cast: Leonard Rossiter, Suzanne Neve, Tony Vogel, Brian Cox, and Vickery Turner
director: Michael Elliott
103 minutes (15) 1968
BFI DVD Region 2 retail
Also available to buy on video
reviewed by Tom Matic
The great shame of this timely joint BFI and BBC release is the absence of colour in what after all is a small screen forerunner of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. In his commentary, Brian Cox notes that The Year Of The Sex Olympics’ psychedelic dayglo backdrops, golden body paints and outlandish paisley costumes were designed to take advantage of its airing on BBC2, at the time the UK’s only colour TV channel. Sadly only a monochrome print survives.
Though dated in parts, The Year Of The Sex Olympics is a brilliantly savage science fiction satire from the pen of Nigel Kneale, author of the Quatermass serials. Kneale also adapted 1984 for television, and Sex Olympics revisits some of the themes of Orwell’s famous dystopia. Notably it updates Orwell’s idea that the powers that be watch us through our TV screens. But the ‘Big Brothers’ of Sex Olympics are not jackbooted secret policemen, but pampered TV executives monitoring a sample audience, and their method of control is the velvet glove rather than the iron fist. So instead of the bleak 1940s’ austerity of Winston Smith’s miserable existence, Sex Olympics takes us to a world more in tune with ‘the affluent society’ represented by the 1960s, where the characters speak in a kind of transatlantic ‘Newspeak’, that suggests a society dominated by advertising rather than state propaganda. In The Year Of The Sex Olympics, the ultimate superlative term is ‘Superking.’
The play opens with a lingering shot of a couple, covered in gold paint, with pieces of tinsel the only fig leaves for their modesty, sharing an intimate caress. It all seems rather coy by today’s standards, but then the camera cuts to a group of TV executives watching the scene: sex has become a spectator sport, like Come Dancing only without the ballgowns and tuxedos… Following a population crisis, the powers that be have been using televised ‘sportsex’ and ‘artsex’ to lower the sex drive of the masses. The TV station also features food fights – a kind of joyless forerunner of Tiswas – to decrease the desire for food among its viewers. In both cases, the principle is the same: ‘apathy control,’ whereby people are encouraged to “watch, not do!” Sounds familiar? Thus the population is divided into the ‘low drive’ masses, and the ‘high drive’ elite: only the TV executives who run the shows are permitted the perk of actually having real sex, it seems!
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Ugo Priest (Leonard Rossiter), who’s old enough to remember what things were like in the old days, mediates much of the backstory. From his account, it would seem that the plus side is that there is no such thing as censorship or war, but he doesn’t seem very convinced or at best ambivalent, even though he’s got a cushy job as part of this elite of media moguls. And all is not well in their ivory TV control room. Nat (Tony Vogel) seems to have it all: a high-flying TV career on ‘sportsex’ and a dalliance with its grinning hostess. But a meeting with his former partner Dini (Suzanne Neve) reveals the unthinkable: that the sickly, eight-year-old daughter from their liaison could be a ‘low drive’. On top of this, the sample audience seem to be less than impressed with the hyped ‘Year of the Sex Olympics’. The audience have become so jaded and desensitised that they burst into fits of laughter, even when a crazed backdrop designer falls to his death trying to display his disturbing paintings.
Priest recognises the wellspring of this callous mirth: what he calls the ‘fruitskin’, laughing at another’s misfortune. The executives initial attempts to “make ’em laugh” again fall flat, until Nat, who felt an affinity with the dead designer, suggests stranding a couple on an island to fend for themselves, without the luxuries of their cosseted world where everything is done for you. Much to the horror of his new girlfriend, he volunteers to be the subject of this experiment, together with Dini and their daughter. ‘The Live Life Show’ is more Castaway or Survivor than Big Brother (although the TV executives with their banal chitchat and couch potato lifestyle resemble the inmates of the ‘BB’ house). The difference is, that The Live Life Show’s castaways don’t have any kind of safety net, but they do have some very nasty surprises in store for them…
After the Live Life Show has reached its brutal conclusion, with the predicted improvement in audience reaction, we see Brian Cox crowing in triumph and Leonard Rossiter groaning in despair, to the accompaniment of the fatuous jingle: “this is the Year of the Sex Olympics – Sex Olympics Year!”
The dialogue, a strange Americanised babytalk, seems irritatingly stilted at first. But the actors, notably Vogel, Cox and Rossiter, bring an intensity and conviction to their lines that overcome this. With the introduction of Nat and Dini’s daughter, and her faltering attempts to read the phrase ‘toy dispenser’, the childlike quality of the adult’s dialogue reveals itself as entirely appropriate and in keeping with what Sex Olympics is getting at. In a later, awkward, yet tender scene, Nat’s linguistic impoverishment is painfully exposed, as he tries to tell the child a bedtime story. In the end, he gets her to sleep by murmuring, “I like you” over and over again. In 1968, ‘sex’ was no longer a dirty word. In the Year Of The Sex Olympics, Kneale suggests, ‘love’ instead has become a dirty word.
DVD extras: introduction by Kim Newman, commentary by Brian Cox and ROM content of Nigel Kneale’s original script.