The Life And Death Of Peter Sellers

By Roger Lewis
Century, London, 1994, 817 pp., $35.00
Reviewed by Bill Davies

Perhaps this is one of those books that should come with a warning: "not suitable reading for people with fond memories of Peter Sellers. Persons still chuckling over his performances from the BBC Goon Shows through The Pink Panther, The Party and Being There are liable to suffer irreversible disillusionment and even revulsion." In fact the book's jacket is the warning label: the uncompromising title superimposed over a shot of Sellers gloomily contemplating the end. But this is no scandal-slurping biography of the Kitty Kelly variety. Roger Lewis, an Oxford don, brings to his research an approach at once scholarly and omnivorous. He appears to have interviewed everyone who had ever known Sellers, has read all the letters, examined the scripts, the financial documents, the hotel bills, anything that will cast light on his subject's strange and unhappy life. In the four years he took to research and write the book, Lewis not only leaves no stone unturned: he examines each one between thumb and forefinger to find one last creepy-crawly that others may have missed, and he gives us the benefit of his findings. Nothing is too trivial or repetitious to be left out. It is a psychoanalytical dossier on a great comic actor, who had a lot to be psychoanalysed about.

A note in Chapter 1 sets the stage: in 1657 Oliver Cromwell permitted the Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal to settle in London. Fast-forward to 1790 and one Daniel Mendoza, a descendant of that Sephardic community, who thought of himself as a Regency Buck but was in fact a jack-of-all-trades, when he wasn't boxing and giving lesser mortals a good thrashing for real or (more often) imagined insults. The prize fighter Mendoza is Peter Sellers' great-great grandpapa. Lewis introduces a genetic factor to account for Sellers' attitude to life and his treatment of his wives and children, his producers and fellow-actors, and all the others who had the misfortune to come in contact with him.

Sellars (as his non-Jewish father spelt his name) was born in 1925 in Southsea, near Portsmouth, and joined the ranks of backstage babies. He was dragged through the treadmill of one-night stands in shabby provincial music halls, but it was here that the seeds of Sellers' mimic genius were sown. The fraudulent old hams, the down-at-heel would-be Sir Henry Irvings booming and roaring phony geniality at the sickly little lad in Peg and Will Sellars' dressing room---they were not forgotten.

Not that young Sellers was any infant phenomenon of the mimetic arts. He was a spoilt mama's boy, a nasty brat who was never reprimanded for his often cruel and vicious behaviour, as Lewis chronicles in detail. Sellers grew up with no friends of his own age, while getting all the indulgence he obnoxiously demanded. He didn't do well at school, though presumably he picked up some trouper's mannerisms at the children's acting "academies" he was sent to. And he was working at his mimicry and impersonations.

"Peter Sellers and his stupid voices," was Orson Welles' contemptuous dismissal, yet Sellers' voices and characters earned him millions and allowed him to do whatever he wanted, while Welles spent a lifetime trying to raise money for his films.

But at first the impersonations weren't a big hit. As Disraeli in North London, as George Formby in Peterborough, Sellers flopped. He turned to playing the drums at the Aldershot Hippodrome, a low ebb in his career, until he was taken on at London's Windmill Theatre (We Never Closed, etc.). The Windmill presented non-stop girlie shows of such immobile nudity and propriety as to make the strippers at your local tavern seem like something from Sodom and Gomorrah.

Many British comics got their start at the Windmill. It was here that Sellers met Old Etonian Michael Bentine, Harry Secombe (now a knighted opera singer) and that mad, creative genius Spike Milligan. In consequence "The Goon Show" was born on BBC Radio in 1949. It was anarchic comedy, meticulously timed and produced to the highest BBC standards.

Sellers was no ordinary comic impersonator doing showbiz types and politicians. He created and sustained characters by accent, class and vocal mannerisms in a quite uncanny fashion. Bentine once said it was as though Sellers had a tape recorder between his ears, so exactly could he reproduce Bentine's conversation of the previous 20 minutes. Sellers' contributions to the Goons included the disdainful aristo Grytpype-Thynne, up to no good; the ghastly Bluebottle; the boy scout with several screws loose; and Henry Crun, the muttering geriatric. They all came from Sellers' own comic ectoplasm.

The Goon Show meant success, popularity and money---and movies. First came The Ladykillers, with Alec Guinness, then the memorably sad, pompous shop steward Fred Kite in I'm Alright Jack---perhaps the first serious evidence that Sellers was an actor capable of creating a part. The first big money came with The Millionairess (1961), together with an infatuation for Sophia Loren---which was not reciprocated.

With the money came the toys, real toys like elaborate model railways, motor cars (Sellers had dozens and Lewis lists them all), yachts, cameras, sound systems and expensive movie equipment for his obsessive home movies. Then there were the wives (four) and children (three), to be treated like toys and discarded for something better, something newer.

There was his son, Michael, who at age six thought he would try to please daddy by spray-painting over some scratches on the new Bentley. For this Sellers whipped him. And then there was Buttercup, his daughter Vicky's pony, a present from daddy. But not for long. One day Sellers took it away in a horse-trailer and gave it to Princess Margaret's children.

And with the money and the wives and the children came anger and ill-health. He had several heart attacks. Sellers thought each was going to be his last. In July 1980, at the Dorchester Hotel, one was. Peter Sellers' coffin slides into the flames to the tune of "In the Mood"; the remaining family feuds endlessly; daughter Vicky disintegrates into a life of Hollywood prostitution and drugs and Sellers' wife dies of drug or alcohol poisoning.

The penultimate chapter is well titled "The Evil that Men Do."

Bill Davies is a Vancouver writer.


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