August 5, 2012

Nigel Kneale: The Oracle of British Television

Now Playing: The Year of the Sex Olympics (BBC2 Theatre 625 series, 1968)

Pros: A 40+ year-old teleplay that is as relevant now as it was when it was aired; Clever construction of a future world on a TV movie budget
Con: Only surviving print of this color TV movie is black and white

I know what you're thinking-- he's so desperate for attention and readers that he's taken to writing about pornography! Well, you're WRONG!! With the summer Olympics being held in London this year, I thought I'd capitalize on all the hype to showcase a son of Britain who set some records of his own in the great "sport" of television and entertainment. If they gave out gold medals to TV writers, he would have amassed quite a collection in his distinguished career. (Of course, it doesn't hurt that one of Nigel Kneale's more interesting and prophetic teleplays has both 'sex' and 'Olympics' in the title. Anyway, read on, it's not what you think…)

Speaking of the Olympics, I have a confession to make. I'm just not into them any more. They're boring and irritating. They're the epitome of wretched excess. Every four years, the host city uses troops and police to sweep the area clean of "undesirables." Money that could and should be used for health, education and basic infrastructure is used to construct elaborate stadiums and and other athletic venues, many of which are left to rot after the circus moves on. A huge chunk of change is spent on the opening and closing ceremonies alone, with each host and set of sponsors desperately trying to upstage the last. The results look like someone gave a group of demented, spoiled 12-year-olds a billion dollars to spend on the biggest, craziest, "awesomest" spectacle their little brains could come up with. The games themselves have expanded to the point of absurdity, and the inclusion of professional athletes has greatly diminished whatever noble luster the Olympics may once have had. The U.S. basketball "dream" team's recent massacre of Nigeria was an embarrassment and an insult to the very idea of "competitive athletics."  The final nail in the coffin as far as my interest goes is the stench of corruption and money that follows the thing around year after year. From the International Olympic Committee scandals to the frequent revelations of cheating and doping on the part of athletes (not to mention revelations of their sex lives… from their mothers!!), I've seen way too much of how this particular "sausage" gets made, and I've lost my appetite for it.

Still from The Year of the Sex Olympics - The Sample Audience
The sample audience seems to like what they're seeing.
Speaking of appetites, Nigel Kneale's The Year of the Sex Olympics features a dystopian future where normal human appetites for sex and food are considered problematic by elites who want to control population in a world of dwindling resources. The world is divided into a tiny minority of "high drive" people, selected via genetic screening to run things and to breed more high-drivers, and everyone else... aka, the low drive proles who need to be kept placid and dull and content with their meager lives. In this Brave New World, the drug of choice is television. The masses are fed a steady TV diet of mind numbing, repetitive sex and food fights, the better to suppress their appetites for both. The first commandment of this society is to "Watch, not do." The masses are to live their lives vicariously through the images on their TV screens. Not only has war been banished, but any form of tension is considered bad -- sit back, relax, and let the high-drives do the driving (of society) for you.

But the high-drive life is not a bed of roses, as Nat Mender (Tony Vogel) finds out over the 103 minute running time of the teleplay. Nat is the producer of the highest rated show in the land, "Sportsex." Although the show is auditioning couples on the air to compete in the Sex Olympics, the sample audiences (who are monitored 24/7 by video) are not responding well. The pressure is on to keep them glued to their TVs and satiated. But Nat himself is feeling restless and unsatisfied. He has a 9 year-old daughter with another network employee, Deanie (Suzanne Neve), but hasn't seen her since birth (children are raised by the state, not their parents). He gets a pep talk from the network co-ordinator (Leonard Rossiter) about how important he and his job are, how vital it is to serve up vicarious, televised experience to the masses -- "apathy control" -- to keep them docile and content: "Cool the audience, cool the world."

Nat's disgruntlement takes a new turn when Deanie introduces him to her friend and fellow employee Kin Hodder (Martin Potter), who designs and hangs drapes on the set of "Artsex." Kin is seriously depressed. He sees no use in what he does. He wants to be a real artist, one who makes pictures that "stay" (drawings, paintings), not the abstract, animated graphics that are supposed to calm audiences between show segments. Nat agrees to look at Kin's pictures. (See the clip below.)

Kin's pictures are nightmarish collection of distorted, agonized faces. Deanie is disturbed by the pictures ("They make me shudder!"), but Nat can't take his eyes off them. In spite of himself, Nat tries to help the deeply disturbed Kin show his pictures on the air. When Kin tries to fend off network security to show his pictures on live TV, he falls from a scaffolding and is killed. At that point both Nat and the network producers have an epiphany. Nat finds his humanity, while the network finds a new ratings sensation. It seems the sample audiences responded very, very well to Kin's on-air tumble. Nat's associate, Lasar Opie (Brian Cox) marvels, "They can take tension… they want tension!"

On location of the "Live-Life Show"
Nat Mender and family realize that "Live-Life"
is nothing like a studio.
When the network realizes that showing people at risk will keep the masses glued to their TVs, they develop a new series, the "Live-Life Show," wherein a family is plopped down in the middle of a desolate, deserted island to fend for themselves with only the basics: shelter, fire, a few warm clothes, and a limited supply of food. If they run out of food and can't find any more, they starve. If they get sick and can't heal themselves, they die. No outsiders, or the network, will come to their aid. Nat jumps at the chance to reconnect with himself and his family, and talks Deanie into taking their daughter to the island to be the first "Live-Life" family. We come to realize just how sheltered their civilization is when, on their first day on the island, Nat and Deanie marvel at how the air flows around their bodies (they apparently have no word for wind!) As they marvel at little things like matches, and bigger things like sheep (they've never seen one), the network is plotting to boost ratings by introducing another person to the supposedly deserted island… a person who will soon uproot their lives in dramatic fashion…

The Year of the Sex Olympics packs a lot of ideas, and some dead-on prophecy, into a relatively modest television production. It's full of little touches that make this fictional world seem both familiar and surreal: the characters speak in a clipped, abbreviated dialect, as if even speaking was too taxing for the inhabitants of a post-literate world; when not speaking, the characters are sucking on energy "popsicles" (something like 5-hour energy shots in our own world); while waiting for Deanie, Kin tries to kill time by watching an "Auto-Chess" game play against itself (only machines play chess, since humans are too distracted); the network performers, with their gaudy body jewelry and face paint, would fit right in at any upscale urban night club in 2012. And of course, the "Live-Life Show" has a lot in common with Survivor and its ilk (although I don't think anyone's died on Survivor yet, as much as today's audiences might be rooting for such an outcome).

Year's titles start with a very simple declaration: "sooner than you think…" which then dissolves into the Olympic rings made of male and female symbols. Also notable is that writer Nigel Kneale is given top billing ("By Nigel Kneale"). By this time, Kneale was a rock star of British television and entertainment, having created the monstrously popular Quatermass series and contributed screenplays to such films as Damn the Defiant! (1962), First Men in the Moon (1964), and Hammer's The Witches (1966) and 1967's Five Million Years to Earth (based on his 1958-59 Quatermass and the Pit TV series; see also my post on another Kneale-scripted Hammer production, The Abominable Snowman, 1957). According to Kneale biographer Andy Murray, the teleplay almost didn't get made:
"The first hurdle was the formidable Mary Whitehouse, president of the National Viewers and Listeners Association, and the self-appointed watchdog of morality on British television. 'She somehow got hold of the script,' Kneale remembers. 'There was always some little spy ready to slip her things. I don't think she'd read anything but the title and said 'this must not be put on! I will have the producer sacked!' She went after the producer, Ronald Tavers, who was a nice, rather quiet, self-effacing man, and she did her damnedest to get him booted out of his job. However, she was overruled."  (Into the Unknown: The Fantastic Life of Nigel Kneale, Headpress, 2006)
Producer Lasar Opie (Brian Cox) watches his own program, the "Live-Life Show"
Producer Lasar Opie (Brian Cox) can't take his eyes
off his own creation, the "Live-Life Show."
"Censorship" of another form ultimately did strike the production. The original color recording was wiped by the BBC as a money-saving move. With no sense that these teleplays should be preserved for future generations, standard practice at the time was to re-use the tapes. At any rate, a decent black and white copy on 16mm eventually surfaced. According to one reviewer, a lot was lost:
"[A]ccording to Nancy Banks-Smith's review, viewers today aren't really seeing it. It lacks the colour designs which were, ironically, an integral part of the effect. The world of the play is intentionally garish and strident, a barrage of reds, greens -- and even gold face make-up. The existing monochrome versions present a grey world, which rather spoils the effect." (Ibid.)
Even without color, Year is worth seeing for Kneale's unique, prophetic vision and some top-notch acting (including Brian Cox in an early role). You can get a DVD-R copy from Sinister Cinema.

Disgruntled network employee Kin Hodder (Martin Potter) wants to be a real artist, and tries to enlist the aid of Nat Mender (Tony Vogel) to show his work on the air:

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