PETER SELLERS

29 May 2011

[Picture of Sellers as Clouseau]Peter Sellers is a childhood hero of mine.  I cannot think of him without smiling.  Loads of people have said that Peter Sellers is the greatest comedian of all time. They just might be right.

However, a lot has been written about Sellers, but most of this is rubbish.  I say that, not because I know better; I never met him, and never knew him. I say that because most of what’s been written has been by people who also didn’t know him either. There is also a lot of looking back with today’s prevalent views and dominant ideology, and I don’t think you should do that; Sellers was a man of those times, not of today’s.

I can recall the way men were when I was younger and everyone smoked and drank. I can remember my father’s friends and I can still pick up the vibe.  Those were days when women dressed very differently from men.  The gender gap was massive compared with today.  There was a man’s world and Sellers lived and worked there.  Back then you could understand someone turning down open-heart surgery after having 13 heart attacks in a short space of time.

I do not believe he was depressed in the modern sense.  I think he was a very creative and humorous personality, and this would naturally lead to periods of writer’s block, and of boredom.  I don’t think we ought to make too much of any of that.  Humans have good times and bad times, I think we can forgive and forget most of the normal human errors and traits in favour of the aspects that matter — in Sellers’s case, what made him loved and famous was his creativity, his fun and his personality.

I was not really old enough for The Goon Show era, but I did appreciate these later when I heard them. I got into Milligan, and then Sellers made it big.

Dudley Moore sort of did the same thing later — a very specialised form of comedy, and a not-all-that-good-looking man making it big in the States.  Super models and yachts in the South of France.  Sellers blazed that trail.

Sellers and Moore are so valuable in that respect.  This cannot be underestimated; it shows that yes, it IS possible to live that life — to join the megarich Hollywood jetset — as long as you had genuine talent. And you do not have to sell-out and change!  And its not just Dud, Rowan Atkinson has gone into movies, and he’s a hit with Mr Bean (even in cartoon form), Russell Brand is just starting.

[Cartoon Inspector]For me, and so many others, Peter Sellers was definitely a role model.  I adored his out takes (I am pretty sure he single-handedly invented the out take genre); they showed the fun he had at work.  Hey, I wanted to have a job like that.  Imagine enjoying your work? Everyday would be such fun! He was such a student of human nature (all mimics are), too much is made of him saying he had no personality as he was always adopting a character or other — THAT was his personality, he interprets and reflects, and uses inventive ways to communicate his views and feelings. I can identify with that, sometimes I have to put on a silly voice to say something important, and I really don’t know why, other than it is how I somehow have to do it!

I simply remember Inspector Jacques Clouseau as one of the funniest characters I have ever seen.  I love all the Pink PanthersSteve Martin, sorry, but the role is Sellers’s.  These films always make me laugh – and without fail – and within a few minutes because they are so tightly written, gag after  gag of comedy genius.

There really has been nothing to match it since.  The nearest have been American self-referential cultural parodies, such as  Porky’s,  Animal House, Police Academy, Police Squad, and Airplane.  All very silly, very, very funny, but not ground-breakingly genre-inventing original.  Pink Panther came from nowhere, it set the bar.  Edwards and Sellers were not doing ironic humour, developing a TV show sketch or referring to modern media culture (such as The Simpsons and Family Guy do).

[Picture of Sellers as Dr Strangelove]The legacy is obvious — not just the cartoon character in the Pink Panther show, or the Goon Show’s influence on Monty Python and so forth. But the character of Dr Strangelove too. We couldn’t have ‘Allo ‘Allo with their rubbish French accents without Clouseau. Harry Enfield and so many of today’s British comedians refer back to Goons, Sellers and Python as a matter of course.  But Sellers was kinda cool too, everyone wanted to be around that type of guy because it was going to be good fun.

Peter Sellers’s biggest feat was being able to pull off being a really funny comedian, yet being a proper grown up man (he managed never to come across as a fool or an idiot). He managed to be one of the cool crowd, a jet-setter, with his own ratpack, and yet he stayed himself.  He often said he was always in character as there was no Peter Sellers character, but he never changed into an American fake or flake.  For a man with no character, he had bags of something that everyone could agree was “Peter Sellers”.

I read not that long ago that he was brought up with a strict Roman Catholic education, and because his mother was Jewish, he was sensitive to religious topics especially anti-Semitic or bigoted comments.  He was not of any religion, but it is very clear that he had a strong moral compass.  He shared that with his close friend in the Goons, Harry Secombe – who later presented a long-running Christian Hymn programme on British TV.

But it is telling that with his health crises, he never turned to religion, but to alternative therapies.

“Being There” was simply wonderful acting, and a triumph in that it showed the preposterousness of our ways without hamming up the comedy. Textbook example of exactly how this ought to be done.

Ultimately, you can look back over Sellers’s work knowing that it is safe — you can watch with your family without fear. No political subtexts, no cultural references to date it, no swearing or off-colour stuff.  It’s not Carry-On, it’s not Benny Hill slapstick, it’s just real life with the fun squeezed to the fore. It shows up the preposterousness and pomposity of our world.

That’ll do me. It’s timeless; we never learn.

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