Film - Peter Sellers: the man who never was
Published 22/05/2016 | 02:30
Despite his other accomplishments, Peter Sellers only ventured behind the cameras to direct a feature film once. Based on a play by Marcel Pagnol, Mr Topaze starred Sellers as a provincial schoolteacher who's fired after refusing to give the dim child of a local grandee a good grade. Auguste Topaze then drifts into commerce, and reveals a chilling ruthless streak.
Released in 1961, Mr Topaze quickly drifted out of circulation and for years was thought to be lost until a print turned up in the archives of the British Film Institute. It has just been lovingly restored and digitized, will get a DVD release and is currently available to watch on the BFI's Player.
I watched it last week and, while no classic, it's an interesting enough little film that highlights both Sellers' sublime technique, and his frustrating tendency to become bland and vacuous when cast in a leading role. His comic talents had a quicksilver quality, and were often ill-used. He was easily miscast, and a terrible judge of scripts: only a handful of his films could be called classics, and much of his output is bad to embarrassing.
And yet Sellers is revered by comics and actors, and in Britain even his lesser efforts are treated with baffling reverence. A few years back, when two short films made by Sellers in 1957 were rescued from a skip, they were lovingly restored and screened to a devoted festival audience. Almost 36 years after his death at the age of just 54, Sellers remains a cinematic legend, but is all this awe really justified? Was he really that good?
Some of his colleagues seemed to think so. Peter Cook called him "the best comic actor in the world", the Boulting brothers acclaimed him "the greatest comic genius this country has produced since Chaplin", and Sasha Baron Cohen's entire career has been shaped by Sellers' influence.
His talent, it seems, was never really in doubt, but as his career progressed Sellers would often prove his own worst enemy, involving himself in wildly inappropriate projects, succumbing to the worst excesses of fame and forgetting what he was really good at - comedy, and character acting.
The story goes that Richard Henry Sellers was just two weeks old when he made his stage debut: he was carried on to the stage of the Kings Theatre in Southsea by a rotund comic called Dick Henderson, and burst out crying when the crowd started singing.
It was 1925 and Peter was embarked on a career that would always bring him as much pain as pleasure. His parents were both music-hall entertainers, and he spent much of his early childhood traipsing around Britain's dense network of provincial theatres. He was immersed in acting, clowning and stagecraft from an early age, but received conflicting advice from his parents.
His father, Bill Sellers, doubted his son's talent, and helpfully suggested he try a career in road-sweeping. But Peg Sellers thought her son was the second coming, and would later put all her overbearing energies into pushing him towards success. This tension added to Peter's growing neuroses, and left him with a underlying cynicism about showbusiness.
Educated at a private Catholic school by his socially ambitious Jewish mother, Peter began working backstage at provincial theatres in his teens, experimented with comedy routines, and took up jazz drumming. He got good at it, and after joining the Royal Air Force during the war, enrolled in a troupe of military entertainers.
After the war, he continued drumming, but became more interested in comedy, and mimicry. In 1948, he rang up a BBC producer and, pretending to be a plummy radio star called Kenneth Horne, recommended a talented young actor called Sellers. His cheek earned him an audition, and he began picking up small parts in radio shows.
At the BBC he met Harry Seacombe, Michael Bentine and Spike Milligan: the four friends began meeting up at a pub near Victoria Station and dreaming up the characters that would become famous on The Goon Show.
It's hard now to appreciate just how seminal and significant that radio show was. Between 1951 and 1960, The Goon Show became a kind of vital cultural touchstone, attracting seven million listeners at its peak and hugely influencing all the British comedians who would follow it.
Sellers, and his bewildering array of characters, were essential to its success, and his rising profile led to film work. He took small parts at first, and had something of a breakthrough playing a London teddy boy opposite his hero Alec Guinness in the 1957 Ealing comedy The Ladykillers. His confidence grew, and he showed his range over the next few years playing character roles in fine British films - a naive vicar in Heavens Above! and a pompous shop steward in I'm All Right Jack.
By the time The Goon Show ended in 1960, Sellers' career seemed in excellent shape. He recorded a hit comedy record with Sophia Loren after co-starring with her in The Millionaireness (1960), and in 1962 collaborated with Stanley Kubrick for the first time in Lolita. That got him noticed in America. Then The Pink Panther happened.
The character of bumbling French police inspector Jacques Clouseau was only supposed to provide minor amusement in a frothy romantic comedy starring David Niven as a suave jewel thief. But when Sellers donned that trench coat, something special happened: there was an odd and touching grace to his portrayal of the hapless detective, who stole the show and would reappear (during Sellers' lifetime) in five more films.
Clouseau led directly to international stardom, but massive success did not agree with Sellers and, instead of enhancing his career, it nearly destroyed it. When offered big money to appear in shoddy productions, he usually said yes, and his personal insecurities added fuel to this toxic recipe.
He did some of his best film work in Kubrick's Dr Strangelove (1964), playing an RAF officer, the US president and a mad German scientist who keeps forgetting who he's working for and giving the Nazi salute. But that was a rare highlight, and through the 1960s and early 1970s he appeared in some pretty ropey comedies.
His portrayal of an Indian actor all at sea at a Hollywood bash in Blake Edwards' The Party (1968) was skilful but objectionable, and would not be allowed these days. And his flirtations with Californian counter-culture in films like I Love You, Alice B Toklas (1968) were equally regrettable.
Starring in films just did not seem to suit him, and his reputation for on-set unpleasantness grew.
Sellers was prone to firing directors, and by the early 1970s, producers were beginning to avoid him. In addition, his health was poor: a series of heart attacks left him looking older than his years, and his private life was spectacularly dysfunctional (see below).
Sellers often referred to his quintessential blandness, and once said that "when I look at myself, I see a person who strangely lacks what I consider the ingredients of a personality". He hated appearing in public as himself, and when Michael Parkinson asked him on to his chat show, Sellers only agreed if could come on dressed as a Nazi.
He was a perplexing man, with a flair for unhappiness and an imperfect understanding of his own very particular talents. He rarely found the right vehicles for them, but very near the end of his life, the perfect role presented itself.
In Being There (1979), Sellers plays Chance, the quiet and simple-minded gardener at a Washington DC mansion whose bland aphorisms are mistaken for insights by the rich and powerful people he meets. Peter identified totally with this blank and aimless character, and thought Being There was the best thing he'd ever done.
Six months after the film's release Sellers died, of another heart attack, leaving behind three children, four wives, many lovers, a big reputation and a handful of unforgettable comic turns.
Spike Milligan, one of Sellers' closest friends, once said that "he causes pain to everyone who gets close to him", and that was certainly true of the women in his life. In 1949, Sellers married an Australian actress called Anne Howe, and had two children with her. But it soon became clear he wasn't cut out for domesticity. He became obsessed with Sophia Loren while filming The Millionairess with her, and his relationship with his wife rapidly deteriorated thereafter.
When the couple were separating, Sellers' son Michael remembered he and sister being asked "who we loved more, our mother or him". When he didn't get the answer he wanted, he told them he never wanted to see them again. In 1964 he married Swedish actress Britt Ekland (pictured above), who later said that "he may have been a brilliant actor, but as a human being he had no saving graces at all". Sellers married twice more, but was in the process of separating from his fourth wife, Lynne Frederick, when he died.