I wrote the pilot for The Optimist, on spec, in 1979 or 1980. I had taken up windsurfing and loved it - and, as with all beginners, there was a lot of comedy involved in learning how to do it. I thought it would make a great short silent film.
It was originally titled The Wind, The Surf And The Moron. I wrote it with Rowan Atkinson in mind, as we had done a revue together at the Hampstead Theatre in 1978, and I'd seen how incredible he was at physical comedy, so subject and actor naturally merged in my mind. I wrote the Schoolmaster sketch for Rowan, for that show. A year later I got a call from him saying that John Cleese and Martin Lewis, the producers, had seen him perform it, and had asked him to do it in The Secret Policeman's Ball, which they were getting off the ground. That launched Rowan to stardom.
By the time Robert Sidaway found the script and got The Optimist off the ground as a series, Rowan was famous and busy. He was also under contract to Not The Nine O'Clock News (as was I, as one of the freelance writers), so was unavailable. Robert and I thought the concept would make a good action-comedy series, in contrast to the more conventional sitcoms of the day. We shot the pilot episode in Cabo San Lucas in August 1981 on 35mm film. Robert sold it to Channel 4 and I threw myself into writing the other six scripts for the first series, which we shot in the Los Angeles area the following summer.
It was my idea to cast Enn Reitel. I had seen him in The Rivals at the Greenwich Theatre playing Bob Acres. He was amazing. You couldn't take your eyes off him. Enn was pretty much an unknown, so I had to sell him hard to Peter Ellis, the director, who, naturally, wanted a say in the casting. I drove Peter up to York where Enn was in a play (Enn will remember the details. It may even have been Leeds). Peter liked what he saw, so we went backstage and introduced ourselves after the play. I did not know either of them before the pilot was in pre-production. Peter was hired by Robert.
For me, the great irony about The Optimist is that we cast one of our great impersonators and voice actors in a silent comedy. I had no idea of Enn's vocal talents until we were in Cabo, and he'd start doing Cary Grant or Michael Caine or Bogart or many others at mealtimes. He kept us all entertained throughout the shoots. I later introduced Enn to the producer John Lloyd, who used him a lot for voices on Spitting Image.
The Optimist was the first half-hour comedy commissioned by Channel 4.