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.

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