DVD Review: The Year of the Sex Olympics
Much has been said about how the future - “sooner than you think,” as the opening caption puts it - portrayed in The Year of the Sex Olympics has come to pass. Like much science fiction, it is a comment on the time when it was made as much as a prediction or warning of any future. Nigel Kneale had previously adapted George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four for a controversial BBC play in 1954, and there is something of Orwell’s vision in Sex Olympics, of an elite or “hi-drives” keeping a mass (“low-drives”) docile by a constant diet of lowest-common-denominator entertainment including pornography. The language we speak has been degraded too. Sex is not to do, but to watch, and there to pacify its audience where the media has become all-powerful. Kneale’s play is as much satire as it is prophecy.
However, not all is well in smut paradise. Kin Hodder (Martin Potter) is a worker on the Artsex show and his protest, leading to his fall to his death on live television, provokes a huge response. Coordinator Ugo Priest (Leonard Rossiter) seizes the opportunity to create a whole new thing. This is The Live Life Show in which a family – father, mother, daughter – are marooned on a Scottish island. While millions watch, Lasar Opie (Brian Cox) introduces something new and dangerous to the mix.
Kneale had come to fame with his three Quatermass serials for the BBC in the 1950s, which by the time of Quatermass and the Pit over the Christmas and New Year of 1958 and 1959 caused streets to be cleared and pubs to be emptied so that the next episode, broadcast live, would not be missed. After that, Kneale was mainly employed in writing screenplays, including the Woodfall productions of Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer and, for Hammer, The Witches. In between these, in 1964, he wrote The Road, now lost, another example of the science-fictional horror he had become known for. As well as Orwell’s awful warning, Kneale also drew on the increasing explicitness of theatre productions such as Oh! Calcutta! and Hair, made possible by the abolition of the Lord Chamberlain’s powers of censorship in 1967. There was also the Sixties counterculture, of which Kneale was not a fan. And of course 1968 was an Olympic year.
Kneale’s script was written in 1967 and production began early the following year under director Michael Elliott. The original choice to play Ugo Priest was Leo McKern, but he was not available so Rossiter was cast. No doubt it was one word in the title which attracted the ire of television morality campaigner Mary Whitehouse. She had been leaked a copy of the script and attempted to have the production stopped, though BBC director general Hugh Greene, her mortal enemy, overruled her. The Isle of Man stood in for the Scottish island and after some shooting at Ealing Studios, the production was recorded in the BBC Television Centre.
The play was first broadcast on Monday 29 July 1968 at 9.05pm, just past the family-viewing watershed, which it would still be now. As well as the now rather mild semi-nudity, at a time when television was pushing the envelope in some respects (a partly-lost BBC2 adaptation of Emile Zola’s Nana, its first episode broadcast the following month, is credited as the first scripted British television production to contain nudity), there are a couple of quite graphic shots of bloody bodies, which in some ways are worse for the blood being black instead of red.
The Year of the Sex Olympics was a feature-length production for BBC2 in its Theatre 625 slot. The slot was named after the number of lines that the channel was broadcasting on, and had been since its launch in 1964, as opposed to the 405 lines used on BBC1 and ITV. That increase in definition – which required people to own or rent a dual-standard television set so that they could watch the new channel – was in preparation for colour, which duly arrived on BBC2 in 1967, the first channel in Europe to broadcast in colour. And colour the play was, by all accounts making particular gaudy use of the medium. One reviewer, Nancy Banks-Smith in The Sun, wrote that if you didn’t see it in colour, you didn’t really see it.
Sadly, not many people really did see it by that criterion, as colour televisions were in a minority at the time. It was repeated, cut down to ninety minutes (it is a little overlong at full length), on BBC1 on 11 March 1970 as part of The Wednesday Play strand, for which Kneale had contributed other plays. After that, the videotape was wiped. All that survives is the black and white 16mm telerecording on which the transfer on this disc is based. You can still gain some impression of the look of the production from the existing costume designs and some colour production stills. Other colour productions which only survive as monochrome telerecordings have had their colour restored – such as episodes of Doctor Who and Dad’s Army – but sadly that isn’t the case with The Year of the Sex Olympics. At least it survives at all, which is not the case with The Road, his later Out of The Unknown episode The Chopper, all but two episodes of the original The Quatermass Experiment and whole swathes of television from the 1950s and 1960s and on into the 1970s.
The Year of the Sex Olympics was originally released by the BFI on DVD in 2003 and is now reissued (Region 2 only) with some of its original extras brought forward and some new ones. This release was reviewed during Covid-19 lockdown conditions, so from an online video link rather than via a checkdisc. Therefore comments on the video and audio will be limited. Due to technical difficulties at my end, I was not able to play the two additional audio tracks. The Year of the Sex Olympics carries a 15 certificate while Le Petomane is a PG.
As with any television programme of its vintage, The Year of the Sex Olympics was shot in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and that is respected in the transfer on this disc. The play was made on 625-line colour PAL videotape, with film inserts (16mm) telecined in at the time of recording. As mentioned above, the transfer is derived from a 16mm black and white film telerecording. You can tell from the greyscale that this was not a production designed and shot for black and white.
The soundtrack is the original mono, rendered as Dolby Digital 2.0. English subtitles are available for the hard-of-hearing (though not available on the video link) and with some slightly muffled sound and Kneale’s stylised “degraded” dialogue may be necessary for some viewers.
The extras begin with a commentary, recorded for the 2003 release, by Brian Cox, who had an early featured role in this play. As mentioned, technical issues prevented my listening to it, so here is what Anthony Nield had to say when he reviewed the 2003 disc: “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.” Also available as an additional audio track is a 71-minute interview with Kneale by Julian Petley, recorded in 2000, where he looks back over his career.
Also from 2003 is a short introduction by Kim Newman (4:44) in which he talks about the themes of the play and their prescience. In 2003, reality TV was in its relative infancy, but in seventeen years nothing has changed that makes this introduction obsolete, other than Kneale’s passing in 2006.
Joyce Hammond had a career in television costume design beginning in the 1950s and extending to the 1970s. In some ways, her contribution to the play is one of the outstanding ones, and she was thanked by Michael Elliott in an internal memo. If we can’t see the play in colour, we can at least have some idea of what it might have looked like in a featurette (7:52) which include her designs and colour swatches and the memos mentioned above. If Hammond was ever considered for a BAFTA Award is not clear, but she didn’t win: “Best Design”, for production rather than costume design, that year went to the BBC’s adaptation of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, whose lead actress is shared with Sex Olympics, namely Suzanne Neve.
“Fifty Years of Broadcasting” (4:56) is a featurette made by the Central Office of Information as part of its This Life in Britain series which ran from 1959 to 1980. It was made for distribution overseas rather than for home viewing, which may explain why this edition, made in 1972, is in black and white. Presenter Michele Brown stands outside the BBC Television Centre and introduces a brief run-through of the Corporation’s then fifty years of existence. We hear extracts from vintage radio broadcasts and part of the film of the television service’s first broadcast in 1936. We also see behind the scenes of a drama production in the works (Cousin Bette, broadcast in 1971) and an interview with Charles Curran, the then BBC director-general.
Finally on the disc is Le Petomane (31:07), connected to the main feature by the presence of Leonard Rossiter. He plays Joseph Pujol (1857-1945) whose fame on the French stage was due to his command of loud farting up and down the scale. An amusing short film, which went out as a supporting short feature in 1979, written by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, directed by Ian Macnaughton, who was best known for directing Monty Python’s Flying Circus on television and its first big-screen spin-off And Now for Something Completely Different.
The BFI’s booklet for the first pressing of the disc runs to twenty-four pages. It begins with “The Great British Bonk-Off”, an essay by Rob Young which does a thorough job of contextualising the play, both in its time and now. This is followed by a reminiscence by William Dudman, who was a trainee assistant cameraman on the production, including the Isle of Man location shoot.
Mark Pilkington presents an overview of Kneale’s career, particularly its contradictions: its impulse towards something “other” when Kneale was an avowed atheist, and his complaints about the formulaic jump scares of much horror, when his work contains more than a few (non-formulaic) shock moments of their own. Philip Kemp contributes a biography of director Michael Elliott and there are notes and credits for the extras.