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THE HAUNTED WORLD OF PETER SELLERS

Posted on: December 2, 2018

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The character of the Tragic Clown has been a perennial one in the world of show business, probably since the days when humans first began performing for each other.  The Tragic Clown who brings so much laughter to the world, and is so much loved by their public, and yet at heart is tormented by untold demons, acute loneliness and deep unhappiness.   Few come more tragic and haunted than British actor Peter Sellers, a very talented man who earned devotion from his legions of fans, and yet in private was a deeply disturbed individual who managed to alienate most of those around him.   Sellers also had a lifelong interest in the paranormal, and many close to him felt that his fascination became an unhealthy obsession which took over his life.

Sellers was born in Portsmouth, England, in 1925.  His parents were vaudeville performers, so you can say showbiz was in his blood.   He made his own very first public appearance was at the tender age of 2 weeks old, when Dick Henderson carried him onto the stage of the Southsea Theatre, where the audience serenaded him with For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow.  Baby Sellers wasn’t impressed, and cried in response.

His parents were often touring round, so Sellers had a vagabond childhood, but he was very close to his mother, Peg.  Many have said that their bond was too close, almost Oedipal.   Sellers’s Goon Show colleague, Spike Milligan, described it as unhealthy.  Peg was the archetypal, cosseting Jewish mother.  She lavished love and attention on young Peter, very likely exacerbated by the fact that she had lost her previous son, who had been born stillborn.  And this is the first strangeness in young Sellers’s life.  His deceased older brother had been called Peter, and, although Sellers was named Richard Henry, he was known ever afterwards in the family as Peter.   Young Sellers must have felt haunted by this ghostly older brother from the word Go.

It is safe to say that Sellers grew up into the classic Mummy’s Boy.  His every whim indulged by his adoring Mum.   When he signed up for military service in World War 2, Peg even went to live at a guesthouse near Peter’s training camp, so that she could keep an eye on him!   Many young men would have been acutely embarrassed by this excess of maternal devotion, but it never seems to have fazed Peter.   In fact, he seems to have accepted it as his divine lot in life to have Peg dancing attendance on him.  Spike Milligan recalled going to stay with them, and hearing Peter, lying regally in bed, constantly shouting for Peg to bring him things.  Peg of course was only too happy to oblige Her Boy.

After the end of World War 2 Peter got his first break in show business when he joined the cast of the radio comedy, the Goon Show, a hugely anarchic and surreal programme which ran for years, and still has a devoted following to this day.   One of his fellow Goons was the lovable Michael Bentine, an interesting, deep-thinking man who too had a lifelong interest in the paranormal.  Bentine had served in the RAF during the War, and he said he had developed premonitions.  He was able to tell which men would come back alive from their flying missions, and which ones were doomed, just by looking at them.

Peter became noted for his skill at mimicry, and a gift for creating comic characters.   Later in life he would compare himself to a medium channelling spirits, in that he simply opened himself up to a character and let it inhabit his body.   This is far from unknown in the creative arts (writers can have it too).  Other actors who worked with Peter said it wasn’t unusual for him to stay in character during rest breaks.   Sellers himself put this down to the fact that he claimed he had no personality of his own.  He was a hollow man, with no character.   I suppose, to put it more kindly, he was a blank canvas, waiting for another character to impose itself.   Again, this isn’t unusual.  Other comedy actors, such as Ronnie Barker and Arthur Lowe, could feel deeply uncomfortable about appearing as themselves, and would lapse into their characters instead.

Like many actors Sellers became deeply superstitious.  This is quite a common trait in the acting profession, particularly in the theatre world.  But Sellers seemed to be a bit of a magpie, picking up a superstition when he heard someone else had it, and adopting it as one of his own.  His son Michael would later claim this gave Sellers a licence to misbehave, such as the time he stormed off a film set because someone had been wearing the colour purple!   On a darker note, Michael said that Sellers had once killed a flock of doves on the roof of his country house, because he believed they would bring bad luck to the property.

As the 1950s wound into the 1960s, Sellers was reaching the peak of his fame.  He had appeared in a number of hit films, including The Ladykillers, The Naked Truth (where he played multiple characters), and I’m Alright, Jack, where he gave a brilliant performance as the militant trade union leader, Fred Kite.   Sellers was ripe for the bohemian hedonism and the Occult world of the Swinging Sixties.   He became obsessed with astrology, and would plan his day around what they had to say.  He became particularly attached to a flamboyant psychic and astrologer called Maurice Woodruff, the Derek Acorah of his day.  Woodruff was a charismatic cove, who claimed to be the 7th Son Of A 7th Son.   He predicted that Sellers would meet someone with the initials B E who would become very important to him.  Sellers thought he meant the film director Blake Edwards, but it was in fact Swedish beauty Britt Ekland.

Sellers spotted Britt when she arrived in London in February 1964, and they were married only 10 days later.   Britt was the hot stuff of her day, but this fuelled Peter’s jealousy and paranoia.   Anxious to impress his new bride in the bedchamber, he recklessly dosed himself up on stimulants.  The results were terrifying.   Sellers suffered multiple heart-attacks.   Whilst the doctors were fighting to save his life in hospital, Sellers claimed to have had a Near Death Experience.  He saw the ubiquitous tunnel, with the bright light at the end.  He said he than saw a large, strong arm which urged him to cling onto it, and told him his time wasn’t now.  Sellers was interviewed about the NDE on television several years later, and seems totally serious and sincere.  The movie star Elizabeth Taylor also claimed to have had a very similar NDE when she was in hospital once, after she had actually died for 5 minutes on the operating table.

Having such a traumatic experience as this would cause most people to re-evaluate their lives.  As the old saying goes “a heart attack is Nature’s way of telling you to slow down”.   Not Peter though.  He seemed to have got it into his head that cheating death this way had made him invincible.   That he was now some kind of Superman.  He predicted that he would in fact die in his sleep at the age of 75, and as such he would have nothing to fear until he turned 74.   Sadly this would not turn out to be true.

Peter’s career was about to take a negative turn.   He was virtually promised the earth to appear in the all-star film Casino Royale (needless to say, not the 2006 Daniel Craig version), which was to be a lavish send-up of the Bond films.  Casino Royale has gone down as one of the great mis-fires of cinema.  Its big budget and all-star cast couldn’t save it from being a confusing, unfunny, self-indulgent dogs breakfast of a movie.   It’s one of those films where all the cast look as though they’re having fun, regaling each other with in-jokes, and you, the audience, are left out of it, sitting on the sidelines in bewilderment.

One of Peter’s co-stars was the legendary Orson Welles.  Welles was a gifted conjuror, but Sellers took this as a sign that he was a magician, a master of the dark arts, and became scared stiff of him.  He decided he didn’t want to appear in any scenes with him, which made things very difficult for everybody else.   One of the Sellers’s famous friends was the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret.  It is alleged Sellers had an affair with her, and she famously popped up in one of his home movies, appearing out from behind a screen and waving regally at the camera.   Mags made a visit to the set one day, which must have delighted Sellers, giving him a chance to show off in front of the rest of the cast with his royal friend.  HRH though completely ignored him, and instead marched over to Orson Welles, gushing all over him.  Sellers must have felt this humiliation keenly.

When the film was released it was a flop, and the producer, Charles K Feldman,  died soon after from stomach cancer.  There is a rumour that Feldman believed Sellers had cursed him, not helped by the fact that Sellers himself believed that anyone who crossed him would come to an unfortunate end.   If he truly believed this, then I think the curse was ultimately on Sellers himself, as 1967 would turn out to be turning point in his fortunes all round.

Peg passed away in 1967, and Peter went into Queen Victoria levels of grief.  He built shrines to her wherever he went, and took to holding conversations with her as if she was standing right in front of him.  This might not have been so surprising, if the conversations hadn’t often been in public places, like restaurants and film sets.  Someone compared Sellers at this stage to Norman “a boy’s best friend is his mother” Bates in Psycho.    On one occasion Sellers even destroyed one of the sets on Casino Royale because Peg had appeared to him in a dream, and told him she didn’t like it.

Sellers turned his paranormal fixation away from astrologers and more onto mediums.  He conducted oujia board sessions, where he claimed to have contacted great men of the past, like Napoleon.  Spike Milligan was very unimpressed with these sessions, and said it was notable that Sellers conversed with dead pharaohs, but never with the ordinary Joe who had cleaned the loos in the pyramids!   A few years previously Sellers claimed to have contacted the spirit of Dan Leno, a music hall comedian, who had passed away in 1910.  Leno advised him to do the hugely popular Pink Panther films, so we have to grateful to him for that at least.

The late 1960s was of course the era of Flower Power, and Everything’s Like Real Deep, Man, and Sellers immersed himself in the counter-culture.   In 1969 he moved to Ireland as a tax exile, and indulged himself with marijuana.   He turned in on himself, even one day locking himself away, and cutting off his hair.  At around this time he married his umpteenth wife, Miranda Quarry, an aristocratic fashion model (she is now the Countess of Stockton), and real Hippy Child of the Flower Power era.  She is said to have had her own dogs as her bridesmaids.   Things must have looked ominous when she woke up on their honeymoon on a yacht, and found her bridegroom had legged it, hitching a lift with a passing water taxi, claiming he had made a mistake.

By now Sellers was a liability to film studios.  His health scares had made him uninsurable, but even without that his eccentric, unpredictable behaviour on set had made directors run shy of him.  When all is said and done, their job is to bring a film in on time, and preferably on budget.  They don’t need actors choosing when they’ll turn up, or developing a paranoid fear of their co-stars, or smashing up a set on the whim of their dead mothers!   Throughout the 1970s I still remember him cropping up on TV from time to time, where he would delight us with hilarious interviews, which were a joy to watch.   But Sellers was past his best.

Whilst making Revenge Of The Pink Panther in 1978 he suffered another heart-attack.  He consulted psychic surgeons, and claimed they had cured him through using chicken guts surgery (whatever that is).   His penultimate film Being There, was one he had yearned to play for years.  It was a real labour of love for him, and he desperately hoped he would win a long-awaited Academy Award for it.   Although Being There was highly regarded, the Award went to Dustin Hoffman for Kramer Vs Kramer, and Sellers’s disappointment was intense, doing nothing for his lifelong sense of deep-rooted inferiority.  In his diaries, Richard Burton mentioned meeting Sellers in the late 1960s.  Sellers had demanded to know how many Academy Award nominations Burton had had in his career.  When Burton replied that he had had 5, Sellers immediately ramped up on his own to try and impress him.  It was a silly fib, as it’s the sort of thing that is so easily found out, but that was him.

In the summer of 1980 Spike Milligan urged Sellers to fly back to England for a Goon Show reunion.  Milligan had a feeling in his bones that Sellers wouldn’t be around for much longer, and it would turn out to be all too true.  After lunching with friends in his suite at the Dorchester, Sellers had another heart-attack, and he passed away in the early hours of 24 July 1980.   Sadly he didn’t made anywhere near the age of 75 that he had previously predicted, he was in fact only 54.   But he had sure crammed a heck of a lot of living into those years.  His personal life had been tumultuous to say the least, and as a husband and a father he must have been an absolute nightmare.   For instance, he had once got a fixation that his children’s nanny was a witch, and had thrown a knife into her bedroom door.  The nanny had escaped by climbing out of the window.

He was the narcissistic  little Mummy’s Boy who had never grown up.  When his children were small he had spent a fortune on toys for them, including a giant train-set in the garden, but refused to let them play with it, as he wanted to use it himself.   He was a true clown in that he was perennially the mischievous toddler, playing pranks on life, but also objecting to anyone else getting attention.   As an entertainer his reputation should stay intact, as he brought so much laughter to so many people.  I can only hope he’s found peace now.   And the same goes for his son Michael, who also passed away of a heart-attack on the 24th of July … in 2006.  He was 52, just two years younger than his father had been.

As his Pink Panther co-star Burt Kwouk once said, people aren’t interested in most actors when they’re still alive, but we’re still interested in Sellers long after his death.

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