In a recent episode of Love Island, there was a single striking question. It came impromptu, in a fit of frustration, from contestant Ellie, when discussing how her relationship with partner Charlie was being perceived, and her own character’s reputation for ‘outbursts’. The question was as simple as this: ‘Why is it being made into something it’s not?’ It was a moment of acknowledgement, awareness of the fact that their reality was being manipulated and constructed into an artificial narrative, which brought to mind a subject that would otherwise be completely at odds with Love Island – 1960s television.
Celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year, Nigel Kneale’s 1968 play The Year of the Sex Olympics is a Huxley-esque piece of speculative fiction. The play is set in a world in which ‘sex is to watch, not to do’, and aspirational and attractive ‘hi drive’ people are televised competing in ‘sportsex’ and ‘artsex’ to keep what they deem the ‘lo drive’ public apathetic. Television producers pine to figure out what makes the viewers tick, what gives them the most ratings, and how precisely to engineer those figures. At first, it seems to be to deprive people of any pain or ‘conflict’, to overdose them on pleasure to the point of numbness. But as the play goes on, the producers begin discovering that televising conflict and pain might bring them even more ratings. When a horrifying accident is broadcast by mistake, the producers finally hit on what makes the audience chuckle: pain, ‘when it isn’t happening to them’. Suddenly, conflict becomes the new M.O., and an escalation of programming soon leads to ‘The Live Life Show’ existing, where two disenchanted ‘hi drive’ citizens and their daughter volunteer to live on a remote, wild island free from the artifice of their world.
Love Island is a show which in many respects both affirms and in some ways, contradicts Kneale’s vision of the future. There are moments that are at odds with some of the play’s more cynical predictions, but also moments that show it to have been frighteningly prescient. The most obvious surface-level example is the divide between the ‘lo-drive’ and the ‘hi-drive’: the young, beautiful stars, and the average, beneath them, who simply watch them. Love Island’s whole image is constructed around the ideal of its exceptionally attractive cast, scouted from popular Instagram accounts and modelling agencies. This is a world where all the aesthetically unpleasing parts of life have been polished out, a utopian paradise where emotional turmoil is decorated in a spotless image. This parallels with a notable moment in Year of the Sex Olympics where a televison star discusses how repulsive she finds the elderly, with their blemishes and imperfections. Whilst not repulsion, it is curious to observe the way ‘older’ contestants like Laura have been treated both online and in the villa, with passes about their age in contrast to the others being a frequent mainstay, despite being only 29 years old. Producers have defended their choice of universally attractive contestants, citing them as ‘aspirational people’ rather than reflecting their reality, citing that audiences are aware of this divide. However, this raises questions about who is defining ‘aspirational people’, the unattainable ideal that the public look up towards. Though I doubt that it’s entirely the intention of producers, rather than a by-product of increased popularity, it does seem that the line between Love Island recruiting contestants based on being aspirational people – and Love Island defining what constitutes ‘aspirational people’ – has become increasingly blurred.
‘There seems to be the suggestion that the only reality that can function in these programmes is a ‘hyper-reality’ of extremes – our own lives pushed to the limit, our emotional hardships magnified for the screen’
This heightened reality is also formed through continuous editing and interference, presenting a highly artificial version of the world that the audience can immerse themselves in and be convinced is the real thing. Love Island is a land where the producers’ fingers are never far away. Whether it be the fact that it is edited from hours’ worth of material and condensed down to one single sixty minute slot, or the constant provocation of contestants through the ‘games’, the producers have the reigning power over the narratives of the show. An example occurred after a period of stasis and happiness amongst the islanders (barely covered, of course). A new task was arranged, in which the islanders were given tweets about them from the public, with their own names blacked out. The islanders then had to guess amongst each other which tweets were about who, many of them deliberately provocative, such as ‘____ are more like Brother and Sister’. Again, this type of task was billed as a test of loyalties to give the islanders a more objective perspective of their relationships; but there is undoubtedly an insidious undertone of desire for conflict. Certainly, the narrator’s glee in the oncoming storm of drama, arguments and upset, coupled with multiple ‘sad montages’ put to melancholy music seemed to reinforce this. In Year of the Sex Olympics, this desire for conflict is taken to its extreme, when a psychopath is placed on the island with the family by producers to push forward an exciting narrative. As the audience laugh at these developments, we see one of the production team banging a table rhythmically, as though all these events follow a precise and calculated beat. Though Love Island, thankfully, is not going to be introducing any murderers any time soon, it’s interesting to note this producer’s justification that ‘it’s a show, something’s gotta happen’. There seems to be the suggestion that the only reality that can function in these programmes is a ‘hyper-reality’ of extremes – our own lives pushed to the limit, our emotional hardships magnified for the screen.
Our role as the audience and our increased interactivity with the televisual world is another thread between Kneale’s fiction and our reality. In the play, the producers are constantly monitoring their audiences’ reactions, gauging what their thoughts are and synthesising it through to their output. This is the whole element of the plot that leads to the remote island ‘The Live Life Show’ concept, with producers realising that the thing that makes audiences laugh the most is suffering ‘when it isn’t happening to them’. However, this direct interactivity between audience and viewers seems only a microcosm of what has actually unfolded, when comparing Kneale’s world to our social media-saturated existence. In addition to the previously mentioned Tweet Task, there are the regular phone-ins to vote off contestants, and social media accounts that retweet, share and engage with viewers’ opinions. There has never been a time where audiences are more connected to their own programming. This is an era where the audience no longer want to simply sit back and watch – they want to participate somehow.
‘there is undoubtedly an insidious undertone of desire for conflict’
The main difference between the forms of interactivity in Year of the Sex Olympics and a programme like Love Island however are the audiences themselves. In Year of the Sex Olympics, the interaction boils down to the producers observing their pleasure levels and apathy, engineering a show that best keeps them docile. A cursory glance at Twitter or a Facebook comment section will offer you anything but apathy. Instead, audiences are just as aware and active in their role of dictating what is screened as the programme-makers, in a way that is both negative and positive. On the one hand, it offers an avenue for anonymous bile and vitriol towards contestants that is deeply cruel and vindictive, creating an outlet for hatred, reminiscent of the audience wildly laughing at characters’ deaths in the play. On the other hand, and in a way that goes against the nihilistic world of Year of the Sex Olympics, it also gives audiences a voice against what they consider unjust. Undoubtedly, there is a sadistic glee in some of the emotional turmoil that goes on through Love Island, but there also seems to be a threshold they have for these manipulative tricks. The recent Ofcom complaints and viewer outrage regarding the treatment of contestant Dani Dyer being shown footage of her boyfriend seeing his ex, who had been placed nearby, was evidence of that. It seems that audiences are still putting producers in their place, not blindly accepting anything that is streamed into their homes.
Year of the Sex Olympics may seem extreme, and to call Love Island identical to its dystopia would be reactionary and hyperbolic. However, it’s undeniable that there are similarities there – a remarkable feat for play created fifty years earlier, in a time where there was nothing remotely similar. Despite these ethical problems painfully apparent in Love Island though, there is still equally a sizeable audience willing to counteract them, and engage with the programme in an empathetic, rather than malicious way. There’s a moment towards the end of Kneale’s play where a producer maniacally states that extreme reality television is ‘what they [the audience] gotta have’, as if it’s human nature to indulge in the spectacle of pain. As reality television continues to grow and expand, it would be wise to keep this powerful moment in mind, lest we risk it coming to fruition. Keep it in mind as a statement to always prove wrong, as many have done so far. Reality television like Love Island is always going to exist, but it doesn’t have to be at the expense of participants’ credibility or psychological wellbeing. We don’t have to be the hi-tech savages of The Year of the Sex Olympics.