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Scottish Sojourn:Revisiting Peter Sellers

Posted at 5:31 AM on September 18, 2006 by Euan Kerr

Having missed it when it first came out I saw "The Life and Death of Peter Sellers" the other night. It's a sad and disturbing film, with Geoffrey Rush turning in a startling performance as the iconic British comedian who at one point claimed he had no personality.

While best known in the States for his roles as Inspector Clouseau, and for his multiple roles in Kubrick's "Dr Strangelove," Sellers was a huge radio star in Britain for years before being discovered by Hollywood. Along with Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe he starred in "The Goon Show" which is widely credited as being the forerunner of later wild-eyed zany comedies such as Monty Python.

While the Goons had run their course by the time Sellers got into film, there has always been a mild sense of betrayal among hard core fans of the radio show (which includes Prince Charles) at how Sellers made the break for la-la-land. As the stories came out about how Sellers was actually a complete jerk, some British loyalists had difficulty believing that this could be true of childhood comedic idol.

"The Life and Death of Peter Sellers" looks at what happened, and provides a portrait of a deeply selfish man who was never satisfied, who was abusive to his wives (he had four,) and his children. It's engrossing, and challenging, and ultimately mildly unsatisfying.

The film got mixed reviews when it came out a couple of years back. Many people blamed the problem of having to make people are about a character who apparently had no emotional link to anyone around him.

Director Steven Hopkins takes Sellers chameleon aspect one step further by having Rush perform a soliloquy in the guise of certain key characters as they are about to leave the story. It's unnerving, and leads to a neat little twist at the end. (Twin Cities theater fans may be interested to learn that Rush is a graduate of the Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris, which also produced the four founder membes of Theatre de la Jeune Lune.)

Perhaps sensing there is something missing in the film, the BBC used it's wealth of time and archive tape to screen "Being There" Sellers academy-award nominated swansong performance, and then an documentry "The Peter Sellers Story: As he filme it" which featured dozens of extracts from Sellers own home movies. It's well worth a look if you can find it.

September 2006
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