John Sandilands


Peter Sellers; that is the problem

Date published: April 1969
Publisher: Nova Magazine

Peter Sellers was notoriously difficult to interview but Sandilands managed it ...

His London home is a flat in one of those famous but oddly anonymous streets off Piccadilly. All kinds of celebrated people have their abodes along this southern boundary of Mayfair but it is always difficult to imagine how they conduct their domestic lives in such a bleakly fashionable area where you never see a milk float or a bread van, a corner grocery or an all-night launderette. You have to assume that the inhabitants have all their food delivered at midnight by Fortnum and Mason in big wicker hampers and that they dump their costly clothes and crocodile shoes down the rubbish chute when they are dirty or in need of repair. They must have rubbish chutes because you never see a dustbin, and certainly not a dustman, down that way.
The apartment block in which Peter Sellers lives is so discreetly concealed amongst elegantly forbidding frontages that it is possible to pass the front door a dozen times without realising that whole human families conduct their lives within. I did so myself before spotting the give-away of an inter-com grille with a line of bell-buttons above, a sure sign of civilised habitation even in this wilderness.
Right up until that moment I was convinced that the notably affluent Sellers must have made his home in a streamlined modern bank, actually a few doors adjacent to his true location as I now found. The number of a building in such a street is a secret as closely guarded as that of a Swiss account.

I pressed the appropriate bell and applied my ear to the intercom with a certain excitement. If Sellers himself were to answer! Imagine being bidden to enter and ascend by Bluebottle from the Goons, or Strangelove or that unforgettable Indian doctor from The Millionairess. Even after nearly twenty years of listening to Peter Sellers on the radio, on television and in films it is hard to remember what he sounds like when he is speaking, as it were, for himself.
The voice, when it came, was a girl’s-or my God, what a damn good imitation I-a secretary voice, suitably metallic for these surroundings and, after a short ride in a robot lift, she was taking my coat and explaining that, at this moment, Mr Sellers was still completing his lunch.
In fact I could have divined this for myself because the hallway was constructed of sheet mirror and it was possible, standing by the entrance door, actually to see Mr Sellers at table, although he was round a corner and at some distance. Indeed, one could observe via the mirrors, half a dozen different versions of Mr Sellers portraying, with the uncanny accuracy one has come to expect from him, a person eating his lunch.

It seemed, at the time, an incredibly apt first glimpse of a character so diffuse. In the course of becoming a household name, a famous actor, a brilliant impersonator and even a common synonym for a certain type of Bombay accent, Peter Sellers has managed remarkably to conceal his own persona.
Now, about to confront him, I found myself quite unaware of what to expect. Was he a jolly man, or glum? A comedian, as presented, or deeply serious? Would he fall over the furniture and pull faces or address me gravely on VD, pot and the bomb?
It appeared that Sellers had been able to see several different versions of me entering his flat because he rose and waved me into what turned out to be a very large lounge of which the dining alcove was only a part. There were a surprising number of people in the room and Sellers introduced me to all of them as though they were going to have some significance in our further deliberations. There was a man called Bert who was mending the hi-fi, Britt Ekland’s daughter Victoria, a four-year-old glamour girl with her mother’s features but greater poise, and Victoria’s nurse.
There was a large, hairy young man sitting on the settee in a jacket covered with marigolds who turned out to be Michael, Sellers’ son by his first marriage and, amazingly, only fourteen years old. A girl, attractive in the arty manner, was at the table with Sellers. Sh8 smiled in a friendly manner but, in this case, he kept her identity to himself.

When these formalities were over everybody went back to their former preoccupations without further reference to the visitor and I was left for some time marooned in an armchair. Michael, a mite surprisingly for one of such mature appearance, produced a big box which contained, at heaven knows what expense, a magnificent construction kit for an Alfa Romeo racing car and sat with it on his lap. I was very interested and got up to poke about among the marvellous bits and pieces but its owner replaced the lid and took it away. He was a very composed boy with a rather sternly paternal air towards adults.
There was no alternative but to examine the surroundings, although these, too, seemed strangely remote. The furniture consisted of that costly modern combination of leather and tubular steel; there were the objects that rich men sprinkle about their homes: a mesmerically complicated clock, a wondrously elaborate table-lighter, two kinds of telephone, a personalised sixpence-in-the-slot fruit machine that must have cost far more than the sum of its jackpots.
There were one or two indications of Sellers’ famed love of gadgetry, a billion pounds worth of stereo, a jumbo recording machine the full astounding intricacy of which Bert was even now revealing, some glossy literature on the priceless cameras of Hasselblad and, casually in the corner, a stack of photographic equipment that would not have shamed Karsh.

There was a strange and complicated four-wheeled locomotory object on the carpet that gave no indication of its true purpose and could equally have been for the pleasure or exercise of Peter, Michael or even Victoria. There were a couple of beautiful modern paintings on the walls and also something called The Irish Blessing in fake crochet-work which began: ‘May the road always rise upwards ... ’ It would have been extraordinarily difficult, had one been a burglar breaking in in the middle of the night, to decide what kind of person inhabited the apartment.
Sellers joined me suddenly in a sidelong fashion that made it impossible to be certain if he had finished his lunch or was merely taking a breather before the next course. At forty-three he is remarkably youthful-looking; slender, as he watches his weight so carefully since that near-fatal heart-attack, his slimness accentuated by hipster trousers and one of those trendy woollen sweaters that, still new, appear to have been shrunken recently in the wash. He has a wide, intelligent brow and his expression is kindly, although he favours those narrow, contemporary eyeglasses that make the wearer appear to be observing you, in a possibly hostile way, through the aperture in a grating.

Overall, however, he is by no means easy to define. Even at close quarters he seems to recede physically, leaving behind only an Impression of Peter Sellers, a nose, a Jaw-line, a cocked eyebrow, the slightly satanic Strangelove smile. He was sitting on the settee immediately adjoining my right knee but he was still a long way off. We might have been two strangers encountering each other on a bench at a railway station, although admittedly a well-appointed one-the new Euston, say.
He seemed to have settled for a conversation rather than a salad so I attempted to bridge the gulf by telling him how much I had enjoyed his latest film, I Love You Alice B Toklas, in which he plays a respectable lawyer who leaves his bride at the very synagogue to embrace the Californian hippie life. He was only mildly interested. ‘You should have seen it before they got at it.’ he said, depressingly. I wondered why. ‘Well, for example,’ he said, ‘they set up this marvellous Jewish wedding ceremony and at the last moment they lost their nerve and dubbed the Rabbi into English. Now if the audience hadn’t gathered by then that he was a Rabbi speaking Hebrew I don’t see that there’s much hope for the human race.’
He drummed his fingers on the arm of the sofa as though hoping that there would be no further questions and, as if in sympathy, I discovered that I had arrived without a notebook. Sellers seemed relieved at this hiatus and immediately called his secretary to fetch one. She returned with an enormous, spiral bound book about a foot long which we both looked at in astonishment. I put it on my knees and appeared more likely to be on the point of sketchinq the subject rather than recording his observations. At that moment it seemed a much better idea but I rallied bravely and inquired if he still took a measure of enjoyment from the long succession of roles he has played since the world discovered him all those years ago.

‘Work,’ he said, without enthusiasm, ‘is the only way you find true happiness. The real excitement is the moment on the studio floor when it’s happening and it’s going right and you are doing it the way you want to do it. That’s what it’s all about for me.’ He receded again, as though to examine this statement to see if it were true, then returned a bit guiltily. ‘Of course, one’s home life is a different thing. I mean, I’m very happy with my children. That’s a marvellous scene.’
Over in the corner Victoria was constructing a tea-party, gradually acquiring most of the small furniture in the room and squealing with excitement at each new discovery. Sellers drummed his fingers again and across his long face there passed a momentary expression of agony. There was, in fact, a good deal of commotion going on around us. Bert was still eviscerating the recording machine and there was a steady and intriguing traffic across the room from the hallway to the interior of the apartment.
At this very point, moving from left to right, was a large workman, caparisoned as though for a TV commercial. He wore a baseball cap and dungarees and a wide leather belt from which dangled a huge, all-purpose monkey-wrench and the flaps of industrial gauntlets projected from a pocket by his knee. He shouted and waved to Peter Sellers, who jumped perceptibly then greeted him warmly in return before relapsing once more into his distant repose.
Having dealt so briskly with his latest film, his attitude to his work and to his family life he seemed uncertain that there was very much more he could add and he looked at me through the grating in a rather hunted way. With such a notebook before me, however, I felt bound to proceed and we prodded in a desultory style at a number of topics fairly familiar to both of us, presumably, as part of the known Sellers legend.
Was he still as keen on motor cars? Yes, he had a Rolls in London and a Mini Cooper S Special, a Ferrari in Geneva and a couple of Lotuses left over from the days when he owned a motor-racing team. He didn’t like the new model Rolls so he had had his old one done up to look like new.
Was his health all right-I mean, you know? Yes, he’d cut down drastically on the food, just one big meal a day. He did a series of exercises every morning, fifty press-ups on an inclined board and he also had a portable bar that you could fit into a doorway, even in hotels, for doing chin-ups, which were a good thing. He didn’t make as many films as he did before the heart attack. Then it was four a year but now it was only two.
Did he still feel at home in England, now that he was a world figure, an international film star? Well, actually his country of residence was Switzerland but he was still a British citizen domiciled in England-a tax thing, you know?-and he still loved the old country, except for the weather. He’d spent the past two years in Los Angeles, working on pictures, but he’d been a gypsy since he was a kid. He actually liked moving around a good deal.
I asked about his friends, sneakily hoping that he might go mad and produce something astounding about Princess Margaret and Tony, with whom he is very good chums. But no, he didn’t have a big circle of friends and he thought it was better that way. There were very few people who were really your friends. There was old Spike and Harry Secombe, the fellow Goons. He was always pleased to see them over here.
There was simply no way into some seam of conversation that might blossom into revealing anecdote, or illuminating sidelight, leave alone a soul-stripping expose of the inner character of this famous man. Having a lot of money was fine, you could sometimes give happiness with money, though you couldn’t buy it. It was probably a mistake for actors and actresses to marry-he has been parted from Britt Ekland for some time now -because it interfered with their work and anyway you needed someone to come home to who had their feet on the ground.
He was polite and attentive, except that he seemed anxious to keep an eye on what Bert was doing to his huge investment in the recording machine, but he seemed genuinely uninterested in himself and what he thought about anything, which is death to the grand old spoof of interviewing. It occurred to me that he was a genuinely modest person who, deprived of his miraculous accents, his moustaches and wigs and false noses, really did consider himself very ordinary. To my surprise he found this notion worth pursuing and he sat forward quite eagerly. ‘I’m not really a comedian, you know,’ he said, ‘although everybody thinks I am and expects me to say funny things all the time, which I don’t of course. I’ve always considered myself to be a comic actor, or just an actor really, a good one I think, although I don’t often get the chance to do the straight bit. I mean, after The Pink Panther all the scripts I was offered were Inspector C1ouzot falling over things and that sort of image is hard to shake off. Now there are people, comedians, with an aptitude for being good at parties but that’s not me. I suffer a lot from this withdrawing thing.’
As though on cue he withdrew again behind that curious, watchful Sellers face that he uses a lot in films-an expression which suggests he is expecting a tap on the shoulder from behind which will lead to disastrous consequences of some kind. There was nobody behind him, oddly in a room so full of activity, for Michael was now making a trip on the locomotory machine across the floor. If worked like one of those railway trolley cars. You stood on top of it and worked the pedals up and down and it went along rather merrily. Sellers watched his progress for a time as though he had actually been thinking deeply. ‘When I look at myself,’ he said, ‘I just see a person who strangely lacks what I consider to be the ingredients for a personality. I can see personality in other people but I can’t see any in myself.’ It seemed a very doleful admission and I must have looked upset because Sellers produced quite a happy smile and offered—a possible explanation for this unfortunate state of his being.
‘One feels,’ he said, ‘that perhaps through playing so many other characters one becomes a sort of nil on one’s own account. I mean, I can get through to people when I’m working. I mean when I was in vaudeville I could tell exactly what an audience was like before I even walked on. I could feel if they were bored and cold or warm and happy and play to them in the right way. You can even establish contact through something as lifeless as a camera after practice. There’s absolutely no problem there.’
There was evidence all around that this compensatory knack was paying off rather well but some mild further sympathy seemed in order. I complimented Sellers on an appearance that suggested he could go on earning steadily for some time to come. He should have brightened as film stars usually do unless personal references are so insulting as to be answered only by an early morning pistol duel. Instead he sank his chin on his chest and looked over the top of his spectacles as though senility had just caught him a staggering blow.
‘I’ve thought a lot about being over forty,’ he said. ‘It’s still a bit surprising to be referred to as a mature man because I feel pretty much the same. Other expressions like “middle age” crop up from time to time and you say: “Hello, hello, hello, I was twenty-five a couple of years ago. Young Peter Sellers appearing at the Windmill Theatre, where’s he gone, eh?’” He stood up as if about to go and look for him but changed his mind and sat down again. ‘I know I’m getting older on the outside but, on the other hand, it’s still all happening in here you know’-tapping his trendy-sweatered chest. ‘On certain things, like work and choosing decent roles, I’m a bit wiser but in the main I don’t think there’s much difference now from when I was considerably younger. Maybe I’m just immature, I don’t know.’
It seemed a peculiar situation to be frozen, as it were, at no particular age, feeling very much the same in spite of fame and experience, earning stacks of money and adulation but not being quite sure who you were. I wondered if he ever considered the future. ‘I think of the future in terms of work,’ he said, ‘better pictures, better roles, more control over what I do.’ We were back to square one and there was some danger of the ephemeral Sellers personality sneaking away again.
At this moment an elderly lady slowly traversed the lounge, right to left, wearing a red dress and red carpet slippers and carrying a matching red carpet brush and red plastic dust-pan. Principally to detain my quarry a little longer I asked if I had now seen the entire complement of the ménage, which now contained, to my knowledge, a secretary, a children’s nurse, a handy-man, a matching cleaning lady, that extraordinary workman, but possibly many others in the interior of the apartment.
‘Of course, without a wife,’ said Sellers, ‘you need quite a team.’ He brightened suddenly. ‘You know there’s this firm who send you debs to do the cooking?’ Abruptly and effortlessly he produced an entirely new voice, a high female version of the ecstatic plum-sucking he used to do as the immortal Grippe Pipe-Thynne. ‘Will you have the artichokes?’ he asked himself, fluttering his eyelashes and fluting his hands, almost fanciable so marvellously did he resemble for the moment a product of Roedean. Immediately he changed gear and become old Fred, he with the snuff-soaked moustache and ancient raincoat soaked in ale: ‘No fank you, love. Lumpermeat and a stackerchips.’ He spent some time enjoying old Fred’s tobacco leer then resumed his own voice, like a narrator. ‘You’re just getting used to one of them but then she doesn’t turn up one day so you ring up the firm.’ He did another voice, a more fruity, gin-laden variety of his Roedean: ‘I’m most awfully sorry but Cynthia has had to go down to Gloucestershire today to look after the Duke of Spin!’
Sellers was delighted. He slapped his tailored thigh and doubled up with delight. It was as though producing these three people so beautifully in quick succession had given him an enormous lift, like sinking a double Scotch or returning from an early morning run. It was a very simple exposition of his art but it was suddenly dimly possible to see how exciting it must be to have the gift of turning instantaneously and impeccably into somebody else, or a whole host of people, and how relatively tedious it would be when you were just being yourself.
It was possible to understand how very average life must seem when you were not being Dr Strangelove with his uncontrollable desire to give the Nazi salute or, a particular favourite of Sellers as he now revealed, the cat-breeding, drunken abortionist, Dr Pratt from The Wrong Box, who used to blot his dubious prescriptions with a pussy which he kept in the drawer of his desk.
Sellers had evidently divined that I was beginning to comprehend his extraordinary attachment to work, the marvellous, drug - like quality of taking these lunatic notions and making them flesh and, at last, he was truly enthusiastic. He began to tell me, unbidden, about his present film which is from Terry Southern’s book The Magic Christian and allows Sellers to portray Sir Guy Grand, a megalomaniac newspaper proprietor among other things, who adopts Ringo Starr as his son and heir after finding him asleep on a Hyde Park bench.
Sellers is co-producer of the picture but his excitement clearly had little to do with that. ‘I can promise you,’ he said, ‘that this film is going to cause a sensation. I know that your next film is always the best one but this time I think we’re really on to something. Sir Guy is absolutely extraordinary. You don’t even know where he comes from originally except that there’s a suggestion that he’s actually God the Father in the script!’
He was on his feet again now, quite unable to sit still while Sir Guy was about. ‘He’s got this sort of Albert Schweitzer hairstyle,’ he said, showing me with his hands flowing round his head, ‘this long droopy moustache and these very elegant clothes except that he has a ban-the-bomb sign embroidered on everything. ‘I can’t get him exactly until I see him in a mirror but it’s all there. I may just take his hairline back a bit’ - sketching with his finger round his temple - ‘but then again I may not.’
He stared at the carpet, wondering whether he should, but there were other problems. ‘Then there’s his accent, you see. He’s a very paternal figure, besides being so powerful and rich and at the moment there’s a lot too much George Bernard Shaw about.’ George Bernard Shaw? ‘Yes,’ said Sellers. He went over and switched on the recording machine which Bert had finally restored to its true condition and the rolling, unmistakable tones of GBS poured out sounding exactly like Peter Sellers.
‘You see what I mean?’ said Sellers. ‘There’s too much Irish in it and I’ve got to get rid of it. I mean, he’s the sort of man who says ... ’ He was a bit lost without Sir Guy’s actual words and he rushed into the interior of the flat to return with the script, Morocco-bound but deluged with pencil notes. He hurried through the pages, determined to find a bit which gave the true flavour of Sir Guy, and decided on the scene where Sir Guy goes into Sotheby’s to buy the Rembrandt.
Helplessly, Seller’s feet moved into the Sir Guy stance. ‘How motch is that painting?’ he said, in the Bernard Shaw voice. He straightened up to be the patrician sales director: ‘Seventy thousand pounds, Sir Guy.’ In an instant he was Sir Guy again. ‘Oi’ll give you eighty thousand.’ Director: ‘Shit! Er, I mean how very generous of you, Sir Guy!’
Sellers looked up at me with his face glowing with pleasure and enthusiasm and youthful irreverence. ‘There’s so much more of it but I’ve got to leave you some surprises,’ he said. ‘You see, this book’s like a young people’s Bible in America. Over there kids were coming up and handing it to me without even knowing that I’d already bought the property. I mean I feel I’ve got a terrific responsibility.’
It didn’t seem to matter what he was really like.
• •

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List of John Sandilands articles

John Sandilands

John Sandilands Articles

  1. Obituary, March 2004 >>
  2. Introduction to Articles >>
  3. Article2 >>
  4. When the cure is sun, sea and mud >>
  5. Interview with Ava Gardner >>
  6. Interview with Dustin Hoffman, Los Angeles Times, 1968 >>
  7. Fiji >>
  8. Patrick Moore >>
  9. Mr Pastry >>
  10. Interview with Jane Fonda >>
  11. letters to and from John to editors >>
  12. Ballooning >>
  13. The Toad Cross Code >>
  14. Peter Sellers; that is the problem >>
  15. In bed with John Sandilands plus Jilly Cooper, Zandra Rhodes and Peter Cook >>
  16. Know the Type >>
  17. Animal poems >>
  18. The Toad Cross Code >>
  19. Albert and the Jaguars >>
  20. Herogram >>