Have you ever heard of a sitcom called ‘The Optimist’? I’m going to guess the answer is a resounding ‘no’. Until recently, the only people who knew of its existence were the people involved in making it.
Broadcast in April 1983, by a fledgling Channel 4 who were all but five months old, ‘The Optimist’ was a silent sitcom starring Enn Reitel (now one of Britain’s most successful voice actors) as the eponymous character. The show follows “The Optimist” (also known as “Nigel” – not sure why he needed a name in a silent show) as he finds himself in a succession of extraordinary situations and, although bungling, he remains ever the optimist.
It sounds like a decent premise, but the show was a victim of unwinnable circumstances: it was Channel 4’s first attempt at commissioning a comedy program and no one was watching the channel yet – viewing figures were minute.
Fast forward a couple of years to the close of the second series in 1985 and we find the second damning component of ‘The Optimist’s’ misfortune: somewhere along the chain of command, the master tapes were lost. Perhaps due to frustration at the poor viewing figures, or maybe someone left the tapes in a bag on a big train to nowhere… who knows?!
Whatever the case, the situation culminated in a comedy program being produced, no one watching its airing, and any physical evidence of its existence being lost to the sands of time.
But Reitel, at least, was proud of it, and as he states in the new trailer for its resurrection (linked somewhere below) it was a unique piece of work to boot. The uniqueness of ‘The Optimist’ was that it was silent and featured “no annoying dialogue” as Reitel puts it. It was a silent sitcom, influenced by the works of Keaton, Chaplin and those early masters of silent comedy film. The audio ambience was driven by an original score – written and recorded by composer David Spear for series one, and John cameron for series two – with the addition of enhanced sound effects for comedic pronunciation.
Baring in mind ‘The Optimist’ appeared 10 years before the likes of ‘Mr Bean’, it must be considered pioneering in bringing silent comedy to the sitcom format.
On reflection, however, it is a brave decision to make a silent sitcom. The central cast must be adept enough at physical comedy to justify the absence of verbal jokes. Lee Evans managed to pull it off in his ‘The World of Lee Evans’ and Rowan Atkinson created a global phenomenon with ‘Mr Bean’, but we are talking about two of the finest physical comedians Britain has ever produced.
In recent times, like some kind of minor Indiana Jones episode, the show’s producer, Robert Sidaway, managed to track down those original master tapes and is now embarking on a campaign to have them digitised and brought to DVD.
To our mind at Capers, this discovery is of historical significance to the world of British comedy.
The Optimist was the first ever sitcom produced by Channel 4 and this alone is reason enough to have it restored and properly archived for public viewing.
A Kickstarter campaign is underway to raise the funds needed to make this happen: a poultry £6,500 is the asking price. Considering the original budget for the show was over a million quid, to not bring it back for six and a half grand seems ludicrous. It is unclear why Channel 4 can’t or won’t cough up the money to resurrect a show that is so significant to its own history. We can speculate, but without talking to 4’s current commissioners of comedy we will never know.
Back in the early 1980s, the ambition shown by the commissioners of Channel 4 in the creation of ‘The Optimist’ is unmatched by today’s standards – whether that is wise or unwise is open for debate.
A seven-figure budget for a two-series sitcom seems extravagant, and the logistical cost alone would have eaten into a chunk of that sum. ‘The Optimist’s’ pilot episode, “Sea Dreams” was filmed on location in Cabo San Luca in Mexico, and series one was filmed in Hollywood and wider L.A..
The cost of flying everyone out there, transporting all the equipment, or hiring it once there; putting all the cast and crew up in hotels for the duration of filming; feeding everyone… These are all examples of why we don’t see many, if any, sitcoms set in lavish surroundings and exotic destinations.
Could this huge expense, coupled with the poor viewing figures, be a reason why Channel 4 wanted to forget about the project and move on to the great success they would find with many, many later projects? To suggest such a thing would be pure conspiracy.
Nevertheless, the case of ‘The Optimist’ is a fascinating one. There is genuine excitement at the tapes having been found after such a long period of disappearance, and the prospect of bringing them back to life and preserving a significant part of comedy history is tantalising.
So, I urge you, dear reader, to follow the link below and make a monetary pledge to help bring ‘The Optimist’ back to life…