Although Nigel Kneale is best remembered for penning the ground-breaking science fiction series Quatermass, he enjoyed a long and diverse career that produced a number of successful and provocative pieces of writing for both film and television. Despite working as effectively outside genre fiction, there is no doubt that Kneale’s most lasting legacy is within the field of science fiction, influencing directors like John Carpenter and shows like The X-Files. In developing his science fiction stories, Kneale displayed an uncanny knack in predicting many ideas and issues that played out in reality over the subsequent years and this ability is nowhere more apparent than in his 1968 television play The Year of the Sex Olympics. Kneale’s playful but ultimately downbeat satire on the future of television stands out as one of the most provocative and prescient works of fiction dealing with the negative effects of mass media on wider culture and society and seems as relevant today as when it was first broadcast.
The play was written during a particularly difficult time for Nigel Kneale as the souring of the relationship between the writer and the BBC reached a toxic and eventually terminal stage. Kneale was increasingly dissatisfied with the treatment of his work on the corporation (such as the updated version of his script for Nineteen Eighty-Four broadcast in 1965) and harbouring a long-held resentment over the BBC’s sale of the rights for his Quatermass series to Hammer Films. Given the success of Quatermass both in its film and TV versions (the latter particularly important in giving the BBC its first original serial with mass appeal) it does seem somewhat dismissive that Kneale was granted a mere £80 bonus for his work on the series. The writer has described this latter period of working for the BBC as ‘a bad and bitter time’, so much so that when he was originally asked to contribute a script to BBC2’s Theatre 625 strand, he declined the offer. It was only after the intervention of the BBC controller general, Hugh Carlton Greene, who managed to arrange a one-off payment of £3000 pounds for Kneale in recognition of his work on Quatermass that the writer was persuaded to write for Theatre 625. Ultimately this arrangement was not enough to repair the relationship between the writer and the corporation, with Kneale going over to ‘the other side’ (ITV) a few years later.
It is somewhat fitting, given the nature of Kneale’s deteriorating relationship with the BBC that The Year of the Sex Olympics was to suffer the fate of many other landmark pieces of television by being wiped from the archive in order to save on the cost of tape stock. After the original broadcast in 1968, the play was repeated once two years later before being wiped and it was not until a black and white tele-recording was discovered in the 1980s that The Year of the Sex Olympics was able to reach a wider audience. Theatre 625 had originally been commissioned in 1964 to showcase the new high definition broadcast format pioneered on the corporation’s second channel BBC2 and by 1968 was a key part in the corporation’s promotion of the new ability to broadcast in colour. The futuristic set designs, psychedelic clothing and body paint featured in the production all served to showcase the possibilities of colour broadcasting, so much so that Nancy Banks-Smith’s review in The Sun newspaper claimed that “If you didn’t see it in colour, you didn’t really see it”.
The Year of the Sex Olympics is set in an unspecified future (one that is ‘sooner than you think…’ according to the opening credits) and charts the experiences of a small group of ‘high-drive’ producers who use television as ‘apathy control’ in order to keep the ‘low-drive’ masses calm and complacent. This idea of mass media as a means of controlling the population is one that has a long history within twentieth century writing and Kneale was undoubtedly influenced by authors like Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. One of Kneale’s early triumphs as a television writer was his adaptation of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954) and he also developed a script of Huxley’s Brave New World although this was sadly never produced. This strand of writing is often valorised for its predictive insight, Kneale always claimed that he had little interest in predictive fiction, instead preferring to write about his experiences of the present and extrapolating on contemporary trends and ideas.
The Year of the Sex Olympics develops two broad themes that Kneale found particularly fascinating and also dangerous at the time. The first was the trend towards what we might now call the ‘dumbing down’ of television as a media form. The drift towards increasingly sensationalist and ‘base’ elements of sex and violence that Kneale had witnessed first-hand as British TV moved towards an ever more commercialised model, combined with the writer’s growing dissatisfaction at the BBC, help lend a biting satirical edge to the drama. In Kneale’s vision, this shift towards lowest common denominator entertainment is taken to its ultimate conclusion in a world where pornography has become the commonplace staple of television scheduling. In this future world, pornography is not intended to excite or incite the viewer but to pacify them in order to enact the abiding principle of ‘watch not do’. This pacifying effect serves to keep the masses of ‘low-drive’ people calm and controlled as well as suppressing the potential of undesirable population growth. The focus on sex and pornography as a means of pacifying a population is drawn from another of the themes of Kneale’s work which characterised his work during the late 1960s and early 70s – his increasing concern over the growing permissiveness of youth culture. The breakdown of existing structures of morality and hierarchy that youth culture represented was something that Kneale saw as heralding an uncertain future, claiming that; “Inhibitions are like the bones in a creature. You pull all the bones out and you get a floppy jelly”. This unease formed the basis of much of Kneale’s writing at this time with a number of other plays like Bam! Pow! Zap (1969) and The Chopper (1971) as well as resurfacing in the final Quatermass (1979) series produced by Thames Television following his move to ITV.
It is in developing these themes emerging from Kneale’s contemporary experiences that the writer uncannily seems to predict a number of more recent developments and debates surrounding television. This ability to predict has led a number of critics (such as Kim Newman and Mark Gatiss) to suggest that above all other writers, Kneale was the one who at the end of his life could claim ‘I was right!’ and it is no accident that one of the most commonly used to words to describe The Year of the Sex Olympics is ‘prescient’. Although some of the futuristic detail – auto-chess machines and garish psychedelic clothing seem dated and somewhat comical (an established occupational hazard for those writing future fiction) – the themes that Kneale uses to develop the drama both anticipate and extrapolate on many contemporary issues. His development of ideas relating to the effects ‘dumbing down’ of television is not limited merely to the move towards more sexualised modes of entertainment but also astutely highlights the growing reliance on the focus group as a means of gauging notions of what a ‘successful’ programme might be. The producers in Kneale’s future world pay attention to two vital studio monitors; one depicting the non-stop pornography of programmes like Artsex and Sportsex, the other – labelled ‘Audience Sampler – showing a group of ‘low-drive’ viewers whose apathy and emotional responses are constantly monitored and analysed in order to make sure programming is having the necessary calming effect on the viewing public. The dialogue of the play is delivered as a honed down and jargon heavy patois, reflecting the degradation of the English language. The corrupting influence of advertising and media-speak has ensured that speech has become simplified; now devoid of any ‘oldstyle’ words that might evoke feelings of discontent or ‘tension’ in the mind of the public.
There is no doubt however, that it is the way that Kneale anticipates the invention of reality television midway through the drama – some thirty years before producers actually began making such programmes – that is most startling. When producer Nat Meander (Tony Vogel) pitches his idea for a new type of television programme based on ‘olddays’ reality it is hard not to be impressed with the almost fully rounded description of more contemporary shows like Big Brother and most notably the BBC’s Castaway. What makes Kneale’s writing and imagination even more incisive is that he immediately recognises the potential for the manipulation of events in such programming in a way that maximises the suffering and discomfort of the participants. The accidental death of a would be artist broadcast live on air produces cathartic laughter from the sample audience – in the words of co-ordinater Ugo Priest (Leonard Rossiter) ‘jumbo laughs from all over!” – and acts as a spur to cynically manipulate the subsequent narrative of The Live Life Show. The principle of ‘watch not do’ is extended to recognise the entertaining and purgative pleasure of watching the suffering of others – the producers realising that the depiction of ‘tension’ (in this case physical and spiritual suffering) can aid the process of apathy control. As ambitious producer Lasar Opie (Brian Cox) realises, the audience enjoy pain and suffering because ‘it not happen to them’. Armed with this chilling principle, Kneale develops the idea to develop an increasingly human drama, driving The Year of the Sex Olympics towards a bleak and horrifying conclusion. What starts as a somewhat stagey looking and curious piece of future fiction develops gradually into one of the most challenging pieces of landmark television which still has the power to chill our blood and raise pertinent questions about our media culture today. As the final credits roll viewers may find themselves haunted by the opening line that introduces the play, “sooner than you think”…