That Old Feeling: Who Was Peter Sellers?

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Wait a sec. A comic impressionist — one often criticized as a sketch comic who never crawled under the skin of his characters — is "more interesting" than the man widely proclaimed the greatest actor of his century? There was a time when knowledgeable people said this, with hope and seriousness, of Sellers. Another stage director of prominence, Peter Hall, had endured Sellers' capriciousness and short attention span when he staged the 1958 comedy "Brouhaha." Yet Hall said Sellers was "as good an actor as Alec Guinness, as good as actor as Laurence Olivier." And what did Larry think of Peter? Highly. He wanted Sellers to play King Lear at the Chichester Festival.

Most of the people Sikov interviewed for his book have a "but" to offer about Sellers. Miller — who had been a member of the "Beyond the Fringe" team, another 60s quartet influenced by Sellers and the Goons — called the actor "a receptacle rather than a person. And whatever parts he played completely filled the receptacle, and then they were drained out. And the receptacle was left empty and featureless. Like a lot of people who can ... change their characters, he could do so because he hadn't any character himself." (Kubrick famously said, "There is no such person as Peter Sellers.") Hall adds this cogent caveat: "It's not enough in this business to have talent. You have to have the talent to handle the talent, and that, I think, Peter did not have."

He did not have the patience or discipline for theater, which demands that an actor keep a performance fresh the 400th time. On a film set, Sellers was bored by the fourth take. He sparked ideas, voices, a motley crowd of personalities that make make Sybil seem emotionally monotonous. Robert Wagner, a co-star on "The Pink Panther," said of Sellers, "He had such a circus going on within his head." Maybe a circus, more likely a cacophony: Barnum & Bedlam. Which made it tough for Sellers, who couldn't stop the music inside. "Peter's not a genius," said Milligan, who knew him well and appraised him frankly. "He's something more. He's a freak." Blake Edwards, director of the "Pink Panther" farces and of "The Party," a mordant comic highlight of Sellers' career, offered this opinion, or obit: "I think he lived a great part of his life in hell."


Richard Henry Sellers, nicknamed Pete, was born September 8, 1925, to a music-hall artiste, Bill Sellers, and his wife Agnes Marks Sellers, known as "Peg." Peg's family had a long, colorful showbiz history; Pete's great-great-grandfather was Daniel Mendoza, "the most renowned Jewish prizefighter of the 18th century." (Could there be more than one? Yes.) The boy made his professional debut at the age of two weeks; he was carried on stage and the audience sang, "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow."

That was the beginning of an odd, pampered childhood. "He was a little monster," one relative said. When Pete pushed an aunt into a burning fireplace, Peg clucked indulgently. If she was the family's hearth, Bill was the wallpaper. Spike Milligan semi-jokes that Bill "was dead, and nobody had the courage to tell him." Milligan has a memorial image of Bill "smoking and playing the piano at one and the same time. The family was full of talent."

When Peg wasn't treading the boards, she'd go "golding": buying bits of gold cheap from unknowing folk in outlying villagers, then selling the bits in London for a healthy profit. Pete would stay in the car, but Peg still seems like a female Fagin, instructing her son in the art of duplicity. Vaudeville or fraud-ville, it was all showbiz to her.

In World War II Sellers was part of "the Gang Show," an informal comedy troupe, founded in 1932, that raised spirits and money by putting on revues. Peter, an excellent drummer, added comic patter to his routine, and by the end of the 40s he was working regularly on the music-hall circuit and on radio, contributing a panoply of voices to several comedy shows. He had known Milligan, an Army brat raised in India, and fell in with the idea of a radio series that would star him and Secombe and be tethered to Milligan's free-floating imagination. (Larry Stephens and Eric Sykes would help shape the scripts.) Milligan had always wanted to call it "The Goon Show," after the Cyclopsian clods in the "Popeye" comic strip. But for the first season, which began May 26, 1951, the program was called "Crazy People." That seems about right.


The "Goon Show" turned Secombe and Sellers into cult stars and Milligan, who wrote nearly all 232 half-hours, into a nervous wreck. The other two stars were free to appear in films and on music-hall bills, returning for the Sunday show, but Spike was chained to his imagination, turning out scripts. "I would write one, and then I had to write another one in five days," he recalls in the helpful history "The Goons: The Story," edited by Norma Farnes. "It was an inborn spirit of pressure willing me on to my death." By the eighth season he had worked himself into a nervous breakdown.

For a few years, each show comprised four or five skits. Not until the fourth season did the Goons find their lasting format: a single story with two musical interludes. The idiot hero, Neddy Seagoon (in Secombe's crisp, inane tenor voice), would materialize in Caesar's Rome or Vichy France, find himself in a dreadful scrape, get no help at all from the Goon Gallery — including sassy, slow-witted proto-Goon Eccles (Milligan), the spinster Minnie (Milligan), crusty Maj. Bloodnok (Sellers), whiny young Bluebottle (Sellers), the ancient inventor Henry Crun (Sellers), upper-class cad Hercules Grytpype-Thynne (Sellers) — and somehow emerge triumphant, or at least alive.

But the play wasn't the thing: "The Goon Show" thrived on Sellers' mimetic skills and, even more, on Milligan's verbal Dada, excruciating puns, scream-of-consciousness plotting, and an encyclopedic memory for music-hall farce. Listen to the old shows — which are now available, four to a set, on CD from — and see if you're not groaning and giggling in equal, lavish measure.

The world's oldest jokes: "Put the cat out." / "Why?" / "It's on fire." ... Or: "Have you ever seen a comic strip?" / "Only in a Turkish bath."

World's worst puns: For "Rommel's Treasure," the announcer begins, "The scene: Libya. The time: the present day. Inside a British officers' mess at the wadi of El Yah Wont." Phone rings, is answered by Sellers (as Major Bloodnok): "Wadi a 'ell ya want?" ... Or: Later in that same episode, the Goons rendezvous with a German officer, Gen. Helfisbad. "Who's General Helfisbad?" / "Mine is. It's been bad for a year."

At its freewheeling best, Milligan's dialogue is not a tennis match of wit but an escalator of illogic, each line a few degrees more ludicrous than the one that preceded it. Sellers (in "Ill Met by Goonlight"): "Crete is in the Mediterranean, you know." Secombe: "Won't it get wet?" Sellers: "What? It's got an umbrella, you idiot." At times, the madness ascends into brisk sublimity, as in this exchange:

Sellers: Excuse me, Sir, there's someone to see you.
Secombe: Who is it?
Sellers: Me.
Secombe: Well, ask you to come in.
Sellers: I am in.
Secombe: Then get out!

Britain was a few years behind America in its embrace of television. Throughout the 50s, English audiences still got most of their entertainment on the ear-waves. "The Goon Show" increased its listenership up through its last season, 1960, though it made fun of TV as it did everything else. In the 1954 episode "Lurgi Strikes Britain," Neddy tells Eccles to "stand on my shoulders and pull me up," then asides: "I'd like to see them do this on television!" Milligan's buoyant surrealism would have been impossible to visualize, except by his audience. That's why he loved radio, "where the pictures are better because they happen on the other side of your eyes."


"The Goon Show" had made the many voices of Peter Sellers welcome to the public ear. Now, pursuing a film career, he would join the sprawling family of mid-century character comics who populated English movies — the Brit pack. Each represented a distinct social or regional type; each functioned as human shorthand for screenwriters and audiences alike. Many appeared frequently with Sellers as he rose from featured player to star. A few were part of his portable troupe. Graham Stark (15 films with Sellers), a sergeant in Seller's Goon Show unit, played butlers and other ignorable functionaries, but he was best at pathetic weasely types, Gollums in galoshes, flashers in smelly raincoats. David Lodge (12 movies) was more robust of physique, a standard tough guy memorable as the sleazy boyfriend in "The Dock Brief." Kenneth Griffith (6), a 30-year Sellers friend, carved a career as the shrew-pecked husband, ever anticipating humiliation.

Around Sellers prowled a bestiary of delicious tintypes. The queasy smile on the middle-management face of John Le Mesurier (12 Sellers films) semaphored that something was about to go dreadfully wrong, and Le Mesurier's only victory was in escaping blame for the catastrophe. Dennis Price (7 films) played the aristocrat down on his luck and short of scruples. Thorley Walters (6) blustered in a military fashion; Bloodnok ran through his veins. Miles Malleson (5) played the Aged P. or dotty cleric. Raymond Huntley (5) was the gruff board member, a stickler for the rules unless they go against him; his more agitated twin was Cecil Parker (2), always looking to smooth things over, always knowing he can't. Irene Handl (5) carved a sweet niche as the smiling, working-class mum, and Hattie Jacques (3) was the stern matron with a woman wrestler's physique.

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