|Directed by||Anthony Simmons|
|Written by||Anthony Simmons
|Music by||Lionel Bart
|Distributed by||Scotia-Barber (UK)
Paramount Pictures (US)
The Optimists of Nine Elms, also known as The Optimists, is a 1973 British drama film starring Peter Sellers and directed by Anthony Simmons, who also wrote the 1964 novel upon which the film is based. The film is about an old street musician (played by Sellers) who strikes up a friendship with two children - Liz, played by Donna Mullane, and her young brother Mark, played by John Chaffey. Neither of the child actors was featured in future films. A young Keith Chegwin also played a small role in the film.
Mullane was recruited for her role by the film crew while she was walking home from school and they were scouting locations.
The story revolves around Sam, a dignified, former Music hall artist who now works with his elderly trained dog Bella, busking in the West End of London. He lives in a run down goods yard alongside a derelict canal in Nine Elms. Two young children, Liz and Mark, stumble upon his yard whilst out walking. He chases them away, but his manner attracts their attention and despite his best efforts, they later follow him as he goes off to work carrying his dog and all his busking paraphernalia in an Edwardian pram. Liz and Mark live with mum Chrissie and dad Bob and baby brother James in a drab, cramped basement flat in Nine Elms. Bob works at the local gasworks and the family are desperate to move to a new Council flat. When they’re out of school, mum has little time for Liz and Mark and they find their own adventures together out on the streets.
Begrudgingly, Sam develops a relationship with the children as they tag along. Having mentioned it in passing, he agrees to take them to visit the pet cemetery in Hyde Park the next day, on his way to the West End, where he anticipates Bella will be buried someday after an elaborate funeral. They also discuss visiting the new flats. During the following day, it becomes clear that Bella is increasingly frail and Sam is worried about her. At the flats, he tells them how his wife had died ten years previously and how his seven children had grown up and are now scattered all over the world. He’d found human beings unreliable over his life and “only dogs can be depended upon”. Bella was his best friend and although getting a new flat was all very well, getting a dog was more important. Between them, they conclude the family needs a dog and having established the children would look after it properly, Sam agrees to help them get one.
The following afternoon, he takes them to Battersea Dogs Home where posing as their grandfather, he helps them choose a dog. However, Sam is astounded and angry when the home tell him they can only take the dog if it’s paid for. The children and Sam leave the home bitterly disappointed and having admonished the children for telling lies as “he wasn’t their grandfather”, Sam tells them they will have to ask their mum and dad for the money and he leaves, humiliated. The children return home despondent, and are further discouraged when their mum seems unsympathetic to the idea of getting a dog. The children resolve to try to save the money to get it anyway and make money doing odd jobs. When they next see Sam, he is crotchety, and Bella is very ill. Sam offers to pay them to baby-sit Bella while he’s working and having haggled about the rate per hour, they agree.
The following day they resolve to visit their dad at work to see if he’ll give them the balance to pay for their dog, but he tells them he needs to save everything he can if he hopes to get the flat. They return to Sam who, reluctant to concede that Bella’s condition is terminal agrees to give them the balance they need in advance, for more baby-sitting duties. Next day, they learn they’ve got the new flat and together with Sam collect their dog which they name Battersea. They return home later to be told they shouldn’t have bought the dog. They discover that the new flat is in Nine Elms, and not the flats they had seen with Sam in Westminster and that dogs are not allowed. The children run off to Sam’s, where they find Sam drunk and in mourning for Bella. They try to give Battersea to Sam, but he rejects them and when they talk of the majestic funeral for Bella he laughs and tells them she’ll go in the dustcart. He leaves, and after tying Battersea to his table, the children take Bella’s body, and at night sneak into the cemetery at Hyde Park and bury it there. They hide when their dad and Sam arrive outside the cemetery with Battersea, but fall asleep as the two talk into the night about life, death, dogs and children. When they awake the following morning Dad is overjoyed to see them and they leave Sam with Battersea.
Simmons is said to have planned the film around the time his two award-winning short films Sunday By the Sea (1953) and Bow Bells (1954) were released. Both films were set to cockney music hall songs, lending a clear continuity between the works. Buster Keaton was to have played the lead role of Sam, however British financiers were not convinced of Keaton's box office potential and the project collapsed. The novel was first published in 1964.
Variety wrote, "It all sounds like goo, and the film’s last half-hour verges perilously close. But even at its worst The Optimists is acceptable family fare, and for much of its first 80 minutes it engagingly achieves a sense of fantasy." while The New York Times described the film as "the sort of old-fashioned excursion into sentiment that ought to warm the hearts of parents in search of that elusive piece of merchandise that goes under the name of good family entertainment. Peter Sellers, with a wardrobe of old music hall clothes, a talented but aged dog named Bella and a pram he pushes around London, plays the lonely, idiosyncratic old busker. And commendably, he submerges himself sufficiently in the part to allow old Sam to have a life of his own."
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