The Wednesday Play: The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968)

Nigel Kneale predicts the present

The Year of the Sex Olympics

When BBC2 launched in 1964, it was the first British TV station to broadcast 625 lines of picture, rather than the standard 405 lines of BBC1 and ITV. Yes, BBC2 was the BBC HD of its day – take that, US TV, with your 525 lines of NTSC (Never Twice the Same Colour) goodness.

To show off its technological superiority, one of the first regular programmes on the station was Theatre 625, a 90-minute play slot that ran from 1964 to 1968, giving us 114 separate plays (the last year’s worth in colour, since BBC2 was also the first European channel to broadcast in colour), most of which, in typical BBC fashion, have been wiped.

Of the plays that were made, perhaps the most famous are John Hopkins’ four-part Rashomon-esque Talking To A Stranger, which starred Judi Dench and told the same story from four different viewpoints – it was voted the 78th Greatest British Television Programme by industry experts and was reviewed at the time as “the first authentic masterpiece written directly for television”.

Also of note was a remake of blog god Nigel Kneale’s 1954 adaptation of 1984 and the strand’s penultimate play, also by Kneale (who now has his own category on the blog, incidentally): the highly prophetic and highly appropriate for this month of all months, The Year of The Sex Olympics, which is today’s Wednesday Play. Follow me after the jump to find out more.

The Year of the Sex Olympics

Starring Leonard Rossiter, Tony Vogel, Suzanne Neve and Brian Cox, the play depicts a dystopia of the future where a small elite control the media, keeping the rest of the population docile by giving them rubbish TV and porn to keep them happy.

Sound familiar yet? No? Then read on.

After a while, all that porn stops working on the population, who have become inured to it. People begin to protest their living conditions. But when a protestor is accidentally killed during the ‘Sex Olympics’, getting a huge audience response, TV commissioner Ugo Priest (Leonard Rossiter) decides to commission a replacement for non-stop porn: a new programme, ‘The Live Life Show’, which sees a family stranded on a remote Scottish island, going about everyday life.

Yes, reality TV has just been predicted.

Except, as we all know and Kneale also realised, regular reality TV is too boring and needs to be made more interesting, so a colleague of Rossiter’s (Cox) introduces a psychopath to the island…

Things to note in the play: Kneale, following on from Orwell, assumed that the people of the future would have a reduced vocabulary. But rather than this being a deliberate act through the creation of a Newspeak, this would be because of television’s reliance on the visual and because of the influence of advertising slogans. As a result, everyone talks as though they’re in A Clockwork Orange.

Unfortunately, although the play was shot in colour, that version was wiped and it wasn’t until the 1980s that a black and white telerecording was discovered, which is the version you’re going to see now. As always, if you like it, buy it on DVD.

Oh, and in case you hadn’t realised from the title of the play, the video is Not Safe For Work.


  • I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.