The scriptwriter Nigel Kneale has a Yahoo group dedicated to discussion of his life and work, and like all Yahoo groups these days, it’s mostly fallen into disuse. In recent weeks, though, it’s spluttered back into life – but only because it’s been breached by fake accounts. Members have received a number of dodgy messages offering, for instance, the chance to ‘watch real people having sex online’. There’s a spambot lurking somewhere with no idea whatsoever of the colossal, unintentional sense of irony.
Technically, Kneale was actually a Northerner, just about. His parents were both Manx, but he was born in Barrow-in-Furness in April 1922 as his journalist father was working for the Barrow News and Mail at the time. When the boy was only five, Kneale Snr found a job on a newspaper back on the Isle of Man and so the family upped sticks to Douglas. It was there that Kneale attended school, before toying with a career in law. Eventually, he jacked that in to move to London to train at RADA as an actor. When acting jobs proved elusive, he began to pursue yet another interest, namely writing. In the early 50s, when he started to write TV scripts, Kneale finally hit the jackpot. He was responsible for a string of successes, not least the epochal Quatermass serials, and became one of the first big name writers in British television.
After growing dissatisfied with the BBC, Kneale spent most of the early 60s staying away from TV work. Instead, he wrote a small stack of scripts for the British film industry, but, as is the way with these things, very few of them went into production. The vast majority were adaptations of other people’s novels. It was a lucrative period, then, but it couldn’t have been very creatively satisfying. Not long before, he’d been used to writing TV scripts which were made and broadcast to the millions in short order.
In 1968, Kneale was asked to write something new for the Beeb. At first he turned the offer down, but once the BBC‘s then director general, Hugh Carleton Greene, offered him an olive branch, Kneale decided to accept the commission. The end result was the remarkable TV play The Year of the Sex Olympics, which receives a rare screening this Friday at HOME in Manchester as part of the impressive line-up for this year’s Pilot Light TV Festival, complete with an introduction by Kneale’s biographer (which, in the interests of full disclosure, is your present writer).
It’s an extraordinary piece in which the power of television is key to a dystopian vision of the future. It’s set in a world where graphic sex is broadcast around the clock by way of keeping the nation subdued – and quelling their sex drive, as a nifty means of population control (thanks again, spambots). Quite by accident, the broadcasters discover that viewers have an untapped appetite for other kinds of shows: simple, unadorned life and death. In response, a new programme called The Live Life Show is launched, and proves to be a massive hit. The concept is simple: a small family is shown eking out a day-to-day existence on a remote Scottish island. Unbeknown to them, though, the producers have thrown in a ‘wild card’ element – a killer is at loose on the island with them.
The play boasts a terrific cast – you’ll never see Brian Cox and Leonard Rossiter share screen time elsewhere – and was directed by another figure with a strong Northern connection, Michael Elliott. Originally from London, Elliott collaborated with Kneale several times, but he found greatest acclaim as a theatre director. Around the time of The Year of the Sex Olympics, he was setting up the Manchester-based theatre company which would eventually establish the Royal Exchange. In fact, one of Elliott’s Royal Exchange cohorts, Braham Murray, can be spotted in Sex Olympics as an extra engaged in an enthusiastic food fight.
Elliott died in 1984, at the age of just 53. He left a mighty legacy, though. In professional terms, the Royal Exchange has flourished into one of the liveliest theatre companies in the UK. In personal terms, his daughter Marianne, who spent much of her youth growing up in Stockport, has followed in his footsteps to become a pre-eminent theatre director, with major credits including the original stage productions of War Horse (in collaboration with Tom Morris) and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.
Nigel Kneale himself died in 2006, having reached the age of 84. He’d witnessed the rise of the phenomenon of reality TV as spearheaded by Big Brother. Needless to say, he wasn’t impressed. His legacy isn’t hard to detect, either. His son Matthew Kneale is a much-celebrated novelist while his wife Judith Kerr, creator of children’s classics Mog the Forgetful Cat and The Tiger Who Came to Tea, has been embraced as a full-on national treasure.
At present, there’s the distinct possibility that that Kneale’s most famous work, Quatermass, could be revived for television. A brand new script has been written by The League of Gentlemen‘s Jeremy Dyson, for a potential series to be co-produced by Hammer Films and Manchester’s own Red Productions. If it should get the go-ahead, it’s likely that you’ll be hearing Nigel Kneale’s name bandied about a great deal more. Catch this screening The Year of the Sex Olympics and you’ll be ahead of the game in appreciating exactly what all the fuss is about.
The Year of the Sex Olympics screens at 6.10pm on May 5, 2017 at HOME as part of the Pilot Light TV Festival. Book tickets here: homemcr.org/film/year-sex-olympics
Other screenings in this year’s Pilot Light line-up include the first episode of the much-anticipated TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, Emmy-winning comedy drama Sugar Rush and special anniversary celebrations of Mad Men and Chris Morris’ Brass Eye. Full details here: www.pilotlightfestival.co.uk
A new, updated edition of Into the Unknown, Andy Murray’s biography of Nigel Kneale, is due to be published by Headpress in July.