A new film about PETER SELLERS paints a very unsavoury portrait. Paul Dale looks at the mad times of Mr Strangelove and asks whether his background dictated that his genius had to come at such a high price.
it WM. a minor intisic hall star and former repertory \y'ater
nymph bore a son to Bill Sellers. The baby was called Peter. but
the boy died yery young and was buried.
.-\ year later they had another child to replace the dead one. and called him Peter too. Some cultures belieye that those children groyyn in the \y‘ombs ol‘ recently bereay‘ed parents “ill take on the personality of that unl'ortunate older sibling so they can giye back to their parents what they haye lost. The inlant Peter must haye lel‘t
something behind. for he took the talent ol~ the dead boy but none ol’
To be lair. Peter Sellers. the socially acceptable hutnan being. neyer had a chance. He was the product of a particularly yicious and ambitious line of commercially obsessed Variety theatre l‘olk who seemed bent on exploiting the Jewish and working class communities they belonged to — and despised. Sellers spent his infancy learning to hate the smell of the greasepaint. Two weeks into his little lil‘e he \y as carried on stage by primetime \ariety henchtnan Dickie Henderson. \y'ho encouraged the audience to join him in a chorus of lot He‘s a .lolly (iood l5elloyy‘. Peter burst into tears while the punters erupted into laughter and applause. lt \y as an emotional scenario that. as far as Peter was concerned. “as played out until his death in l‘)8().
Sellers’ transgression l’rom reluctant stage hand. performer and
l‘at St Aloysius school boy to radio perl‘ormer \y as in no way extraordinary l‘or that part ol' the leth century. Inspired by the early \y'artime broadcasts ol' popular radio comedian 'l'onuny llandley (notably It's That .llmi slum/i \yith its liunny \oices. taste l'or puns and brand ol‘ humour that would haye lallen l'lat \yith anyone other than the Britishl Sellers decided lor the lirst time in his Inc to perl‘orm. By I‘MR yy hen he yy as reaching conscription age. he becatne a drummer under his quiet l'ather's guidance. Spurred by ambition and the need to put some distance betyyeen hitnsell~ and his rather cloy'ing (though much loy‘edi mother. Sellers joined the RAP From there the history is written: he met l)a\id Lodge. Michael Bentine. l)a\'id Stark. Spike Milligan. Harry Secombe and the (loons were formed out of \arious army (jun: Shouts.
Bit parts in lialing comedies l'olloyyed. which led to a triple role in Jack Arnold's The Home that Rmm'r/ by the end ol' the 50s. This in turn led to yyork on Anthony Asquith‘s ’I'lu' .lli'l/imturrms. Kubrick's Lolita and Dr .S‘Irtuigt'loi'v. the Boulting brothers' underrated llmwm .-\lmi‘v.’ and. of course. Blake lidyyards‘ The Pink Panther. Then a decade of l'lops \yere curtailed by the low key success of the one lilm he really wanted to make (due mainly to his basic beliel‘ that he was an empty \‘Csscl into yyhich could be poured the personalities of others) — an adaptation ol Jer/y KosinsRiK opaque and brilliant 197i) noyella Being There.
['1 5:1. ‘C' ' .27»: THE LIST 13