-Chess’, the real thing no doubt being to much for these people to master - but once the plot settles into its narrative and begins to rely heavily on him, any dramatic tension lessens simply because he isn’t engaging enough. And this leads, ultimately, to The Year of the Sex Olympics biggest flaw: its attempt to juggle the satire with engaging entertainment. Of course, this is a common problem of many films and television attempting similar aims (and perhaps explains the success of Chris Morris’ Brass Eye, which didn’t need to rely on such cumbersome devices as narrative and progression), yet it is still true that although a number of interesting issues are raised, as are a number of good ideas, this remains a worthy but flawed piece of work.

The Disc

Filmed on video for television (with film used for a small number of scenes), it is unsurprising that visually the disc doesn’t look too brilliant. That said, it perhaps doesn’t look any worse than it would have at the time, although the presentation is in black and white as a copy of the original colour print no longer exists (which is hardly the BFI’s fault). However, given the gaudiness of some of the production design, personally I’m relieved to only be able to see it in this manner.

The sound is similarly as good as the original transmission, presenting the original mono (over two channels) with no notable difficulties.

Of the extras, it is Brian Cox’s commentary which proves to be the pick. Refreshingly, he speaks little of himself and instead details the play’s production with great lucidity and insight (he is particularly good on the nature of multi-camera filming). His chat is occasionally punctuated by silences suggesting that another participant could have been a good option, but this is a minor quibble as Cox rarely wastes a word.

Elsewhere on the disc, Kim Newman - an expert on the horror and sci-fi genres - offers an informative introduction as well as sleeve notes, whilst there are also brief biographies for Kneale and director Elliot. Those with DVD-ROM capability will be suitably impressed with the option of a downloadable and printable copy of Kneale’s script.

As with the main feature, none of the extras come with subtitles, English or otherwise.

6 out of 10
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