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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Quatermass 2 (1957) a.k.a. Enemy from Space

After the immense success of the first Hammer Films Iteration of the Quatermass saga, The Quatermass Xperiment, it was nearly two years before another film was produced in the series. Hammer attempted to get another one off the ground, but Nigel Kneale (who got no money for the first film) vetoed the idea immediately. Kneale felt that his creation had been abused the first time around, and wanted more control over what the BBC did with his material. Hammer went on with a film in 1956 anyway called X the Unknown. The movie, starring Dean Jagger as a new character essentially the same as Quatermass, did decently well, but failed to reach the critical and monetary heights of its predecessor. Hammer dropped the whole “X” related X certificate gloating in their marketing, and worked with Kneale himself to produce a new screenplay that would see Brian Donlevy back in the saddle for another adventure. Enter Quatermass 2 or Enemy from Space as it was called overseas.

The title card
The title card

The plot of Quatermass 2 is largely the same as the previous television version Quatermass II, with a few changes made for a shorter runtime, and a much larger special effects budget. I would say that this TV-to-movie remake is actually far closer to the original TV version than the first Quatermass film and more of a science fiction piece, as Quatermass Xperiment was definitely altered to be horror. Professor Quatermass is once again trying to improve the human race through his scientific endeavors, this time by trying to gather support for Moon exploration and eventual colonization. He is sidetracked early on by budget setbacks as well as the discovery of a curiously large amount of meteorites falling recently in the area, a fact that really piques his interest. He goes to an area where the impacts have been the most numerous only to find that there is a destroyed city and an ominous government facility (which looks similar to his planned moon colony) in its place inhabited by people with “V” shaped marks on their skin.

"and here is where I'll store my shoe collection"
“and here is where I’ll store my shoe collection”

I loved The Quatermass Xperiment with one quibble – Brian Donlevy wasn’t “cup of tea” when it came to potential actors playing Quatermass. He was a bit too harsh and unlikeable, a fact that led to me likening him to “[…] Hugh Laurie’s Doctor House M.D. fighting aliens […]”. My fears were tested in one of the very first scenes involving Quatermass and his “crew”; we see him throwing a suitcase down and belittling his associates like a bully. He insinuates that they are wasting his time, and they may lose their jobs. It was here that I feared the worst – not only was Donlevy back, but he was gruffer than ever. Then he softened, he apologized and explained the predicament they are in. From here on we have a “better” take on the character. Quatermass is still “no nonsense” as with the first film, but none of the borderline bipolar personality disorder is there. I think it may be up to Kneale’s writing here that Donlevy seems to be a bit more “level” as this script was essentially written with his TV character in mind, but whatever the reason – I’m happy.

"It's only a model"
“It’s only a model”

As I mentioned earlier on, Quatermass 2 is not as much of a horror film as its predecessor, though it does keep some of the horror trappings in place. Much like the mutating astronaut in the first film, there are many shocking scenes that really put the viewer on the proverbial “edge of their seat”. I think one of the most shocking moments has to be a scene towards the middle of the film involving Quatermass leading a group of “inspectors” through the government-run domed city that lay on the ashes of a small town. A member of parliament named Vincent Broadhead, as played by Tom Chatto, wanders off during the investigation as he realizes that they are being shown things that the dome dwellers want them to see. Upon attempting to gain access to one of the domes, he is covered with a thick black tar-like substance that ultimately kills him. His prolonged death, complete with a tumble down a series of stairs and ladders and accompanied by stinging 1950’s horror music, is pretty gruesome and holds up here with other similar death scenes of modern films.

"You don't look so good, you have a cold?"
“You don’t look so good, you have a cold?”

I commented that Hammer films was pretty good at making their science fiction and horror films look more realistic than other films of the time, and much of this can be chalked up to the production’s director and cinematographer being ahead of their time. The director, Val Guest, utilized many cinema verite’ (documentary style cinema) techniques such as hand-held cameras and location shooting in an oil refinery to great success. His cinematographer, Gerald Gibbs, picked great locations and framed shots worthy of far more expensive films. I’m not a huge fan of “day as night” scenes that populated these older films, but some of these are really well done. Others, as one might expect, looked like they film daytime through a pair of sunglasses rather than a convincing night shoot.

"this night time sun is so bright!"
“this night time sun is so bright!”

The main change in the plotline of this film against its source material happens at the end of the story. In the original TV serial, Quatermass and his assistant Pugh donned spacesuits and flew the Quatermass 2 rocket to an asteroid heading towards the earth. This final act was very silly and made the original piece fall apart in about every way. This has been replaced with the launch of the same rocket modified into a nuclear warhead in an unmanned state, and an escape from multiple 200 foot creatures. This finale resulted in something similar to a “kaiju film” from Japan – a man in a suit stomping over a model of a city. I actually preferred this ending, as it makes the alien threat a bit more…well… threatening.

"there goes the neighborhood!"
“there goes the neighborhood!”

Overall, I really enjoyed Quatermass 2. Unlike the first part, I can compare both the TV series and the movie to each other fairly well as the entire TV version survives. All of my problems with the first Quatermass film – mostly Brian Donlevy – have disappeared entirely in this production. I know that many regard Quatermass 2 inferior to the first in every way, but I disagree. Not only is it on a far larger scale, it has better acting, and more thrills. It will be quite a long time before another Quatermass film pops up, but if the hype is anything to gauge I’m in for a treat. Next up on “Quatermass Week” we have both versions of Quatermass and the Pit, a beloved favorite of many.

"One angry mob, at your service!"
“One angry mob, at your service!”

Quatermass II (1955)

Recently, one would have a hard time making it through the day without hearing about government corruption and conspiracies by officials on every news outlet, social media site, and from people you know. Whether it be the gun control debate in America or the media regulation debate in the U.K. it seems we live in a time with just as much paranoia and uncertainty as the 1950’s that Nigel Kneale was writing all these great science fiction stories in. Quatermass II comes directly from this mindset, as Kneale was dealing with these issues himself. Rather than using a blatant allegory for the cold war or the red scare, as many American productions were doing, Kneale went for an allegory on the overstepping of Bureaucracy in government, government cover-ups, and government secrecy. According to Wikipedia, a lot of this came from his own problems with having to sign a binding document called The Official Secrets Act, due to being a BBC employee, and longstanding paranoia with “secret” military bases in the media.

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“I didn’t mess my hair up, did I?”

The story in Quatermass II follows the titular character trying to figure out why a small town in the countryside was wiped off the earth to make way for a super-secret government facility. Not to mention that said facility looks suspiciously like a model of a moon base he has on his desk. Of course the story isn’t that simple, as the whole thing revolves around an alien invasion, a conspiracy to the uppermost seats of government, and a rag-tag group of scientists and civil servants trying to stop it.

"I'm not sure I understand contemporary art..."
“I’m not sure I understand contemporary art…”

By this time Bernard Quatermass is a bit more abrasive, even hardened from what he had to deal with years before. This is compounded by the failure of a nuclear rocket test he oversaw that killed hundreds, possibly wiping all his funding and putting him directly responsible for the disaster. I like to think Kneale changed the character on purpose to show character growth, but one could chalk this up to the fact that the character had to be recast right before production. This happened because Reginald Tate sadly died suddenly right before location shooting was to commence, and John Robinson was cast on very short notice. I actually really like Robinson in this role; he seems moody at times, but has a heroic tendency that makes him very likeable. You can tell that since he had to deal with an extra-terrestrial threat that could have eliminated life on Earth; he feels that he has special knowledge and duty to deal with these sorts of problems. A special nod should also go to the supporting cast, especially Hugh Griffith as Quatermass’s right hand man Dr. Leo Pugh. Pugh is a great addition to the cast simply because he seems to be everything that Quatermass isn’t. He’s likeable, has a welsh accent, and comes across as something of an absent minded mathematician.

Quatermass is a hipster: he was stealing storm trooper clothes before it was cool
Quatermass is a hipster: he was stealing storm trooper clothes before it was cool

Quatermass II is far more enjoyable for me than its predecessor for many reasons. First of all, the budget has been ramped up pretty drastically considering the production has quite a bit of location shooting inter-spliced with the live footage. This not only makes the plot move faster, as the cast isn’t confined to one or two rooms for an entire episode, but it gives the production less of a “stage play” vibe. The cinematography also seems to be stepped up a lot with a lot of artistic shots making this play look a lot more “epic” than it is. This means no more static ten minute scenes of two people talking by a prop; we might get a panning shot or two! One of the first shots of Quatermass happens right after a soldier states that “he knows a guy named Quatermass”, to which his fellow soldier asks “The rocket man?” seconds later, we are treated to a nice zoomed in shot of a person scanning the front of a rocket with some device wearing a clean suit and gas mask. He steps down, removes the mask, and reveals the hero of the play. Improvements aside, the main reason I really like this production is that it is ALL intact; in fact this is the oldest complete BBC science fiction production on record!

whoooooosh!
whoooooosh!

The only downside in these episodes is that the final act of the drama suffers from the same fate that many BBC science fiction productions would later be known for: a plot that is far too ambitious for its own good. When it seems the bleakest, Quatermass and Pugh decide to rig up the only remaining nuclear rocket and fly to the impending alien threat. This entire segment got away from the production crew a bit and comes off a lot sillier than it really should have been due to budgetary considerations and technical limitations. All in all the whole production is STILL really good, despite this.

I actually enjoyed Quatermass II more than the first serial and the first Hammer Films production. The plot was not only more ambitious, but was a feast for the eyes in comparison to part one. John Robinson is a great choice for Quatermass despite his quick casting, and I’m sad to see that this was the only serial he did under the umbrella – he was unavailable for future incarnations. All in all, I would almost recommend this serial to anyone wanting to get into the character over the other material I’ve seen, as it really captures the essence of everything, granted I’m watching these in order and Quatermass and the Pit might blow me away. Next up here on Quatermass Week, I’ll be taking a look at the Hammer Films version of this very drama. Will I like it as much? Check back to find out!!

"These space suits are a joke right?"
“These space suits are a joke right?”