Theatre 625:The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968)

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Settle down folks! “An American View” hasn’t suddenly shifted into a smut site or anything, although I predict that this article title will bring lots of the WRONG sort of internet traffic here. No worries, I just decided to take another plunge into the fine world of public domain BBC TV stuff by Nigel Kneale (as found on YouTube)! This week, we’re taking a look at the audaciously named TV movie The Year of the Sex Olympics, part of an anthology show called Theatre 625. Theatre 625 had some big hits including a remake of Kneale’s 1954 teleplay of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four in 1965. The Year of the Sex Olympics is particularly notable because it basically predicts our current media culture and the advent of reality television.

With an opening card proclaiming “Sooner than you think” one can see that Nigel Kneale was really worried about the issues lampooned here. Kneale had to have seen the advent of lowest common denominator programming like so-called “reality TV”, but I can’t find any articles or interviews with him on the issue of a TV genre that he accidentally created all those years ago. His death, in 2006, did bring some comments from others about it, such as the following snippet of a Guardian interview by Mark Gatiss (The League of Gentlemen, Clone, Doctor Who, Sherlock): “When Big Brother began on Channel 4 in 2000, I took a principled stand against it. “Don’t they know what they’re doing?” I screamed at the TV. “It’s The Year of the Sex Olympics! Nigel Kneale was right!””

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Kneale was apparently influenced to create The Year of the Sex Olympics due to his own concerns about overpopulation, the counterculture of the 1960s, and the societal effects of television. To most, this comes as no surprise as Kneale can be seen as a “cranky old man” that saw anything youth-related as evil in some way. To put this on perspective, Kneale was the very same man that cast “hippies” as the antagonists of his fourth Quatermass serial (something I will review soon) and routinely made it seem like anyone under the age of forty was in some way morally deficient in his writings.

This isn’t a bad thing by any means, just a sign of the times. Britain was in turmoil during this time, and many of the “Greatest Generation” (using an American term) had no idea why “Baby-Boomers” were always so pissed off. I’m part of “Generation Y”, and routinely get irritated with my parent’s generation and how they treat us, and reading up on stuff like this makes me see that they had it the very same way.

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The Year of the Sex Olympics depicts a world of the future where a small elite class (people called Hi-Drives) control the media and government. In order to keep power, these Hi-Drives keep the lower classes (Low-Drives) docile by broadcasting a constant stream of “entertainment” designed specifically to remove any ambition to act and to relieve all stress. Essentially, the Hi-Drives pull this off by concentrating on constant and total immersion into a world of reality TV. This includes mind-numbing programs including one baffling example involving rotund men with no shirts on hurling whipped cream at each-other, and various themed “sex shows” that masquerade as sports and arts, but are really just pornography.

One Hi-Drive, Nat Mender (Tony Vogel), believes that the media should be used to educate the low-drives, and not simply allow them to rot away. He has become disillusioned by his peers and society itself due to social norms forbidding him from having any real connection to his lover Deanie (Suzanne Neve) or his own daughter, Keten (Lesley Roach). For a while, Nat’s “boss”, Co-Ordinator Ugo Priest (Leonard Rossiter), tries a lot of different things to illicit new responses from his audience, one of which being old-fashioned slapstick comedy. Anything seen as traditional or old-fashioned is generally frowned upon by this society, so this doesn’t go over well. After the accidental death of a renegade artist gets a massive audience response of laughter due to it being broadcast live on-air, Ugo Priest decides to commission a new style of entertainment: reality television.

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The flagship show in this initiative is called “The Live Life Show”, and stars Nat’s family. They have been stranded on a remote Scottish island while the low-drive audience watches. This is pretty monotonous and boring until “reality” gets “spiced up” by Lasar Opie (Brian Cox), Nat’s former co-worker and one of the big-wigs that runs a lot of the TV production. The producers introduce a psychopath named Grels (George Murcell) to the island, and lets him loose on a murderous rampage.

Some of the Hi-Drives such as one named Misch are incredibly annoying, showing how awful their society is in the grand scheme of things. This isn’t annoying in the “this actor sucks” sort of way, but the “man, these characters are horrible people” sort of way. Their language has degenerated into a juvenile mixture of jumbled sentences full of missing words and slang, and constant whining. Anything that isn’t in some way pleasurable gets an awful response usually involving a temper tantrum.

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Comparing these people to something modern is easy, as she reminds me of some of the inhabitants of “the Capital” in the Hunger Games series based on their complete separation from reality and vapid personalities. It’s like someone took the trashy, almost mindless essence of your modern “famous for being famous” “celeb-utant” like Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian and ramped it up to an insane degree.

A great example of their speech patterns happens to be one of the first scenes in the show itself, and has Misch utter the following, as she is the host of the most popular sex show, Sportsex:

“Here we go again, bubbies and coddies! Comfy and cosy are you all? Tonight, we got lots of real super-king talent for you all, so keep your eyes with us! Stay looking! First we got those two top lovers, Cara Little and Stewart Tenderleigh! Hello there, Stewart and Cara! Been on this show a jumbo lot of times. Winners of the Kama Sutra Prize last year. Now in training for the Sex Olympics.”

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One thing of note that could be both good or bad depending on how you look at it, is that this serial is in black and white. This is due to the color versions being lost like many TV programs of the time due to “junking”. One can see that everyone is wearing seizure-inducing colorful patterned clothes and heavy bodypaint in such high quantities that the whole thing would probably look laughably outdated and silly. I feel that this sort of ”masks” the garishness of the future clothes to the point where they aren’t so bad. On one hand the show is incomplete, on the other it seems more “important” this way, somehow.

One can watch The Year of the Sex Olympics and immediately feel bad, because an over-the-top fear that a man had in the sixties has basically come true. Most television watchers consume shows just like Live Life Show on a daily basis, with the same camera angles, boring dialog, and manufactured turmoil to “spice” the reality up a bit. It’s an almost eye-opening experience to watch this, and really shows you how far our culture has been diluted in some ways. I’m not going to go for the hyperbolic statement that we are the Hi-Drives and Low-Drives, but it’s pretty close. People speak in annoying short-hand “text speak”, dress like Lady Gaga, and gawk at the exploits of those more wealthy than ourselves. Just give it a few years and we’ll have shows about fat guys that throw whipped cream at each other.

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Out of the Unknown (1965) The Counterfeit Man

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(AKA series 1, episode 2)

For those unfamiliar with Out of the Unknown, here is a quick run-down transplanted from my last review: “Out of the Unknown is relatively unheard of outside of hardcore science fiction fandom due to the poor archival status of the show. It’s one of those shows that fell victim to the BBC’s “junking” policy for old footage. Of the original four seasons and nearly fifty episodes of the show produced, only around twenty exist today. What remains is pretty solid TV and consists of short stories adapted from existing work with a few exceptions made for the show.” Today we’ll be looking at the second episode – The Counterfeit Man.

Based on a short story by Alan Nourse, The Counterfeit Man stands as a totally different experience than the previous episode of Out of the Unknown that I looked at – No Place Like Earth. While that episode was sort of fantasy-ish, and felt somewhat “Victorian” in it’s understanding of science, The Counterfeit Man is as close to a “hard science fiction” story as one could reasonably assume for the time frame. While I’m not too familiar with the works of Alan Nourse, I can reasonably tell (by looking at Wikipedia) that his stories seem to be largely based on medical science, and visions of what medicine could become in the future. To me, this almost feels like something along the same lines of the Quatermass series, just replacing a rocket scientist with a doctor.

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The story of The Counterfeit Man follows a space physician named Dr. Crawford (Alexander Davion) who works as the medical officer of an exploratory spaceship in the distant future. After returning from one of Jupiter’s moons, Ganymede, Crawford determines the crew has been somehow infiltrated by a shape-shifting alien. He comes to this conclusion after a medical examination of a fellow astronaut named Westcott (David Hemmings) shows a medically impossible blood sugar level of zero and strange behavior. Crawford attempts to quarantine the presumed alien right there, but things are never that easy in science fiction stories are they? All Crawford has to do is force this invader to “out himself” before they get to Earth, so it can be disposed of.

One will notice that my description above is vaguely similar to the John Carpenter movie The Thing, and that’s immediately what struck me as well. I’m aware that the 1982 film is actually based on a short science fiction novella from the 1930’s, but I couldn’t help drawing the comparison.

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The Counterfeit Man excels in not looking too dated despite watching this nearly fifty years after the fact. Being a fan of older science fiction, I try to look at older productions in the context of age, but sometimes things just look terrible today no matter what. Somehow this episode hides this, and I bet one can chalk this up to the black and white medium “hiding” what were most likely garish colors and terrible sets. Luckily, the designs of everything from the costumes to the spaceships look fine, almost realistic.

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I’d say that the decent production values and tight script make watching this episode a worthwhile venture. I will say that it does “drag” a little bit in the middle, but it’s not a deal breaker by any means. Just like with the last episode, obtaining a copy of The Counterfeit Man or any episode of Out of the Unknown is basically impossible by legitimate means, but that’s where YouTube comes into play. I have included a link to the episode below,if you would like to watch this as well.

 

 

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Out of the Unknown (1965) No Place like Earth

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Anthology TV shows used to be fairly common, my personal favorite being a show called Tales from the Darkside (mostly due to its amazing theme song). While there aren’t many today, one can definitely see that the 1960’s were the golden age for these sorts of programs. In America, there were shows like The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone, and in the UK shows like Journey to The Unknown and the lesser known Out of the Unknown were big business during the UK science fiction golden age. Out of the Unknown is relatively unheard of outside of hardcore science fiction fandom due to the poor archival status of the show. It’s one of those shows that fell victim to the BBC’s “junking” policy for old footage. Of the original four seasons and nearly fifty episodes of the show produced, only around twenty exist today. What remains is pretty solid TV and consists of short stories adapted from existing work with a few exceptions made for the show. I actually heard about this show doing a Wikipedia search for John Wyndham (of Day of the Triffids fame) and found out that he had a story made into an episode. Which story? Well this one right here!

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No Place like Earth is a new take on the old Thomas Wolfe coined phrase “you can’t go home again”. Set fifteen years in an indeterminate future, a man named Bert Foster (Terence Morgan) wanders the canals of Mars thinking of simpler times he had on Earth. It seems Earth collapsed in a nuclear holocaust leaving all the survivors to find refuge on nearby planets. Bert is essentially homeless and travels around doing the work of a handyman to make ends meet. While trying to be the best hermit he can be, Bert draws attention from a Martian woman named Annike that is eyeing him for her daughter Zeyla. Before the story veers into sappy love story territory, a rocket from Venus shows up. The crew tells of a “New Earth” on Venus, and Bert jumps at the chance to regain his former glory. Bert’s heart breaks when he realizes Venus is nothing more than a slave colony with wealthy overlords preying on gullible fools like him. Looks like Mars wasn’t so bad was it Bert?

Some might look at No Place like Earth and think how silly the setting is. Wyndham painted a picture of a Mars that exists in pure fantasy; a planet full of crazy mountains and canals full of fresh water. I had to watch this on a popular video sharing website (since the episodes are nearly impossible to find otherwise) and noticed a bunch of unimaginative people mocking the “old notions of what Mars was like”. Those folks are missing the point, and are most likely the same people that crapped on John Carter, despite it being a really good summer movie. The original story for No Place like Earth was written in the spring of 1951, and by that time we definitely knew that there were no canals of rushing water on Mars. We knew there were not livable cities all over the place. Outside of the occasional ancient alien theorist espousing new theories on how Mars has a face on it, we had about the same level of Martian knowledge then that had when we started sending robots up there. To really enjoy this episode one has suspend disbelief just enough to see what story is trying to be conveyed rather than harping on how unscientific the whole thing is. And that’s the end of my rant for the day.

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No Place like Earth is definitely a low budget affair, and is only really saved on an artistic standpoint by being filmed in black and white. The costuming looks decent, if not a bit on the camp side; although I can imagine that everything was painted in garish colors. In this way, I feel a lack of said color is a blessing in disguise. Effect shots are very few and far between, and aside from a slew of decent matte paintings and other background special effects, the whole affair is essentially done as a stage play rather than something filmed especially for Television. One thing that could have been done a bit better was the acting in certain places. Since I can assume that most of the actors involved were stage actors, they seem to be massively overacting when in front of the camera. The way they wistfully look around, their body posture and the way they move all scream THEATRE! I can let this pass in older TV shows and films, because the medium was in its infancy, but I’ve seen much older shows with way more subdued acting.

Aside from those few quibbles, I enjoyed No Place like Earth quite a bit. I think it’s my love for older science fiction short stories from the era, but stories like this have a weird sense of wonder and adventure that is mostly absent from a lot of modern science fiction. If you like these sorts of shows and want to see stories from some fairly prominent science fiction writers of the time, I’d say check this show out.