This Is The Year Of the Sex Olympics, Sex Olympics Year!

A couple years ago, The BFI quietly reissued Nigel Kneale's televised sci-fi classic The Year Of the Sex Olympics on DVD.  I already had the old disc, so I just ignored it.  But earlier this year, I noticed a reference to a short film I didn't remember being a special feature on my disc.  I went back and looked, nope, not on mine, but looking at the listing for the reissue, and it's got a bunch of new extras.  I guess it didn't get much attention, because who's scrutinizing SD-only reissues in the 2020s?  You just assume any noteworthy re-release is going to be on blu, and any DVD getting pushed back out by itself is an arbitrary cover change or the rights shifting from one studio to another.  But the BFI had clearly turned genuine attention to this title again in 2020.  Was there a new restoration?  If so, why no HD?  Just how revamped was this disc?

Oh right, answering those questions is my job.
The opening title card warns us that this semi-dystopian (I mean, I don't think I'd mind living in it) future is going to befall us "sooner than you think......."  And indeed, one of the things this 1968 scifi tale is praised for is how prophetic it proved to be, completely predicting reality TV (Survivor in particular should've cut Kneale a check) and the mainstreaming of pornography.  Heck, Gen X'ers might watch this and wonder what's supposed to be so futuristic or far-flung about it.  Kneale himself has said that working for the BBC gave him an advantage in seeing what was around broadcast entertainment's next corner.  But there are more interesting ideas afoot than just the advent of new brands of trash TV.  Besides obvious allusions to Nineteen Eighty Four, there's a really unique notion of social classes being divided between "high" and "low-drive" people, as well as some serious themes on the disruptive powers of art.  It looks quaint, but it's still a compelling drama and electrified satire, today as much as ever.
And speaking of looking quaint, I have to address these DVDs being in black & white.  Why?  Because the movie was shot and originally aired in full color.  As the BFI's booklet helpfully explains, "the original colour tapes were erased and all that remains is a black and white 16mm telerecording."  So sadly, these grayscale copies are all we get, which is a shame, because apparently this was a very colorful depiction of the future, with wild costumes, and the lead actors are actually painted gold.   I had no idea the first time I watched this, though you do get the impression that they're all wearing a lot of make-up.  It's worth noting that one of the interviews in the BFI's recent release of Kneale's 1984 adaptation teases a potential color re-release, but if the tapes were erased, well, fingers crossed but I wouldn't hold my breath.  The new DVD is very possibly the final word on this film, so let's see what we've got.
2003 BFI DVD top; 2020 BFI DVD bottom.
When I first popped the new disc in I thought, oh wow, yeah, look at that.  They have done a whole new restoration.  Why was this still a DVD-only release?  But now digging in and comparing, I can see, okay, not really.  If it's not the same scan at the core, it's a very similar one with pretty much all the same faults.  Neither disc is interlaced.  The big difference is just that the contrast has been toned down so that the brights aren't flaring out, giving the picture a more natural, less garish look.  And that's a definite improvement, but that's more like something you could do on your own set rather than a full-blown restoration.  Not that it's the only difference.  The aspect ratio has shifted from 1.33:1 to 1.30:1.  The original DVD is very slightly windowboxed, while the new image goes right to the edges.  I don't know if they've actually rescanned the old tape masters or just remastered the old one, but they've clearly done some work.  This new framing is actually slightly tighter, not just on the sides but along all four edges.  The older image is also very slightly wider.  And there's less compression noise, now.  Whether that's new to a better encode (both discs are DVD-9s), an updated scan, or even a dash of DNR, one can't say.  But the result seems to be a cleaner, less arbitrarily noisy image without loss to any actual detail.

Both discs offer the original mono track in Dolby Digital, but the new disc has added optional English subtitles, which the old one was lacking.
The 2003 DVD already had some quality special features, primarily a great audio commentary by star Brian Cox.  Some actors take an interest only in their scenes, and that means in audio commentaries you can be left with a lot of awkward silences as they have nothing to say about scenes they weren't on set for.  Fortunately, that's not the case with Cox, who has a lot to contribute.  There's also a brief (roughly 5 minute) introduction by Kim Newman to situate viewers into the film's basic history and themes.  Besides that, there's just a brief commercial for other BFI DVDs, a 2-page insert and liner notes by Newman.
The new DVD keeps all of that, at least the important stuff.  They ditch the commercial and replace the insert with a much flusher, 26-page booklet with four original essays (though not Newman's).  More importantly, there's a vintage audio interview with Nigel Kneale, which plays like an audio commentary over the first hour and ten minutes of the film.  It's pretty good, though Kneale enthusiasts will have him say many of the same things in other interviews.  There's also a short, 1979 doco-comedy called Le Petomane about a real French performer who became famous for farting creatively on stage in the 1800s.  That's the film that tipped me off to this being a new edition of The Year Of the Sex Olympics.  And if you're wondering what the heck is that doing on this disc, it's because it stars Leonard Rossiter (The Witches, 2001), who plays one of the antagonists in Kneale's show.  Anyway, it's pretty amusing.  There's also a vintage news broadcast from 1972 celebrating the BBC's fiftieth year (no connection to Year apart from it being a BBC program) and a stills gallery of the film's exotic costumes and production notes.
The Year Of the Sex Olympics is still a great, little film, and I suppose I can see why, even in 2020, this is still a DVD only.  I hope potential fans won't let that ward them off from picking this one up.  But if you have the original DVD, do I recommend upgrading?  Yes, but it's not a strenuous recommendation.  It's improved, but this film doesn't, and presumably never will, really look that much better.  Subtitles and the booklet help up the quality, and the new extras are a nice touch.  But the important stuff is already on the first disc, and some of the new bits feel downright frivolous.  The new disc is unquestionably the superior release, and I'm glad BFI took another shot at this; but I can see why it didn't make big waves when it hit the market.

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