Peter Sellers left us over four decades ago, but in that time his reputation as being one of the greatest British comedy character actors has endured; however, despite all his skill and talent, the one character who he could never truly get a handle on was Peter Sellers.
The real Peter Sellers is somewhat of a riddle, wrapped in an enigma, behind a pair of NHS spectacles. It seems that even the people who knew him perhaps never really knew him, as he appears to be rather a mystery, and contained multitudes, like Walt Whitman’s poem. When he was interviewed in 1974 by Michael Parkinson, he pulled out the day before, worrying about coming on as himself; he only changed his mind when he was told he could come on as someone else instead, using a Gestapo Officer character to make his entrance.
Born Richard Henry Sellers, he was only referred to as ‘Peter’ by his parents, which was in fact the name of an elder sibling who had died at birth. Sellers was therefore cast in the role of playing someone else who no longer existed, so it seems no small wonder just why he had such a fractured concept of his identity. Sellers had no sense of his own self, seeming to feel he could only be defined via the personas that he inhabited, and once famously stated: “There is no me. I do not exist. There used to be a me, but I had it surgically removed.”
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That quote has given rise to the title of a new play by writer Ian Billings – There Used To Be A Me – which looks at Peter Sellers’ life. Despite a number of books and documentaries on Sellers, in some ways he does still feel to be frustratingly unknowable, almost as if when you scratch the surface, you just get yet more surface. Sellers almost defies analysis, as if he is a master escapologist who manages to free himself of detailed scrutiny with a single bound, leaving you knowing less of the man than when you started.
Geoffrey Rush once tried to take on Sellers in 2004’s movie The Life And Death Of Peter Sellers, but while he captured all of Sellers’ famous characters very well, the man himself remained steadfastly elusive throughout, and Rush was not even close to a definable Sellers – while Rush attempted to try and paint him as almost larger than life, Sellers himself actually feels smaller, with not even the vaguest hint of his essence being captured in the portrayal seen on screen, just Geoffrey Rush projecting himself into that curiously Sellers-shaped void.
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Attempting to nail down and capture the actual Peter Sellers feels like wrestling with smoke, but Billings does his best to try and give us some insight here. There Used To Be A Me – brought to us by AUK Studios and Spiteful Puppet, directed by Barnaby Eaton-Jones – employs the fictional premise of Sellers recording an audio play all about his own life, making use of the format, and breaking the fourth wall (that is, if you can ever do such a thing on audio – perhaps a wall of sound?) for both comedic and dramatic purposes.
Here, our Peter Sellers takes on the form of Alfred Molina, an absolutely stellar piece of casting, as he elevates everything he appears in. Molina is no stranger when it comes to taking up the mantle of a tortured comedy genius – back in 1991, he slipped on both the Homburg and dour, hangdog expression of Tony Hancock, for the BBC’s Screen One. His physicality went a long way to reinforcing his performance, and making you believe that this was Hancock on screen; audio, however, is challenging medium in that you have just your voice to sell the characterisation.
In a pair of AUK Studios and Spiteful Puppet’s recent audios – Jeepers Creepers and Screaming Queens!, by Robert Ross – Marty and Lauretta Feldman, Kenneth Williams and Fenella Fielding were all featured in biographical pieces; however, in this instance a more fantastical approach is taken, befitting the unreality of Sellers himself, and presenting a chance to try and deconstruct the man, having him conversing with all manner of different facets of himself. Molina therefore has a chance to show his range and versatility here, also having to portray other people like Spike Milligan.
Whereas Jeepers Creepers and Screaming Queens! went for delivering pitch-perfect impersonations of their respective subjects, here a different approach is taken, one which suits the focus of There Used To Be A Me perfectly. Instead of just attempting to replicate Sellers’ voice, here Molina looks to capture his spirit – seeing as how Sellers has an ‘everyman’ quality in his normal vocal stylings, harder to emulate than Feldman or Williams, Molina can instead focus on the intent behind the writing and getting inside Sellers’ spirit, without needing to try and copy him, freeing up the performance as a result.
Billings’ script takes us on a trip up and down the timeline of Sellers’ life, giving us something of an insight into aspects of the man which the audience may not necessarily know – his fascination with spirituality, for example; Billings even takes Sellers’ genuine belief that he was possessed by the spirit of Music Hall comic Dan Leno, and makes him Sellers’ co-pilot or conscience, always present on his shoulder just like some ethereal Jiminy Cricket, and setting up a chance for Molina to play out both sides of this conflict and turmoil.
Do we come away feeling as though we really know Sellers? Not as such, but this should in no way be seen as a criticism of the writing, the performance, or the production; instead, this should be a reflection of how mercurial Sellers was, and how tricky to try and pin down. Given even twice the running time of There Used To Be A Me’s 55 minutes, it really would be hard to capture everything about him, so credit must be given to everyone involved here for all their efforts in doing such a wonderful job of giving us a peek behind the mask of Sellers to see what – if anything – lay behind.
Although a rather different listening experience to Jeepers Creepers and Screaming Queens!, AUK Studios and Spiteful Puppet have a very worthy addition to their growing range of audio dramas about British comedic talent, with Ian Billings having found the ideal format for such a character study, and supported by a powerful performance from Alfred Molina. It certainly deserves to go on the list of best Sellers.