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Reality TV: The Year of the Sex Olympics on DVD

  It is always fashionable in science fiction to paint the future as a time to be feared, as no matter how far innovations in technology will go to make life a lot more comfortable for the world, there will always be a downside, and accepting this comfort as a trade-off with a lack of freedom, increasing stupidity, threat of mindless violence (or worse - targeted violence) and more indignities is akin to selling your soul to a dystopian devil. No matter how much the advances reach, our humanity will be at risk, though that is a nebulous concept since humanity means different things to different people, and for some of them the ability to go through life with dignity and safety is not what the thrill-seekers or the bullies have in mind when they wish to behave as their ego would instruct them to. Naturally it is this tension between, to put it blatantly, good and evil that informs our theorising, our beliefs, and our behaviour.

And our entertainment, as writer Nigel Kneale's The Year of the Sex Olympics would indicate. Broadcast in 1968, one of a huge number of plays British television produced for decades, specially written for the small screen (though not always), these were gradually superseded by serials and miniseries, though anthology shows kept the format alive into the twenty-first century, which was presumably when Kneale's story was set (the only hint as to the time frame is the caption "Sooner than you think..."). Having worked in the medium for most of his adult life, he would have a keen idea of what the trends in television were and how they would translate to the path it would take in the years to come, and he does have a reputation, fully justified, as one of the true visionaries and trendsetters of television across the world. This effort was commonly judged to have invented the concept of "Reality Television".

That was to be feared, as most science fiction predictions about the box were, though not because they were putting actors and writers out of a job in favour of the plebs who beforehand had been strictly intended as the passive consumers. What Kneale didn't quite get right was that this genre would be interpreted by the internet, which democratised (we are told) the notion of celebrity and allowed supposedly ordinary people to be the stars. More accurate was that the ordinary folks were enabled by massive corporations which made billion dollar industries out of them, and if they performed to the audience's satisfaction they would spawn more wannabe stars in a cycle of profit; you did not even have to be talented, as long as you provide content that's fine. Yet as the play warned, that content could be as much because the viewers wanted to tune in to watch you suffer as it may be to watch you enjoy yourself.

There have been deaths connected to reality television, mostly suicides when the pressure on the participants grew too heavy to bear, indeed Celebrity Love Island even saw its host kill herself. But in this story, the passive, moronic masses merely delight in this misery, it's the next best thing from sex on TV which had been introduced to keep the population at home and docile. The idea that TV is "Chewing gum for the eyes" presumably was not meant to include the sort that the likes of Kneale penned, and does a lot of people some disservice, though the accompanying thread that giving the people what they want does not mean they will even be satisfied with that, and the ante must be upped over and over. Here the audience love it when violence and death is part of the programming, maybe we're not at that stage yet, but there are certainly those who gloat at the tragedies online who Kneale was bringing to our attention.

The play was originally shot on colour video, but as was the case with much video back then, the material was reused and taped over to save money, so we have only a basic idea of what it would have looked like. On the BFI's special edition DVD, there is a featurette with the costume sketches and fabrics used to make the costumes, so if we cannot see what the makeup appeared as, then we can have some vision of how colourfully they were dressed. Among the cast were Leonard Rossiter, best known as a comedy star, who becomes the horrified conscience of the piece, and Brian Cox, who would go on to great success as a character actor and is included on an audio commentary track discussing the work; also there is a discussion with Kneale that can be played over the course of the programme, more of a career overview. A short news report is included on the BBC's fiftieth anniversary, which is interesting but brief.

Critic Kim Newman is on hand to set up the viewing in a five minute featurette, not pointing out that with its grim themes, televisual setting and specially conceived "futuristic" dialogue, The Year of the Sex Olympics can be easier to consider as a series of talking points than it can be an entertainment, one for the authors of socio-political essays everywhere rather than a one and a quarter hours of a fun night in front of the telly, especially when dystopian science fiction of this description tended to be telling off the audience for what constituted their taste in populist media. More traditional amusement may be served up by the other main extra, the short film Le Petomane from 1979, which starred Rossiter as a real-life performer of breaking wind on the French stage (and others) in the nineteen hundreds. A pet project of the actor, it takes a peculiarly straight-faced approach to a ridiculous subject, in marked contrast to The Year of the Sex Olympics.

Author: Graeme Clark.


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