The Lion Roars Part One: The Optimists of Nine Elms
(A few days diversion from Tommy. In 1993 Ken Russell published "Fire Over England" republished as "The Lion Roars" a few years later. I'll be referencing many of his choices in the coming months as they have undoubtedly helped to shape who he is-and what he is not- as an artist.)
Ken's overview of classic and modern British films and film makers aka "Fire Over England" is wonderful-please buy this book! Through it I discovered The Archers aka Powell and Pressburger, many heretofore to me unknown films from the 1930s and 40s and best of all Ken's reappraisals of some of my most favourite British films including a little known and astonishingly powerful film starring Peter Sellers- "The Optimists of Nine Elms".
I first saw this film in two parts as an afternoon movie when I was very young. I was floored seeing it again recently as I remembered almost nothing about the plot and had transposed certain costumes and lines it with "Being There" but they are entirely different films. If you can believe it (and you will when you see the film) this is actually the better performance and Sellers greatest role. I had been interested to see that Ken gave it a very long write up and something told me to watch it again. It also shows a London that is almost no more. When the working class and poor was workin' and had jobs and ate home cooked food around a dinner table. English industry was in England and people came to live in the UK and blend in to make the country better not isolated in pockets of separation. "Skunk" and "rocky" were either animals or minerals or possibly something only middle class folks bought from odd men who hung out in Soho and called themselves "Spanish Tony" or "Candyman. Indigenous buskers were all about..where are they now? Dog lovers will love this film-BIG TIME.Be prepared to cry buckets but still be very happy if you see this Tony Simmons' masterpiece.
From "A Lion Roars" Ken Russell on "The Optimists of Nine Elms" (contains some plot spoilers)
"Peter Sellers plays a misanthropic street musicians down on his luck, who barely scrapes enough together to feed himself and his only friend a scruffy mongrel. Enter two neglected kids, equally scruffy, who live in a nearby slum. Dad's too busy earning and Mum's too bust with the new baby to bother with them. But at least they have each other and the potential friend in Sellers who they follow around the streets as he plays for pennies. He tolerates the children but is not easily won over. They call him 'mister', he calls them 'Nothing'. He lives in a squalid few with a few creature comforts and the kids don't fare much better-they haven't a toy between them and have to empty the potty in the one and only outside loo every morning and wash under the kitchen tap. But are they downhearted? No! Why? Because they live in hope of moving to a new block of council flats with a little dog to keep them company.
One day they take Sellers to the water's edge and point out the celestial towers gleaming through the sunny mist of the Thames on the far shore. Gradually, and against his better judgement Sellers guardedly opens up to the kids, whom he recognises as outcasts like himself, and grudgingly decides to help them. He suggests they baby-sit his sick mongrel to earn a bit of pocket money while he slips out for a pint. This will enable them to buy a dog of their own at Battersea Dogs' Home. They jump at the idea and soon have enough saved up to buy a pup which they take home. their parents go crazy. Dad says no pets are allowed in the flats where they are going and even shows the kids a notice nailed to the wall to prove it. They've got the flats mixed up anyway. They are not headed for the posh ones on the far side of the river but the old ones on the wrong side of the river.
(I'm leaving out the rest of the plot and ending as described by Ken)
Told with economy and sensitivity, this underrated film establishes Tony Simmons as a first rate director and justifies the risk Sellers took in tackling a difficult role in an offbeat subject and doing it for peanuts. it was one of his last films and one of his best. The rest of the cast also turned in convincing portrayals. The Optimists of Nine Elms of nine elms was a great achievement all around, with an extra special word of praise for the editor, Jimmy Jympson. And if you need convincing he's one of the best editors around, just look at the scene where the little girl loses her little brother on a refuse site by the river's edge. Screaming gulls, the snapping jaws of the excavator, the rushing river and screeching trains inter-cut with the growing panic on the girl's face, all combine to produce an almost unbearable tension. And how refreshing to meet some real Londoners, resilient dogged, philosophic, with a wry sense of humour second to none.
I wonder what sort of film Tony Simmons would make in Nine Elms now.
(Stunning photos of the above pictured Hyde Park Pet Cemetery featured along with early 1970s London in the "Optimists of Nine Elms" from London Insight which may well be thee greatest blog on the net-alongside this one of course:)