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The Ladykillers

On this day in 1955, The Ladykillers opened in UK cinemas. It starred Alec Guinness alongside a young, up-and-coming character comedian by the name of Peter Sellers.

Other cast members included Cecil Parker, Herbert Lom (who later worked with Sellers on the Pink Panther films) and Frankie Howerd, in “a cast-list as packed with talent as a pre-war sausage was stuffed with meat”, according to the Manchester Evening News’ critic John Stratten.

It was Sellers’ first big movie role and saw him playing Harry Robinson, a cockney criminal and member of Guinness’ quintet of crooks plotting to rob a bank van while posing as musicians.

The film was a commercial success and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. William Rose’s script – the plot for which he claimed to have dreamt – went on to win a BAFTA for Best British Screenplay.

Various polls by the British Film Institute, Total Film magazine, The Guardian and Time Out have all ranked the film as one of the best comedies of all time.

Illustration from the Daily Herald

While Alec Guinness was the star and Sellers was in ascendence, it was Katie Johnson who stole the show for many critics. She reportedly came out of retirement to play Mrs Wilberforce, the landlady and unwitting accomplice to the gang, and won a BAFTA for Best Actress for her performance.

“I am sure it was never Miss Johnson’s intention to steal the picture, but she has pottered vaguely off with it in her reticule,” Alex Walker wrote in the Birmingham Daily Gazette.

Mrs Wilberforce is initially none the wiser to the gang’s intentions, believing them to be a string quintet rehearsing. She even picks up the money for them. However, she soon twigs and threatens to turn them in to the police. Much of the subsequent comedy comes from the attempts by the five criminals to bump her off, double cross each other, and escape with the loot.

The Daily Herald’s film critic (whose name I can’t locate) also heaped praise on Katie Johnson, but also singled out our Peter.

“Apart from the incomparable Katie, I was most impressed by Peter Sellers. This is his first real shot at film comedy, and I predict he has some starry years ahead of him. He is that rare bird, a comedian who can play a character.”

A pretty astute prediction.

Publicity shots of Katie Johnson and Peter Sellers from The Tatler

Douglas Goodlad of the Leicester Chronicle added that Sellers was “a comedian for whom I have increasing respect” after his performance as “a gun-shy goon of a Teddy boy”.

Sellers at the time was busy commuting backwards and forwards (‘They have cars that go backwards?’) between London and Coventry, as he was appearing in a revue with Secombe and Milligan as part of the Coventry Theatre’s birthday show while also recording the sixth series of the Goon Show on Sunday evenings. According to the Birmingham Daily Post of 22 November 1955, he was given a couple of days off from his Midlands commitment to attend the film premiere.

In 2004, US film-makers Joel and Ethan Coen recreated The Ladykillers in a modern American setting with a cast led by Tom Hanks and featuring JK Simmons – but judging by the trailer, it isn’t a patch on the original.

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