Updated: Oct 12, 2021
Episode 11 of the first series was broadcast on 9 August 1951 and can be spotted in the Radio Times on page 26.
Secombe: It sounds like Peter Sellers. Forward him, with his hi-fi lawn mower! Sellers: It records as it cuts, and that is for me. Now, my applause please. [FX: Rapturous applause]
(from ‘Queen Anne’s Reign’, Series 9 Episode 8, broadcast 22 December 1958)
Peter Sellers was born in Southsea, Hampshire on 8 September 1925. He was named Richard Henry Sellers, but his parents called him Peter after an older brother who died as a baby.
His parents were both variety performers – his mother, Peg, was in an act called the Ray Sisters, and Peter would likely have watched his mother (and many other members of his family) perform. His father was the musical director of some of the Ray Sisters’ shows.
As cousins Ray Marks and Dick Ray recalled in this 1995 BBC documentary, Peg Sellers was a dominant figure in the family and doted on Peter. Spike Milligan stayed with the Sellers family for a while and was less than complimentary about how reliant Peter was on Peg.
Like Spike, Peter had a love of jazz and became a jazz drummer with Joe Daniels and his Hot Shots during the war, as well as his father’s quartet. He later joined the Entertainments National Service Association, which entertained soldiers and workers and later became the Combined Services Entertainment unit - future employers of Messrs Secombe and Milligan.
In September 1943 aged 18, he joined the RAF and quickly signed up to the Gang Show entertainment troupe, led by Ralph Reader, who had become famous producing variety shows – also called Gang Shows – in the 1930s. Sellers travelled with the group to India, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar, as well as visiting Germany and France after the war.
I’ve read more than one account of how Sellers used to impersonate senior officers so convincingly that he talked his way into the officers’ mess and ate and drank with RAF staff several ranks above him.
After being demobilised in 1946, he tried to resume a career in showbusiness. Like Harry Secombe and Michael Bentine, one of his first successes was a run of performances at The Windmill Theatre in London. This was a major stepping stone for performers and many of Sellers’ peers of that era performed there first. It was a tough gig – each revue act was merely filling the gaps between the naked women that staged tableaux, and it was these the men in the audience were actually there to see.
The story of the start of Peter Sellers’ career at the BBC is well known: having made a couple of appearances on television (which barely anybody would have seen, TV being in its infancy) he grew frustrated and phoned senior BBC producer Roy Speer. I’ll let Peter tell the story, as he did to Michael Parkinson in 1974:
He met the rest of the Goons in the Grafton Arms, as we’ve discussed, and the rest is history.
I’ll revisit Mr Sellers later in the year when we get to his birthday – one he shares with Harry Secombe, funnily enough! This will give me a chance to read one of the newest Goon-related books, Bluebottle Goes To War by PJ Brownsword, published in 2020.