A nightly show where, at the touch of a buzzer, grinning, golden-skinned couples are made to dive on each other and commence the hunka-chunka. Not a pitch to ITVBe, but the plot of a 1968 television play that could be considered one of the most clairvoyant programmes of all time.
Nigel Kneale’s The Year of the Sex Olympics was commissioned at the behest of the director general of the BBC. It imagined an overcrowded future – one whose skyrocketing population forces the British government to drug the water supply with a fertility chemical. Following a failed revolution, a new order is established: the controlling ‘high-drives’ (a small group of media moguls who view it as their birth right to rule) and disposable ‘low-drives’ (the rest of us).
The highs’ philosophy is simple – “Cool the audience, cool the world” – and they practice it by trickling cheap thrills and flashy slogans onto TV, keeping the population docile.
So far, so Idiocracy, Equilibrium, Logan’s Run, and a thousand other dystopias. So what makes this 52-year-old play such a potent crystal ball when considering 2020? We look at 5 of the Sex Olympics’ most prescient components.
Event 1: Free porn
According to Ugo (Leonard Rossiter), the Coordinator of the TV ‘Output’ department, an event dubbed “The Big Breakthrough” led the government to discover the “sheer power of watching”. If people are more comfortable viewing sex on TV than they are experiencing it in bed with their partners, how better to reduce the country’s soaring birth rate than to screen porn whenever possible? Quick-fix gratification becomes the order of the day, with shows like ‘ArtSex’ and ‘SportSex’ dominating the schedules.
Our protagonist, Nat (Tony Vogel), helps oversee transmission of the latter: the most popular show with the public. But he finds himself less engrossed in the heaving body pile than co-workers are. Bullish colleague Lasar (Brian Cox) and bronzed presenter Misch (Vickery Turner) have all the on-air sincerity of Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid, and make SportSex feel as faceless as Pornhub. But in one show, contestants attempting a new position cause Nat to experience his first pang of jealousy. A colleague, Kin (Martin Potter), is even more affected, and attempts to angrily hijack the transmission.
If a world where Joe Public would choose porn over sex sounds fanciful, consider the research carried out by the Naval Medical Center of San Diego into why servicemen are rejecting shore leave, instead opting for lube-and-laptop time alone in their bunks. And also consider that, much like Kin’s transmission interruption, British broadcast TV would soon be hijacked for real – perhaps most famously when an ‘alien voice’ broke into Southern TV’s evening news in 1977.
Event 2: The Great British Bun Fight
It’s not just cheap sex that Kneale rightly imagined audiences of the future would be showered with. In order to promote both titillation and feelings of inadequacy, viewers of the Sex Olympics are also treated to ‘The Hungry Angry Show’, in which two obese pugilists bombard each other with pulped fish. It’s another ratings smash, and an ancestor to shows like Man Vs Food, the bush tucker trials of I’m a Celebrity and countless other hours of satellite programming.
The low-drive audience of The Hungry Angry Show are seen in unflattering reverse shots as they watch these offerings: chewing, sniggering and, most of all, occupied. As one of the observing high-drives remarks: “They say ‘Not happen to me’, so they laugh.” To them, The Hungry Angry Show contains the crucial “fruit skin” factor – the shared relief an audience feels watching someone else slide on banana peel and embarrass themselves. Today, this is a staple of talent show audition rounds.
Event 3: Rise of the Gizmos
There weren’t many 1960s sci-fi stories that didn’t imagine fantastic leaps in technology. After all, the decade had already seen the first human in space, the first kidney transplant and the first pocket calculator.
But few writers took Kneale’s stance of assuming that accelerating technology would lead not to advances in medicine or science, but primarily to a bigger novelties catalogue. The high-drives of his world all communicate via bejewelled wrist transceivers; in a bar scene, we glimpse inflatable furniture and automated chessboards whose pieces are moved by a stylus. Even recreational drugs have been accurately upgraded: ‘brighteners’, the amphetamine lollipops as favoured by the high-drives, could be considered a precursor to today’s mixed berry energy shots.
Perhaps the most significant gizmo isn’t as harmless as it seems: the monitors via which our protagonists in Output are able to study their low-drive audience. The way they adjust their transmissions in line with viewers’ facial reactions feels eerily like black box car insurance. After a hard day mining their audience’s data, observers then unwind by either sharing their meme-like ‘dancing pictures’ or by enjoying state-of-the-art sex toys, such as the tinsel ‘Tickler’. It may resemble a silver mop connected to a hand drill, but it’s no more ludicrous than a battery-powered rabbit.
Event 4: “Jumbo Good!”
Like Orwellian newspeak and the nadsat slang of A Clockwork Orange, the future conversations of the Sex Olympics have been stripped to their bones – presumably as talk is unnecessary when you’re watching porn around the clock. There’s a part emoji, part caveman-like quality to Kneale’s dialogue in the play: names are reduced to syllables (‘Dea’, ‘Grels’, ‘Kin’, ‘Ket’), while syntax is locked in the present tense (“What she sick with? I come down”). When Nat sees his first non-airbrushed image in years – a grotesque painting – he’s left scrambling for adjectives. “Still not feel I got the right words!” he confesses to the bemused Coordinator.
Even more on-target are the predictions in fashion and conversational accents. Two male characters sport prototype man buns; Brian Cox displays an apparent flesh tunnel in one ear; the male hero goes to work in a sarong. And everyone employed in Output speaks in mid-Atlantic vowels, which gives us something far darker than your average dystopia: a dystopia in which everyone sounds like Lloyd Grossman.
Event 5: Perils of reality
When the Coordinator determines his audience’s strongest reaction comes through watching others fail, a volunteer high-drive family is relocated to a windblown island (actually Kneale’s adoptive homeland, the Isle of Man). Given a crofter’s cottage, a quantity of food and seed, an audio manual that will self-delete after a fortnight, they’re told that their every action will be broadcast. Titled ‘The Live Life Show’, it’s the first example of survival TV, and its format would go on to be aped by the likes of Castaway, Eden, Shipwrecked and Naked & Marooned. “Look at the floor,” exclaims the daughter, watching the hillside grass shiver in the wind. “Look at the screens”, she says on seeing her first window.
The Year of the Sex Olympics didn’t just light the flame for reality TV: it also foresaw the schadenfreude that its participants would attract from viewers. The high-drive commissioners enjoy positive audience reactions as our pioneers collect water from a spring or gambol along a cliff edge. But soon, they want shocks. It’s not enough for the production team to engineer a compound fracture for the daughter. It’s not enough for her to succumb to fever without medicine, and for her parents to undergo the first-time emotional turmoil. More violent elements need to be introduced to keep the audience away from their dials…
Kneale’s play shows us in unsparing detail what voyeurism can reduce us to, and how agreeing to give up anonymity for fame is a shortcut to becoming a plaything. Like Black Mirror, it fixes the future in its sights; history has shown us that it hit a solid bullseye.
Perhaps its most unnerving quality is how mainstream its darkest moments feel today. As we’re shown merciless close-ups of one of the most haunting male breakdowns ever captured on screen, our glazed audience applaud, and an announcer cheerfully signs off with “Soon be more for you!”
Boy, were they right.
Originally published: 14 April 2020