For our October screening we return to another largely forgotten film by director Anthony Simmons – introduced again by his son and Classic Film Club member Jonathan (see April’s Four in the Morning).
Based on Anthony Simmons’ own 1964 novel, The Optimists of Nine Elms (in USA simply The Optimists) stars Peter Sellars as an ageing street busker befriended by two latchkey children to whom he recounts stories about his days as a music hall performer. As was his custom, Sellars completely inhabits the role – but here to such a degree that, as one reviewer remarks, it is surprising there has been no British DVD release of the film and, moreover, that it is not “automatically cited as an example of Sellers at his best.”
As before though, we start with an earlier film from this unique British filmmaker. Simmons always stressed that his origins were in short documentary and always praised the influence of Humphrey Jennings, Robert Flaherty and Joris Ivens as well as Italian neorealists like Michelangelo Antonioni. More significant for us, though, is the influence of Joseph Strick‘s 1948 Muscle Beach on the short film to be screened before The Optimists: Sunday by the Sea (1951) takes on an English identity found in few other British directors and demonstrates how Simmons may be considered one of the great London filmmakers.
Sunday by the Sea sets footage of Londoners’ lives to a music-hall soundtrack. In its way it is a film without any direct parallel – though some contrast it with Lindsay Anderson’s O Dreamland (1953), which, on paper is similar. “I came from the East End,” said Simmons in interview, “I liked the East End, and that’s what we filmed. Lindsay didn’t like the East End, or any end, and that’s what he filmed.” So, as film hostorian, Michael Chanan (The Politics of Documentary) argues: “Anderson’s eye is that of an outsider, alienated by what he films, while Simmons offers an insider’s vision of working-class conviviality… only a step away from political solidarity.”
The Optimists of Nine Elms is often (wrongly) categorised as a children’s film, but there is little sentimentality in it – and this allows the music (by Lionel Bart and George Martin) to stand alone.
PLOT: After initially resisting the attentions of two curious children, Liz and Mark, an old tramp, Sam, allows them to help him busk and look after his dog; to return the favour, he encourages a sense of imagination and hope in them until their father, beleaguered by work and a new baby, finally realises the extent of his neglect. Although this story is somewhat meandering, its charm comes partly from Simmons’ attentive use of location shooting throughout, making the city another character – not least because old Sam brings it to life for Liz and Mark
. The performances of these youngsters (Donna Mullane,left, and John Chaffey, right) are remarkable for their naturalism – the more so because Mullane was chosen from among some other kids in the street, yet displayed the kind of curiosity that Simmons found no budding actress could match. Dispite having so many things that could have gone wrong then, this film builds successfully on character and sensitive relationships.
But finally it is Sellers’ creation of an a credible character in old Sam that makes this film memorable. He is both a whimsical performer and a seasoned street survivor, a capering yet unconsciously dignified showman who draws on his experience with hecklers when faced with juvenile persistence. His songs, his tales of fellow performers and snippets of his personal history leave us, like the children, quite tantalised. Sellers supposedly channeled memories of his father, himself a music-hall performer, into Sam who remains charming while introducing songs with titles like “No Matter How Long Your Stockings Are, The Tops Are Always Nearest To The Bottom.”
Biographical: Born in 1923 in East London to a Jewish, working-class Polish immigrant father, Anthony Simmons came out of university and war service to pursue legal training, left-wing politics and amateur filmmaking in the 1940s. His first film was Bulgarian Village (1948), a documentary project shot in the newly established rural, Eastern bloc state and edited by Simmons though, having written a voiceover script, he was unable to record the soundtrack, so it was not released. However, the BFI finally restored the negative and, with Simmons present (he died earlier this year) gave it a belated premier in 2011. He harbour no bitterness about such missed opportunities and continued writing all his life, being himself an incurable London optimist.