Tensions have been running high, here in the teepee*. During her time off, Consuela (my Tejana maid) likes to chill in front of the TV. Her favourite shows are Big Brother, Celebrity Big Brother, and I’m A Celebrity – Get Me Out Of Here.
“For heaven’s sake, Madam!” she yelled, yesterday evening, from her hammock in front of the wall-mounted, HD screen. “Please stop singing that infernal, repetitious nonsense!”
I’m used to her yelling at me – for a maid, she is incredibly disrespectful. The ‘nonsense’ in question was a jingle from a TV drama, made almost half a century ago. I was singing these words:
“THIS IS THE YEAR OF THE SEX OLYMPICS – SEX OLYMPICS YEAR!”
Let me explain.
I must have been eleven years old, no more than that, when a low-budget, futuristic drama came on TV. Notwithstanding the title, The Year of the Sex Olympics, my parents let me watch it. Looking at it now, with its black-and-white images, its cardboard and plastic sets, and its prosaic visions of what future technology would look like, it seems to creak a little, but it was a very powerful drama nonetheless.
It had deliberate echoes of George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and possibly Logan’s Run by William F Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, and indeed the writer was Nigel Kneale, who had previously adapted 1984 for BBC Television.
In a near-future time the population of the world is divided into the minority Hi-Drive class, who control the media, and the Lo-Drives, who consume passively. Television is used as a means of population- and behaviour control, using the principal ‘Watch, not do’. The Hi-Drives, for all their supposed superiority, have a limited, trans-Atlantic vocabulary, and have little concept of anything outside their experience.
‘Sportsex’ broadcasts are handled by a production team consisting of Nat Mender, Lasar Opie, and Misch. Nat Mender has a slight dissident streak, and questions whether television should in fact be used to educate the Lo-Drives rather than pacify them. Lasar Opie is cynical, manipulative, and totally dedicated to Hi-Drive ideals. Misch is the cutesy on-screen announcer for ‘Sportsex’. Nat and Misch are currently an item, but previously Nat had been involved with a woman called Deanie Webb, with whom they had a daughter, Keten. Keten is now nine years old.
Nat’s production team is trying to boost its flagging ratings, in order to gain the favour of Ugo Priest, the TV Coordinator. Priest is old enough to remember the days before ‘Watch, not do’, the days of overpopulation and wars. He thinks that laughter would be the best way to improve the ratings, so Nat, Lasar, and Misch try to inject humour into their show; meanwhile Deanie’s team stages an out-and-out slapstick show with custard pies. Nothing seems to work.
Deanie’s current boyfriend, Kin Hodder, is a troubled individual. He is a dissident, and can see that the whole system, whether Hi- or Lo-Drive, has eradicated the complexity of the human experience. He produces ‘pictures’ out of waste material – the concept of ‘pictures’ that don’t move is alien to the others, as is the concept of pictures that ‘hurt’ – which he shows to Nat and Misch in secret. The pictures are of tortured human faces, frozen in screams. They horrify yet fascinate Nat, and disgust Misch, and in a panic Kin Hodder goes on the run.
Later, Kin invades the set of ‘Sportsex’ and displays his ‘pictures’ to the cameras. In the control room, Nat and Lasar fight over the controls. Lasar wants to take the cameras off Kin Hodder, while Nat keeps him in shot. When the police close in on Kin Hodder, he falls from the scaffolding to lie dead in a pool of blood on the studio floor. Nat keeps the cameras on him, and via the feedback screens they see and hear the Lo-Drives laughing. They realise a truth about humour, which is that people laugh “because it hasn’t happened to them”!
Meanwhile, Nat has heard from Deanie that Keten has been designated Lo-Drive, and will spend the rest of her life sitting passively in front of a screen. When the team decides to develop an idea of Lasar Opie’s, inspired by the audience’s laughter at Kin Hodder’s death, to televise the round-the-clock life of a group of people living outside the protection of privileged Hi-Drive society, both Deanie and Nat volunteer to go, taking Keten with them.
The three of them, grouped together in the unfamiliar, old-time concept of a ‘family’ are exiled to a remote island, provided with only basic tools and instructions, and given an old, one-roomed, stone cottage to live in. They have to cope with cold and hunger, and with the discomfort of not having everything provided for them. It is not easy, and at one point Nat becomes so frustrated that he destroys the television cameras in the cottage, not realising that Lasar Opie has had at least one set of back-up cameras installed.
Keten falls and injures herself, and becomes sick with a fever. Nat and Deanie suddenly realise they are not alone on the island. There is a wild-haired, sheepskin-clad man called Grels, and his woman, Betty. Back at the Hi-Drive studio, Lasar Opie tells Ugo Priest he knew about Grels already, but had kept it secret from everyone. Grels had been exiled on the island years before because he was considered a dangerous psychopath. At first Grels helps the family with practical things, and tells Keten stories. But after a while, when Deanie and Keten have been terrified by something or someone lurking outside their cottage, Nat realises they are in danger. Grels appears outside their door, Betty has gone, and Nat and Deanie now suspect that she had been the lurker. She had been waiting for an opportunity to warn them about Grels, but Grels had now killed her. Nat bars him from their home and tells him not to come back.
Keten succumbs to her fever and dies. Nat and Deanie bury her on the hillside above the cottage. Hearing little stones dislodged somewhere near, they fear that Grels is about. Deanie runs back into the cottage, the door slams shut, and we hear her screaming. Grels is inside! Nat breaks down the door with his axe, but it is too late. Deanie is dead, and now Nat hacks at Grels with the axe, killing him in a frenzy. Finally, with Deanie’s body in his arms, Nat howls with grief.
Back at the studio, Hi-Drives congratulate the gloating Lasar Opie, while feedback monitors show Lo-Drives glued to their TVs, laughing uproariously – it hasn’t happened to them! Only Ugo Priest stares at the scene in the cottage, aghast at what they have created.
As the end credits roll, the ‘Sportsex’ jingle sounds continually – “THIS IS THE YEAR OF THE SEX OLYMPICS – SEX OLYMPICS YEAR!” Over and over we hear it, until the penny drops – we have been suckered in, we have sat passively watching TV, thankful that it hadn’t happened to us! But oh yes it had!
Nigel Kneale’s drama predicted the phenomenon of ‘Reality TV’ decades before it happened, and that was why I was taunting Consuela with the jingle. It wouldn’t have been worth my while explaining it to her. I think there’s a law in Texas forbidding the use of irony under any circumstances.
*Just to explain – yes – it is a buffalo-hide teepee, it is on the slopes of the Sidlaw Hills, and yes it has all of the internal space of a mansion by dint of time-and-relative-dimensions-in-space technology. Now go away.