The Biographer’s Story

Jonathan Coe

  • The Life and Death of Peter Sellers by Roger Lewis
    Century, 817 pp, £20.00, April 1994, ISBN 0 7126 3801 6

What exactly do we know about Peter Sellers? There have been at least half a dozen biographies before this one, and through them the outline of his career has become pretty familiar. We know that he was born in 1925, the only son of a Jewish mother, that his parents worked in a touring theatre company, and that during the war he joined the RAF and performed in Ralph Reader’s Gang Shows. Soon afterwards he teamed up with Michael Bentine, Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan to form The Goons: slightly wearing to listen to now (I suppose you had to be there at the time) but routinely credited with having ‘revolutionised British post-war comedy’ – unless that was Monty Python or Beyond the Fringe. He moved slowly but surely into film comedy, was outstandingly good in such low-key successes as The Naked Truth and I’m All Right, Jack, and even turned in memorable performances in a couple of Kubrick films. A combination of his burgeoning superstardom and a succession of no fewer than eight heart attacks in 1964 aggravated all the worst aspects of his character, so that he became increasingly difficult to live and work with. He had four failed marriages, mistreated his son and daughters terribly and did not star in a single good film between 1964 (A Shot in the Dark) and 1979 (Being There). He died a rich man, intending to leave his money to his children and the British Heart Foundation, but in order to effect a temporary reconciliation he had added a codicil to his will bequeathing it to his estranged fourth wife, Lynne Frederick, who kept it all to herself, married David Frost with indecent haste and recently died in California of a drug overdose.

So much for the facts. One of Roger Lewis’s main achievements in his new and frankly enormous biography – at least four times longer than any of the others – is to have fleshed this skeleton out to the point of corpulence with a great deal of arcane and exhaustively researched detail. But the real triumph of his book lies in its character portrayal. Layer by layer, and with harrowing lucidity, it discloses a most extraordinary personality: aggressive, overbearing, intolerant, often crass and insensitive, sometimes brilliant – and almost certifiably egomaniacal.

Many of these epithets could equally be applied to Peter Sellers, of course: but my reference at the moment is entirely to Roger Lewis himself, for The Life and Death of Peter Sellers is above all a writer’s essay in self-portraiture. Readers of Lewis’s previous book, Stage People, might have expected as much, for he hinted at his own eccentric theory of biography there in an ominous aside. A propos Citizen Kane, he remarked: ‘Welles knew ... that any man is too complex for narrative neatness. Digressions and blind alleys are part of the story. An idiosyncratic structure, with flashbacks, false starts, new approaches, reversals and counterpoints, is the only authentic way to construct a biography.’ Fair enough: and the pleasingly haphazard architecture of this book is a good example of the theory put into practice. But what he added in a footnote was scarier: ‘Richard Ellmann’s bitter, professional Joyce and the weary, enigmatical Wilde are portraits of the biographer as he worked on those big and beautiful books. The real biographies of Joyce and Wilde are the histories of the works they themselves set down. All else, as Guy Davenport perfectly observed, “is lunch, looking over the newspaper, and endorsing cheques”.’ I find the second half of Lewis’s argument here confusing. The ‘real’ biographies of writers, apparently, consist not of circumstantial detail (lunch, looking over the newspaper etc) and not simply of their ‘works’, but the ‘histories’ of these works. So what form is such a history supposed to take? And who is supposed to write it? Mightn’t it be relevant to the ‘history’ of Joyce’s works that he sometimes interrupted his writing of them to have lunch or to look over the newspaper? It’s hard to see exactly what Lewis is getting at. But his first point is pretty unequivocal: although he admires Richard Ellmann’s ‘big and beautiful’ books on Joyce and Wilde, he does not regard them as ‘real’ biographies but as ‘portraits of the biographer’. It seems fair to say that Lewis has taken Ellmann – or his interpretation of Ellmann – as the model for his biography of Peter Sellers, and that he therefore intends it to be read not as a ‘real’ biography (for that is already inscribed in the ‘history’ of Sellers’s ‘works’), but as a portrait of the biographer himself. Certainly the resulting book is big.

And so this volume kicks off not with an account of its (ostensible) subject’s formative years or – as do most of the other Sellers biographies – with a flashforward to his last fatal heart attack, but with several pages of cheerful reminiscence about the teenage Lewis and his early obsession with Peter Sellers. ‘My first movie love was Norman Wisdom,’ we are told, and soon we are settling down with our narrator in the front parlour of the family home in ‘rain-lashed industrial South Wales’, watching old comedy movies on a Coronation-era TV with a wonky contrast-control. Next we learn how he transferred his affection from Wisdom to Sellers and became so enamoured of his new idol that ‘I used to want to be Peter Sellers. I went about in tinted spectacles (rare then), a French fireman’s helmet and a leatherette-effect lady’s mackintosh from Peacock’s, Caerphilly, which was the nearest I could find to an ankle-length Nazi greatcoat.’ Sellers and Lewis, it seems (although, sadly, the film star would never live to learn it), were two of a kind: ‘acting was clearly an ideal home for his excesses, as it was for mine.’

Well, publishers these days often ask their authors to begin on an autobiographical note, knowing that the reader can sometimes warm to books which are obviously written out of a strong sense of personal involvement. But Lewis, amazingly, sustains his note of Proustian nostalgia right up to the end. On page 625, for instance, a casual reference to Jack Lemmon’s role in The Great Race triggers off a typical footnote: ‘Author’s note: In my younger years, in Monmouthshire, I would attend Fancy Dress Parties as Lemmon’s black-garbed Professor Fate.’ What’s more, his childhood propensity for imitating his favourite movie stars has evidently been carried over into adult life, for Lewis not only paints a picture of Sellers as rude, capricious and irritable, but he also goes out of his way to claim exactly these characteristics as his own. An extreme instance occurs in a bizarre footnote (nearly all the most revealing parts of the book are in footnotes) where Lewis recalls his exchange of letters with Tessa Dahl, who once went out with Sellers.

Some considerable time before I’d read her novel ... she’d turned down my request for an interview. ‘Peter should be allowed to rest in peace.’ she informed me. I am ashamed of my response. I scrawled HOLY CHRIST WHAT SANCTIMONIOUS BALLS on her envelope and mailed it back. I at least demonstrated, through my callous stupidity, that behaving badly and ungraciously was not a Sellers monopoly. I unreservedly apologise.

Part of the explanation for this book, then, might be that Lewis – saddled with his oddball theory of biography-as-self-portrait – simply cast around for a personality which would match up with his own and lit upon Sellers. There are occasional efforts elsewhere in the text to suggest another, less plausible motive – namely, Lewis’s admiration for Sellers the performer. But does he really admire him at all, even on this level? Towards the end of the book, after heaping vitriol on his later performances (‘shallow, vulgar, careless ... he buried his career’) he tacks on a disclaimer: ‘in saying that, I am aware that I am talking about a man who gave more pleasure to the public than almost any other actor since the grafting of sound to moving pictures. What he achieved was more than most people manage – hence the huge scale of his failure, too.’ This is half-hearted, at best. In his Introduction Lewis rhapsodises about Sellers’s double role in The Wrong Arm of the Law: ‘It went beyond acting. It was a reconstitution. This book originates in my desire to know more about the magician who could accomplish feats like that.’ But how are we to square this with his perfunctory dismissal of Sellers in Stage People, where we were told that to compare Sellers with Alec Guinness was ‘to notice the difference between acting and mimicry’: ‘Sellers entirely lacked grace and gravitas; he was a brattish, unintelligent performer, happy only when dodging into coarse goonery.’

It seems clear enough from this that although he is not above making a few placatory noises in the direction of the legions of Peter Sellers fans who will probably buy the book, Lewis’s personal view of him, both as a man and as a performer, is deeply and unremittingly hostile. The danger of this approach is that if we become convinced (as we do, without having to read very far) that Sellers was neither a first-rate actor nor an attractive person, then the book itself becomes redundant and he starts to look like a figure of absolutely no importance – except as a net with which Lewis can trawl up more and more of his enchanting childhood recollections.

But this won’t really do. I don’t think it’s enough to surrender to the view, currently very popular among film critics and historians, that the only authentic badge of screen greatness is a kind of unassuming, extremely artful minimalism (Cooper, Mitchum, Stewart etc), and that someone like Sellers can therefore be handed over to the hoi polloi with some passing acknowledgment that he ‘gave ... pleasure to the public’. Sporadically, Sellers did achieve his own kind of greatness. He never lost his radio comedian’s habit of starting with the voice and building his character around it, and perhaps this is why conventional film criticism has had such trouble coming to terms with him. But he is one of the few actors who can truly claim to be the auteur of some of his films, because his best performances are so powerful and consuming that they actually transform the meaning of the movies which try to contain them. This is particularly true of his bullish, brave, pathetic shop steward in I’m All Right, Jack: a characterisation which effectively rescues the film from being the simple union-bashing exercise that the Boultings had put down on paper. Even if his gullibly well-meaning Brummie vicar couldn’t quite redeem Heaven’s Above, it still adds an unexpected layer of humanity to that otherwise glib and vindictive satire. And so formulaic did the later versions become, it’s easy to forget how brilliant Sellers was in the first two Pink Panther films, elevating slapstick to that pure, almost abstract and geometric level we sometimes associate with Keaton and Tati. (Anyone who doubts the honesty and pathos Sellers brought to the part should check out Alan Arkin’s dreadful Inspector Clouseau in the eponymous 1968 movie.)

Of course it must be easy to allow such memories to be erased by the succession of lazy, self-indulgent performances he turned out throughout the late Sixties and Seventies. By the time he has dealt with these, Lewis is obviously bored with Sellers the actor, and the book itself appears to be in danger of becoming boring. But miraculously, it doesn’t: largely because Lewis is consistently adept at making use of Sellers in another way, as a reference point in his scattergun but obsessively thorough exploration of British post-war theatrical, cinematic and comic culture. This is where the territory he has begun to stake out for himself (here and in his previous book) starts to look especially interesting.

I say this because Lewis seems to be pretty much the only liberal humanist academic around at the moment who is making a serious attempt to build a career by writing about popular culture. Although no longer an Oxbridge don, he is, and always will be, a donnish writer. By this I mean that his cast of mind is unwaveringly judgmental: whenever he mentions a film, play, book or performance, he feels nothing less than a moral duty to offer us his critical opinion of it. (Which, essentially, is why it takes him eight hundred pages to tell a story which other biographers have covered in two hundred.) The influence of this peculiar habit of thought – Johnsonian or Leavisite would be equally convenient ways of labelling it – has been noticeably on the wane within the academy for a couple of decades now, but Lewis may just have cottoned onto a possible means of prolonging it. Liberal humanist criticism, in other words, might take on a new lease of life if it could only motivate itself to stake a claim in the field of British popular culture, where there are not only enormous riches to explore (especially in film and television comedy) but also enough in the way of textual lacunae and canonical uncertainty to keep academic researchers in business for the next century or more.

This is where Lewis really comes into his own. Much as we might deplore his egocentricity, his male chauvinism, his hero-worship of Kingsley Amis, his inexplicable assumption that we are thirsting to learn his opinion about the films of Stanley Kubrick or Ernest Borgnine or Lionel Jeffries, it’s still impossible not to admire the manic energy which he has brought to his material. There doesn’t seem to be one of Sellers’s early radio shows, obscure comedy LPs or fleeting cameo appearances that he hasn’t tracked down and analysed. (Except – may I perform my own feat of oneupmanship here? – for his very last screen performance, in a series of TV ads for Barclays which were made just before he died and never broadcast. Embarrassingly enough, I worked for Barclays in those days, and was one day summoned to a boardroom along with my fellow employees to see a preview tape. It was awful.) In the process he has made some significant discoveries. For instance, Sellers made only two wholly serious films, the second of which, The Blockhouse, has never been publicly shown. Absurdly, most of his other biographers have ignored it altogether, appearing to believe that if a film has never been exhibited it can’t possibly have any bearing on its star’s career. Lewis not only tackles it at length (and comes to the conclusion that ‘as an experiment in what the art of acting can achieve. I’d rate it higher than Being There’), he also discusses the other unknown Sellers films like Ghost in the Noonday Sun and the Polanski-produced A Day at the Beach (a print of which has recently come to light). As in Stage People, where he wrote poignantly about the missing footage from Billy Wilder’s masterpiece The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Lewis here conveys a fine, poetic sense of the aura of mystery and nostalgia which surrounds the whole idea of ‘lost’ movies.

As the book closes we are treated to another rehearsal of the Lewis theory of biography: ‘The last thing a biography should try and be is objective ... If you want to know a man’s heart, you have to find a structure and form that suits each individual subject – and out of this can come a dialogue (so to speak) between the author of a book and the person he is writing about. That, anyway, has been my own intention.’

Maybe. But Lewis hasn’t judged it well: in this dialogue, the author’s voice frequently drowns out that of his subject. I wouldn’t deny that this is a rich and fascinating biography, but it’s also a maddening one. Reading it is like watching a slide show of Sellers’s life, where instead of simply flashing the pictures onto a blank screen Lewis insists on getting in the way, so that all we can see are blurred and distorted images of Sellers projected onto his own omnipresent person. His next two books, we are told, will be a biography of Anthony Burgess and ‘a slice of autobiography called Back to the Slaughterhouse’. I wonder if we shall be able to tell the difference.