The Year of the Sex Olympics
Published in the Ottawa Citizen, May 6, 2006
The recently published Pornified: How Pornography is Transforming our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families adds to the growing list of commentary on the dangers of pornography but so far no commentator has taken this danger to the depths depicted in The Year of the Sex Olympics. Set in an all too (now) recognizable future, the 1968 BBC television drama described a society of ‘low drive’ masses pacified by nightly doses of televised pornography. When an accidental death during the sex Olympics awakens them from their satiated stupor, the die is cast. Real people in real life and death situations, The Live Life Show, would be the next hit.
The Year of the Sex Olympics revealed a society debased by lowest common denominator television programming and presciently anticipated today’s reality television. As a young University of Alberta graduate newly arrived on Britain’s shores, I arrogantly dismissed the popular media. After limited doses of Ed Sullivan, various family shows and assorted Canadiana, viewing The Year of the Sex Olympics in my London bedsitting room should have confirmed my worst fears. Instead it sent a chill down my spine and opened my eyes to the power of good television drama.
Today, that experience is but a lingering memory. Certainly there’s no shortage of good television drama exposing, as it does, the psychological and mythological angsts of our time. With boomers contemplating their mortality, it is no surprise, for instance, that corpses and their attentive medical examiners prove an endless source of fascination. But most is expertly rendered American, not Canadian, fare. And even though many of Canada’s greatest stories, historical and literary, remain unproduced for either television or film, a billion dollar industry, mostly government financed, is producing more heat than light.
According to Maclean’s veteran industry watcher, Brian Johnson, the English movie side has no audience and, “caught in a surreal maze of auteur dreams, bureaucratic nightmares and ritualized failure”, is in a severe crisis. Now Bev Oda, Canada Heritage’s new minister, is calling for yet another review of the CBC where recent program cancellations and a new appointment in arts and entertainment suggest CBC drama is in crisis as well.
In drama, the television and film industries are inextricably linked so the question is why bother with another review of the CBC? Any conclusions will likely reprise calls for an end to arbitrary cuts that keep it a state of uncertainty and, in any case, a comprehensive review of the mandates of the CBC, Telefilm and the National Film Board was delivered in 1996. Flawed only to the extent its recommendations didn’t go far enough (that old warhorse, the NFB, should be put out to pasture), its most important, principled recommendations - that the CBC be independently financed and its commercial advertising activities phased out - were ignored.
In 1968, the world heard the last gasp of an empire in decline even as the voices of a new generation rose in protest against reactionary forces everywhere. In Britain, the Beatles and Carnaby Street had peaked while the residual Commonwealth hordes of which I was a part settled in.
The British Broadcasting Corporation - still bearing the stamp of Lord Reith, its first General Manager - set the world standard for public broadcasting and for everything else, from journalistic impartiality and grammar to creating an educated electorate. Mostly, Reith insisted the BBC be free from political interference which was only possible with a revenue base separate from government and commercial interests.
Cutting edge drama offset the orderly worlds of Upstairs, Downstairs and the Forsyte Saga. Later, when the film industry died, Channel 4 became the new outlet for new programmers and filmmakers.
With a population of 55 million and deep literary and theatrical traditions, Britain had an exhaustible talent pool for its two public and one commercial television channels. Inevitably, some would rise to greatness. The strength of this and other British institutions would also help stabilize a time of major demographic and other shifts. Today, in Canada, with a population of 32 million still undergoing major shifts, we expect our multitudinous broadcasters, conglomerates, specialty programmers and a struggling film industry supported by a maze of agencies and programs to produce quality drama regularly.
This is dreaming in Technicolour. With the British model more relevant than ever to our needs, it is time to consolidate our resources in the CBC.
MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.