Will the real Peter Sellers please stand up?
Updated: Oct 12, 2021
In an odd coincidence, Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers share the same birthday – 8 September.
Sir Harry turns 100 tomorrow so, a day early, happy birthday to the man behind Grytpype-Thynne, Bluebottle, Henry Crun, Major Bloodnok, Inspector Clouseau, Dr Strangelove, and so many others: Peter Sellers.
His early years are chronicled in brief in this 8 June blog, and I also published this on the anniversary of his death.
Playing so many voices limited some interactions between characters, but there was always a way around it.
Henry Crun (Sellers): Aaah! Now who was that knocking? Moriarty (Milligan): It was my friend, Grytpype-Thynne. Henry Crun: I can’t see him. Moriarty: That’s because you are playing him. Henry Crun: What? Moriarty: He’s never here when you’re here. Henry Crun: I don’t understand. Moriarty: Neither do the audience, that’s why it isn’t getting a laugh.
(from ‘The £1,000,000 Penny’, Series 9 Episode 3, broadcast 17 November 1958)
It’s impossible for me to do justice to Sellers right now, so I will instead share two documentaries. The first is a BBC documentary featuring input from family (and lots of Max Geldray’s music in the background).
The second is a film by Tony Palmer, claiming to be “the definitive portrait” of Peter Sellers. There is a lot of his voice commentating, answering questions, and performing for various cameras, but there is also a lot of Spike Milligan narrating his thoughts about Sellers, which at times are quite cutting.
Asked whether he recognised himself in this documentary, Sellers remarked: "No, not at all."
Asked whether he meant what he said about Sellers (in the same interview), Milligan remarked: "I was pissed."
Sellers was obviously a fantastically talented actor and comedian, but he was also such a volatile, contradictory character. There are so many stories of his generosity, but also many of his selfishness, or at least a lack of self-awareness, that could be damaging to the people around him.
Ultimately, though, as a Goon Show fan, to me he will always be Bluebottle. And Grytpype. And Henry Crun. And Willium. And so on and so on.
“If he played Hitler, he’d possibly end up in a bunker having committed suicide… Will the real Peter Sellers stand up? Not until he’s dead.”
(Spike Milligan, speaking in Tony Palmer’s Peter Sellers documentary)