The Optimist returns… 

17 May 2024 tbs.pm/81663

Enn Reitel in character

 

The Optimist marketing card

The Optimist, a Channel 4 comedy starring Enn Reitel, is back on screen for the first time in nearly 40 years this month, part of the launch schedule of Rewind TV.

The Optimist stands out as one of the most unusual and groundbreaking programmes ever made for British television. It was the world’s very first dialogue-free tv comedy series; the first sitcom commissioned by Channel 4; the UK’s first scripted show to have had a whole series shot in the USA; and quite possibly the most expensive British television comedy that had been made up to that point (around £100k for each 25-minute episode, which was a lot of money in 1982 [about £350,000 now, allowing for inflation – Ed]).

The series features the exploits of Nigel, a hopeless romantic and born loser, who stumbles through life, causing chaos everywhere he goes. Enn Reitel imbues him with a well-meaning childlike charm, and across 13 episodes (the last 6 of which were shot in the UK) he brings a special brand of chaos to the screen. The pilot featured a young Sharron Davies, and later episodes guest-starred performers such as Martin Kove (Cagney & Lacey, Cobra Kai); future Bond villain Robert Davi; Tracy Scoggins (Dynasty, Babylon 5); Ian McNeice (Doctor Who, Doc Martin) and Julie Peasgood (Years and Years).

With a pilot episode filmed in Mexico in 1981, and a further six episodes shot in and around Los Angeles in the summer of 1982, the finished result looked like nothing else that had been seen on British screens. One episode from the first series, “A Challenge”, featured a sword-fight that took in many of the most iconic LA locations, including the gates of Paramount studios and the Hollywood sign (where the characters were literally fighting amongst the enormous letters). Shot on single camera, and without a laugh track, it was as far away from the traditional cosy studio sitcom as it was possible to get.

Enn Reitel and Sharron Davies in character

Enn Reitel and Sharron Davies in character

Channel 4 commissioner for light entertainment, the veteran producer Cecil Korer, was an enthusiastic supporter of the series. But, in a perverse piece of scheduling, The Optimist was destined to remain virtually unseen. Making its debut on 14 April 1983, it went out against The Kenny Everett Show on BBC-1 (that week’s top-rated show across all channels) and Paul Eddington and Nanette Newman in the Thames sitcom Let There Be Love on ITV. Inevitably The Optimist failed to make any impact against such stiff comedy competition. Later episodes were scheduled against programmes such as the hugely successful American import Fame on BBC-1, and Minder on ITV. The Optimist never had a chance.

Cecil Korer remained a resolute supporter, and commissioned a second series, which went into production in the spring of 1984. By this time, however, Korer had been replaced by Mike Bolland, who felt that C4 needed to focus on younger viewers. The second series was stripped over the first few days of 1985. Barring a few intermittently shown repeats of episodes from the first series later that year, some going out after midnight, The Optimist has never been seen since in the UK.

Internationally, however, The Optimist fared much better. One episode – “The Fool of the House of Esher” – was nominated for the 1985 Golden Rose of Montreux (Rose D’Or) award. It also became one of the UK’s biggest export successes – with no dialogue, there were no language barriers to overcome. It was widely sold within Europe, the Middle East, Australasia, and even China. The last known broadcasts were in Spain, in 1992. But then another disaster struck, with the international distributor ceasing to trade in that same year. Over the following decades the fate of the master tapes was unknown.

Nearly thirty years later, in 2021, the show’s producer Robert Sidaway located a set of one-inch tapes for The Optimist, found in a store just outside of Heathrow. They had seemingly last been used for a 1990 broadcast run on Ireland’s RTÉ. Arranging for the tapes to be digitized, there was relief all round that a full set of episodes were now held in broadcast quality. Since then, a number of talented people have worked on restoring and remastering each episode, with the result that the programme is now available in HD, and looking and sounding better than when first broadcast.

 

Julie Peasgood, Enn Reitel and Sharron Davies as the BFI in August 2023

Julie Peasgood, Enn Reitel and Sharron Davies as the BFI in August 2023

 

Pebble Bay Entertainment was appointed to re-market the programme. In 2023 a DVD release was issued by Kaleidoscope, and a 40th
anniversary celebration held at the BFI in London, with many of the cast meeting for the first time since filming. It has since become available in the USA on the free-to-view streaming platforms Tubi and Roku, and worldwide on Plex.

With its return to British television screens in 2024, The Optimist has finally come full circle, and it is keenly hoped that the programme will find a new audience in its home territory.

 

You Say

1 response to this article

Pat Taylor 29 May 2024 at 8:50 pm

I’m really pleased that the Optimist in on tv as I didn’t see it first time round. I loved the first one. Many thanks Pat.

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