Peter Sellers

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Peter Sellers Pencil Portrait
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Where does one start a commentary with a man like Peter Sellers? By all accounts he loved, entertained, mystified, baffled and emotionally tortured several key persons in his lifetime. He literally died thirteen times when he was 38, fantasised to a point where his wildest dreams seemingly became reality, was a manic depressive, and sought solace in astrology as a means to understanding his life. He singularly failed to recognise sex as one of the fundamental basic human needs – an act perfectly in tune with taking breakfast and sleeping – and sought to enhance his experiences with amyl nitrate. We can therefore logically deduce that he contributed greatly to his own health problems. He was also a marvellous friend to many of his oldest colleagues in the film industry. and recollections from people who worked with him on his films vary so enormously that one often wonders if the same person is being discussed.

Professionally of course, I loved him and indeed still do. One burst of Sellers crooning Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s “All the things you are” as an old man shaving in the mirror can change my mood for the better within seconds. The incessant semitone modulations within this composition can challenge any singer yet Sellers handles his “pipes adroitly” whilst beavering away at his chin with the old “cold steel and badger.” It’s testimony to his genius that I never sing this song to myself without adopting that geriatric voice, and yet this number has been recorded by a host of luminaries from Frank Sinatra to Ella Fitzgerald, Michael Jackson to Stan Kenton, and Mario Lanza to Django Reinhardt.

Sellers rose to fame on the BBC Radio comedy series ‘The Goon Show.’ It ran for ten series between 1951 and 1960 and redefined radio comedy. Prince Charles was captivated as were millions of others by characters such as Ned Seagoon, Eccles, Major Bloodnock., Minnie Bannister, Henry Crun, Grytpype-Thynne and Moriarty. Writing the scripts took a heavy toll on Spike Milligan’s health whilst Sellers revelled in the medium of radio to project his unique flair for characterisation and impressions. His ability to speak in different accents (e.g., French, Indian, Italian, American, German, as well as British regional accents), along with his talent to portray a range of characters to comic effect, contributed to his success as a radio personality and screen actor and earned him national and international nominations and awards.

Sellers met and married Britt Ekland within a fortnight. In 2009, Devizes, the auctioneers sold a typewritten missive from the comedian to his new wife which he began at 2.25am on March 15, 1964, at his home in Beverly Hills in California. It took 90 minutes to complete. He wrote of breaking out in “cold sweats” as he imagined her flirting with several actors from the film The Great Escape,’ which he had just watched for the first time. He wrote: “I have a dreadful fear at the back of my mind that you might leave me. I love you so desperately, and think you are so absolutely wonderful in every way, that I find it very difficult to understand why you married me. You who are just the most lovely thing in the whole world. What do you see in me? I’m not handsome. I’m not tall. I’m not special in any way.” He described himself feeling “quite faint and ill and terrible and wretched and awful” as he imagined other actors wanting to sleep with his wife. “Without any doubt I am a raving idiot and I ought to have my head examined.”

The existence of this letter is irrefutable evidence of Seller’s paranoia at the time. Equally, there is no suggestion that his new wife was conducting herself in any way to promote these misgivings. Beyond that I cannot comment further except to say that in my opinion, an ongoing appreciation of one’s partner is intrinsic to a contented life together. If Sellers was consumed by jealousy then he should have anticipated such a problem arising during his whirlwind courtship. Good God, the man was 37 with a 21 year old bride; could he not see what he had to offer? We constantly read that laughter is a great aphrodisiac, and Sellers had the ability to induce such a reaction in spades. He had lost weight at this point in his life, and he was still comparatively young. If you really can’t see what someone else sees in you then it’s time for a few lessons in the art of loving oneself. It’s equally important to fairly represent oneself to the other person at the start of any relationship. Did Sellers discuss his appalling treatment of his first wife Anne with his ‘bride to be’? Did he elaborate on why he felt she should have been more than happy to fulfil the role of confidante to his emotional outpourings of unrequited love for Sophia Loren? No I very much doubt he did that; in fact if I have learned anything from the “school of life,” it’s the near universal application by human beings engaged in a new relationship of the “best foot forward” approach. By her own admission, Miss Ekland was 21 going on 16 – she didn’t stand a chance. Interviewed by The Sunday Telegraph in September 2013, the actress spoke frankly about Sellers and this period in her life:

‘I think today we would say he was bipolar, although that word is bandied about so often. He had mental problems, and he should have been on therapy. If I’d met him today I would know so much more, but I didn’t. I had no experience of that sort of life, but I learnt quickly.’

Sadly there just seems to be an abundance of sources to corroborate the overwhelming view of Sellers as a mean spirited manic depressive. His only son Michael, whose own life would end tragically young at the age of 52 when he too died of a heart attack in July 2006 defended his father’s legacy throughout the intervening years. Where parents are concerned it is comparatively easy to imagine one’s feelings towards the literary flow of posthumous biographies, suitably ensanguined with the blood of character assassination. Yet when Michael authored his last book “Sellers on Sellers” he wrote “he had been there: starred in the movies, married the young women, driven the fast cars, taken the drugs, drunk the wine, made all the cash, spent the cash and let down all those people who had ever really cared for him.

Recommended listening

Celebration of Sellers (EMI Records – 4 CD Box set)

Virtually everything of note that Sellers recorded is here.
If your wallet won’t reach this far then try “Peter Sellers Greatest Comedy Cuts (EMI Gold) a single disc compilation with twenty essential cuts.

Recommended viewing

I’m all right Jack (1958)

The mouse that roared (1959)

Two early films that established his credentials as the brightest comedy star in Britain.

The Battle of the sexes (1960)

Sellers is the elderly Scotsman contemplating the murder of his female boss and suitably foiled by kitchen utensils and swinging doors in this sparkling British comedy with macabre overtones. Even the meekest of men can be driven to it.

Never let go (1960)

Mixed critical reaction to this movie would prematurely end Seller’s foray into straight dramatic roles.

Here he’s one Lionel Meadows, a decidedly unsavoury London garage owner who makes extra cash dealing in stolen cars. When one of his lackies, young petty thief Tommy Towers (Adam Faith), steals a 1959 Ford Anglia belonging to struggling cosmetics salesman John Cummings (Richard Todd), events lead to an inevitable showdown atn a car warehouse.

Struggling with low sales figures and under pressure from management, Cummings is pathologically obsessed with the recovery of his vehicle; his recent purchase essential to a turnaround in his fortunes. Family finances are tight and the car is only insured for third party cover; hence the disastrous implications of Meadow’s thievery.

Sellers cuts a menacing figure as Meadows. He has thick hair (courtesy of a swept back toupée), compact mustache, and a stiff shark-like smile. His voice has a nasal quality, and his jaw perenially juts out. There’s an undercurrent of explosive anger to his rigid politeness and controlled low voice. When he does ‘lose it’, his violence is abrupt and startling, whether grinding a man’s beloved pet turtle underfoot or crushing a lackey’s finger with the lid of a record player. He is also, clearly, a sexual sadist (he’s as cold as ice with his girlfriend), and he has no bones about entering the Cummings’s apartment at night and threatening the couple in front of their children.

Peter Sellers was famous for losing himself in his roles (on more than one occasion he admitted to having “no personality” outside of the parts he played), and it’s disconcerting to see him as such an unsavoury character. Roger Lewis’ biography of the actor quotes his then wife, Ann Howe, as saying that he took Meadows home with him and became violent with her. Even Sellers admitted to being ‘edgy’ within his domestic environment throughout the shooting schedule.

It’s a tour de force performance, but one that would not be reprised.

Lolita (1962)

An oddball choice for Sellers but he is convincing in a number of roles. A film about ephebophilia was always going to run into censorship problems so the script must have appealed to Seller’s “art-house” instincts.

Dr Strangelove or : How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb (1963)

Incredible sets from Bond designer Ken Adam ably complement this superb black comedy, featuring Sellers in three uniquely distinct roles. Like a fine wine, it improves with each passing year.

The Party (1968)

An understated Sellers performance that would have worked brilliantly in a half hour sitcom but ultimately overstays its welcome by half. Watch it though for the sheer agony and eventual joyful release of a man desperate to pass water.

Being There (1979)

Again, overlong by half but well worth a viewing for Seller’s interpretation of a childlike man whose bewildered silence is interpreted by senior American politicians as sheer brilliance. Shirley MacLaine found him a joy to work with but the acting honours sadly went to co-star Melvyn Douglas and Sellers missed out on a much overdue Oscar.

The Pink Panther Box Set (all 5 films)

These films have suffered in much the same way as the 007 epics from “television overkill,” so buy the box set and revisit them in a couple of years time. There is much still to savour.

The Parkinson Show (1974)

This filmed interview was issued on vinyl as an audio souvenir in the 70’s and is now freely available in the public domain via repeat transmissions and YouTube. It’s a wonderful free ranging discussion liberally laced with jokes, impersonations, Goon Show recollections and even a brief homage to the Emperor of Lancashire as Sellers grabs his ukulele to give the audience a brief reminder of George Formby at his zenith. For sure, the rendition is in a lower key than Formby’s original, but Peter was already in his late forties by then and what would have been achieved from straining his vocal chords?

The actor was in an artistic cul de sac by 1974 after a string of flop,s and his earnings potential would only revive the following year when he returned to the “Panther franchise.” His third marriage had floundered two years earlier, and his brief engagement to Liza Minelli bore the hallmarks of high farce. Only an appearance on the long running “Sykes” Tv series had offered a reminder of how great things might be again for this maestro of comic invention.

As the interview begins to wind down the most poignant moment comes when Parkinson asks him about his “personal happiness these days” and Sellers replies in such a distracted fashion that you just know you are looking at a deeply unhappy man.

The life and death of Peter Sellers (2004)

A film starring Geoffrey Rush as Sellers that highlights the lack of constancy in the comic actor’s life.

Running parallel alongside his near morbid preoccupation with career and personal happiness is an unhealthy mother/son relationship that lurks behind every corner. The film actually tones down some of the more shocking real life events such as son Michael’s thrashing with a belt* after he innocently touched up a scratch on his father’s Bentley. In the movie, Sellers tramples all over his son’s toys in retaliation and then suitably contrite, purchases a donkey for his sibling. *Interview with Michael Sellers – reprinted in The Independent 7/8/06)

Recommended reading

Peter Sellers – A Celebration (Virgin Books 1997)

An affectionate career retrospective full of anectodal reminiscenses from colleagues and crew intermingled nicely with a superb photographic portfolio of the actor through the years. If you’re looking for a “heavier tome” in both weight and character analysis then reach for the following…

The Life and death of Peter Sellers (Roger Lewis) 1995

This biography is ripe with conjecture and was as poorly received by book reviewers as Albert Goldman’s lengthy 1988 literary assassination of John Lennon. However there seems little point in castigating such works purely in deference to someone who has brought “professional joy” to millions. The general public has an insatiable appetite for trivia although in my case, and I feel I can speak for millions of others, a ‘superior’ understanding of a person can often provide a greater appreciation of their “art”. Dissecting my all time favourite records and how the constituent tracks were mixed together does not break any “childhood mystique” but rather enhances the listening experience. Similarly, understanding why and how Sellers could be so consumed by a characterisation throughout a three month shoot adds credibility to the old maxim “the artist suffers for his art”. Clearly, this sufferance sadly also extended to many people in his immediate orbit, leading one Sunday Times reviewer to comment that maybe Peter was not so much a “tortured genius” but rather a “genius who tortured”. Lewis clearly felt so, and his weighty tome served as the foundation for the Geoffrey Rush movie of the same name.

Close friend and fellow actor Graham stark was interviewed for this book and later regretted his contribution. Nevertheless he was not so much “misquoted” as aggrieved at the general tone of the book. As I said in my homepage introduction, we should expect little else as a general reaction from a close friend and professional colleague. In any event, Stark published his own more affectionate tome “Remembering Peter Sellers” three years later.


A Goon Show comendium with an interesting photo montage and complete scripts from every broadscast show.

Some interesting soundbites including all of the George Martin produced Beatles covers.

Peter Sellers – Late night Line Up 1965

The inspiration for Bluebottle, attitude to morbid humour following his multiple heart attacks, inveterate giggling on sound stages and his worst on stage recollection – it’s all here in a rare gem of an interview from the BBC archives.

Peter Sellers – Barclays commercials

Barclays clearly did for Sellers what the egg marketing board managed for Hancock. Some inspired vignettes and the comic actor’s last filmed performances before his death in July 1980.