In the near future, society is split into two strata: The low-drives make up the zombie-like majority anaesthetized by an incessant diet of television, largely consisting of “adult entertainment”.
Television, and by extension the masses, is controlled by the high-drives, an educated class who remain servile through their perpetual quest for better ratings and audience subjugation.
When the low-drives start to become increasingly uninterested in the programming on offer, co-ordinator Ugo Priest (Leonard Rossiter) ends up accidentally happening upon a new entertainment concept – reality television – when a tragic accident entertains the audiences in ways he could never imagine, but at what cost?
Who would have thought that, in 1968, Nigel Kneale would have predicted the prominence of reality television at its most manipulative? A powerhouse of intelligent film and television, Kneale would be remembered for the Quatermass TV series and films, adapting The Woman in Black and Wuthering Heights and the chilling The Stone Tape amongst many other genre entries. Whilst much science fiction output tended towards the monster, Kneale offered a diet of thought-provoking entertaining.
The Year of the Sex Olympics was initially art of Theatre 625, a BBC anthology series that is, sadly, mostly lost to the ages, with this entry being one of the few episodes that survived. Very much like George Orwell’s 1984, which Kneale had adapted previously for BBC, The Year of the Sex Olympics uses themes of the power of the media to manipulate the populace, a theme that still plays out today on a global scale. The idea that society can be placated by presenting mindless entertainment is a strong one, with the educated knowing that the uneducated will watch anything, effectively distracting them from their desires and keeping them under state control.
Led by Leonard Rossiter as Ugo Priest, in wonderfully slimy form as the authority figure and puppet master, the TV film also sees a young Brian Cox (the actor, not the scientist), Suzanne Neve and Tony Vogel amongst a strong cast of British television actors. They deliver Kneale’s script with conviction, even when the dialogue sounds, very much like 1984 or A Clockwork Orange, unusual and unsettling.
Considering this was a television film, and with television in the UK seen as an extension of theatre, The Year of the Sex Olympics certainly feels and looks like a television film and one definitely of its period. Even at its most overblown (the custard pie fight, for example) never strays from its core idea – that television a sedative for the masses and we’re all addicted.
Presented in black and white, 1.33:1 ratio, it still stands out as a fine example of television’s ability to both entertain and drive discussion as well as of Kneale’s intelligence as a writer.
More than fifty years after its initial broadcast, The Year of the Sex Olympics has survived to become a damning insight into our obsession with media of all kinds and how easy it has become for what we see and hear to alter how we engage in the world around us.
The BFI release contains a number of quality extras:
Feature-length audio commentary by actor Brian Cox: recorded for the BFI’s 2003 release and a worthy recollection of the film itself from the supremely intelligent actor. His reflections are at times humorous and always informative. This should be a must-listen for fans of this piece and of Cox in general. He’s an erudite speaker who clearly shows his passion and memories of the making of The Year of the Sex Olympics.
Nigel Kneale in conversation (2000, 71 mins, audio only): the writer looks back over his career with Professor Julian Petley. With such a far reaching career, it’s a surprise they could fit it all into this! Whether you’re new to Kneale or already a fan, this will bring an all new level of interest in his works, and may prompt you to explore further.
Kim Newman introduction (2003, 5 mins): the writer, critic and broadcaster guides us into the world created by Nigel Kneale and Michael Elliott. Newman is a man who’s knowledge of film and the science fiction and horror genre is unparalleled. Five minutes wasn’t enough!
Joyce Hammond’s Costume Designs (2020, 8 mins): a gallery of designs and drawings including the original colour swatches. Seeing the designs in colour was an eye-opener. They look stunning, if somewhat dated, in black-and-white, so seeing them in colour was a particular delight.
Le Pétomane (1973, 31 mins): a short comedy biopic of Joseph Pujol, penned by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson and starring Leonard Rossiter. If you’re a fan of Galton and Simpson, you’ll like this.
Fifty Years of Broadcasting (1972, 5 mins): an episode of the COI’s cinemagazine This Week in Britain, looking at the work of the BBC on its anniversary. There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking in this, but it’s definitely good to see it included.
Whilst there is a lot of additional content here, it would have been good to see more current content, relating it to the world of reality TV and the controversies surround that. At the time, the production was marred by Mary Whitehouse’s complaints, filming issues, strikes and much more – there’s a self-contained story in all of that which could have been told.
Dir: Michael Elliott
Scr: Nigel Kneale
Cast: Leonard Rossiter, Brian Cox, Suzanne Neve, Tony Vogel
Prd: Ronald Travers
Country: United Kingdom
Runtime: 103 mins
The Year of the Sex Olympics is available on DVD now