THE OPTIMISTS OF NINE ELMS (1973)
After a series of dark adult-themed movies, this 1973 family film was a refreshing change of tone for Peter Sellers that demonstrated once again his phenomenal ability to utterly submerge himself into a detailed three-dimensional character on screen.
THE OPTIMISTS OF NINE ELMS (also released as THE OPTIMISTS) was scripted by Anthony Simmons and Tudor Gates, based on Simmons’ original 1964 novel and directed by him. An unproduced screenplay was originally adapted some years earlier for Buster Keaton – and before Peter Sellers was cast, it was originally to star John Mills who broke his leg before filming, and was later offered to Danny Kaye. The charming songs, such as the haunting ‘Sometimes’, were written by Lionel ‘OLIVER’ Bart, and this work very much has that charming, child-centric magic of the famous musical. With the Beatles’ producer George Martin composing the music, it was already a prestige piece before filming began.
Sellers plays a character clearly personal to him: Sam Hall, the ex music-hall variety song and dance man with a line in comedy patter. He based the characterisation on his father Bill, a veteran of the same circuit and channels his dad’s Yorkshire accent (specifically Barnsley). It’s a very rich and textured performance, and his transformation is accentuated by a prosthetic nose that changes his face remarkably without seeming a crude disguise. We see him as the die-hard stage trouper still putting on an outdoor busking show with banjo and organ accompaniment, and when not scratching a living, as he befriends the brother and sister (Donna Mulane and John Chaffey), he develops from a gruff and blunt grumpiness to a sweet, imaginative caring soul covering a deep sadness. His wife died twenty years ago and although he has the cute and talented Bella, his performing terrier in the act and dear companion, mortality and the fragility of relationships is never far from his thoughts. Sellers conveys beautifully this straddling of two worlds of the imaginative possibilities and harsh realities of life, something the children desperately need as their parents (David Daker and Marjorie Yates) work every hour God sends to move them to a better home. His is a subtle and wonderfully shaded portrayal.
Along the way, Sam’s friendship with the kids deepens as they peek into his music-hall past, trying on his costumes and sharing his love for dogs to the point where they manage to buy their own, struggling with council rules on tenants being banned from owning them. Eventually all comes right in the end; after Bella is buried by the children as a kind gesture to their new friend, they share ownership of their new pup with him, giving him a new playmate to teach tricks to and comforting his loss.
THE OPTIMISTS OF NINE ELMS is a beguilingly simple film, but at its heart is a deep and multi-layered Sellers performance that should be seen by every fan, particularly those who’ve only seen his more flamboyant, less delicate screen work. Here is an opportunity, as with HOFFMAN and later the stunning BEING THERE, to watch not just a great comedy actor but a tremendous dramatic talent when submitted to the right material…